Traditional stories inspire art exhibit


Last Updated: 20 years

KEYWORDS: myths oral histories stories of
the Haudenosaunee people Iroquois confederacy Sky Woman traditional stories Haudenosaunee artists six nations of the Iroquois Confederacy Stone Quarry Hill Art Park in Cazenovia New York Indians Contemporary Haudenosaunee Art and Traditional Stories Haudenosaunee culture Haudenosaunee creation story

AUTHOR: Katherine Rushworth

Myths often live as oral histories passed from generation to generation,
linking the old with the new and the real to the imagined. The many stories of
the Haudenosaunee people – the people who comprise the six nations of the
Iroquois Confederacy – are robust historical narratives, more imaginative than
real, which resonate with timeless messages of humility, survival and the
struggle between good and evil.

Through June 27, Central New Yorkers can take in an informative exhibition of
more than four dozen works created by 18 Haudenosaunee artists who were
inspired by the traditional stories of their heritage.

The show at Stone Quarry Hill Art Park in Cazenovia is titled “Creation:
Contemporary Haudenosaunee Art and Traditional Stories” and presents
contemporary visual interpretations of the oral traditions embraced by the
people of the six nations of the Iroquois Confederacy.

Expertly curating the exhibition is Carol Ann Lorenz, faculty member at
Colgate University and curator of exhibitions, ethnographic and contemporary
collections of the Longyear Museum at Colgate University.

She wrote the essays included in the show’s informative catalogue and provided the excellent label copy accompanying each work of art.

The didactic labels are particularly important in a show of this nature,
because the stories that inspired these works will be unknown to a majority of
viewers. Lorenz’s copy effectively ties the image to the story.

The two most important stories in Haudenosaunee lore are The Creation story
and the legend of how the Iroquois Confederacy or League was established.

But the artists also interpret the story of the Three Sisters (corn, beans and
squash), a couple of morality tales, and a contemporary story concerned about
the preservation of traditions in the face of rapid social change.

The artists depict these tales in a variety of two and three-dimensional
media, including stone carvings, ceramic, pastel, acrylic, textiles,
photography and mixed media. The styles range from representational to
abstract to conceptual with the figure assuming the lead compositional role in
virtually every piece.

The quality of the works varies widely, but even the weaker pieces hold their
own thanks to the power of the supporting narrative.

The Creation story is an intricate tale of survival, conflict and triumph from
which artists selected key moments to represent.

The opening chapters of the tale are imaginatively interpreted in Shelly
Niro’s (Mohawk, Turtle Clan) set of four large pastels (63 by 501/2
inches): “Loving It,” “Preparing for the Fall,” “Preparing for What’s to Come”
and “Losing My Stuff.” These vibrant paintings adeptly capture the various
emotions Sky Woman experiences as she plunges to Earth through a gaping hole in the sky.

David Lee Quinn (Lakota-Cayuga-Cherokee, Deer Clan) continues the story in his
painting titled “Sky Woman Symmetry,” in which he depicts a flock of geese
catching Sky Woman and gently placing her on the back of an enormous turtle.

A painting by Kyle Shenandoah (Onondaga, Snipe Clan), “Sky Woman,” resumes the
story in its portrayal of otters and beavers diving to the water’s bottom to
retrieve soil, which they then pile atop the turtle’s back to create Earth.

These examples provide only a brief overview of the many types of
interpretations visitors can expect to see of these centuries-old myths and

The Haudenosaunee people continue to view the stories as guiding lights in
their lives.

Through the eyes of artists, such as those included in this exhibition, these
timeless tales not only remain fresh, they also become delightfully


Katherine Rushworth, of Cazenovia, is a former director of the Michael C.
Rockefeller Arts Center (State University College at Fredonia) and of the
Central New York Institute for the Arts in Education.