Visiting artist explores Arctic connections

Ellamarie Quimby/ Sun Star

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Courtney M. Leonard was nominated for the Rasmuson Foundation Artist Residency at the Native Arts Center by the Santa Fe Art Institute. She is a member of the Shinnecock Nation of Long Island, New York—a group with historic, cultural ties to whales and water, two of Leonard’s recurring themes. – Ellamarie Quimby/Sun Star Photo credit: Ellamarie Quimby

Every fall, the UAF Native Arts Center plays host to a Rasmuson Foundation visiting artist for eight weeks. This year, that position was filled by ceramicist and multimedia artist Courtney M. Leonard.

Leonard is a member of the Shinnecock Nation, a native tribe based at the far end of Long Island, in New York. Her work is concerned primarily with the many interpretations of the word “breach”—the breaching of whales through water, making gaps in a wall or barrier and breaking contracts, to name a few. Whales, water and cultural heritage are the themes that rise to the surface of her practice again and again.

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Leonard hung a dozen pieces on her studio walls in order to observe their interactions with natural and artificial light. These works will be part of her “Euphotic Zone” series, named for the layer of the ocean that receives enough light for photosynthesis to occur. Ellamarie Quimby/Sun Star

In a presentation given to Jim Brashear’s Advanced Ceramics class, Leonard showed historic photos of sperm whale teeth, a material once collected by and culturally significant to Shinnecock Indians and then examples of sperm whale teeth that she’d sculpted from clay.

The Shinnecock people have a historic connection to sperm whales. Due both to the over-whaling of east coast waters through the turn of the century, and then by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, it is illegal for Leonard to access any sperm whale material. Unlike Alaska Natives, whose use of whale, seal and other marine mammal materials was protected under this law, the Shinnecock Nation was not federally recognized until 2010 and may never qualify for exemption from this regulation.

“If you can’t have access to the material that fashions your culture, well, what can you do?” Leonard said.

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The box shapes Leonard produced during her residency were partially inspired by large mammal traps that she saw while in Barrow in September. Scientists and researchers used these traps to tag wild animals before releasing them back into their environments. Ellamarie Quimby/Sun Star

Leonard’s interest in cultural sustainability extends inevitably to dealing with sources of food. Her ceramic work produced during this residency has revisited methods that she’s used in previous years, while tying in experiences from her stay in Alaska.

One body of work consists of carefully woven ceramic traps, formed from coiled clay mixed with fiber. These traps recall work she showed in Arizona earlier in 2016, clay shaped into the type of net baskets used to collect and carry fish.

When discussing the new ceramic traps, she recalled large metal cages that she saw in Barrow, once used by natural resource scientists to trap and tag large land mammals, as well as the shape of the construction cranes along the water in Anchorage. The rigid shapes of these newer works contrast sharply the organic, softer ones of her previous work.

“I came back and started making the net forms, referencing the fishnets and pound traps and box forms, like the lobster traps back east,” Leonard said. “When you’re surviving up in this region and you’re making everything from scratch, there’s so much beauty in those minute moments.”

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Rasmuson visiting artist Courtney M. Leonard began work on several bodies of work while in residence at the Native Arts Center. For one set of pieces, Leonard wove coils of clay into shapes inspired by fishnets and box traps. For another, she cast PVC pipes using plaster and clay then reassembled them in different variations. Ellamarie Quimby/Sun Star Photo credit: Ellamarie Quimby

Leonard’s cultural connection to whales and whaling has given her a particular in among the communities she’s visited while in Alaska. Early in her residency, she spent a week in Barrow working with scientists and whaling crews, helping harvest both research samples and shares of meat for the community. Leonard began work on a portfolio of photography that explores how the act of whaling is viewed by cultures with no connection to the practice. Five whales came in while Leonard was there and she spoke about the experience with a spiritual reverence typically reserved for church pews.

“Groups like Greenpeace, and PETA, they don’t see the beauty in it. They only see the blood and the death and to them, it’s bad,” Leonard said. “My hands were warm, cutting the meat and the intestines. Cooking kept me warm. I was surrounded by women. It was really beautiful.”

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Photo credit: Ellamarie Quimby

The portfolio as it stands now consists of five images, each presented in black and white and then duplicated alongside itself in color. The imagery varies from macro photographs of nebula-like bruising on muscle tissue to rusted oil barrels that evoke speargun wounds. Leonard hasn’t settled yet on a plan for the presentation of the work- showing the paired images alongside each other is one option, while hanging the color images separately from the black and whites, or potentially morphing the photographic images into a multimedia piece are two more.

On Friday, Nov. 11, Leonard met informally with a member of the Museum of the North’s collections staff, to discuss the possibility of the Museum acquiring some of the work she’s made while in residence. After the meeting, she began assessing what she’d bring back with her to her home in New Mexico.

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Photo credit: Ellamarie Quimby

“There’s always anthropologists that go around the world and collect, and then these white men collections end up in museums,” Leonard said. “They harvest a non-understanding of different places. That was the whole idea at the turn of the century- take, take, take. But what happens when the people travel, and create, and leave those things behind? We already do that when people come to our homes, we gift. I wish that museum collections were more like that.”

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