Works' titles, dates: Sun, Night Skies both 2008 - 2020
Materials and dimensions: acrylic on canvas, vintage paint chips (Sun), 48" x 60"
Location at Summa: Dr. Gary B. and Pamela S. Williams Tower on the Akron Campus, sixth floor, east end
These works have been generously donated to the Summa Collection by the artist.
About the art and the artist:
The first two works in a series of three dealing with sun, moon, and stars, these large canvases fold the viewer into the immensity of the skies, recreating a distinctive Native American experience of the celestial environment. Claire Heldman here demonstrates that she can use abstraction to convey specific feelings and responses to the world around us.
Sun was begun some years ago when the artist -- herself a member of the Lakota from the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe of Eagle Butte, South Dakota -- was given the opportunity to restore a Tlingit totem pole in a private collection in northeastern Ohio. Supported in this significant undertaking by several area corporations, this very large restoration project required removal of some of the older paint, which she preserved in tiny fragments. Subsequently, Heldman decided to incorporate them into the bright monochrome of Sun, where, as surface inclusions, they suggest the sunspots and flaring gases that our star perpetually generates . They also keep the canvas in motion and destabilized, qualities of the sun itself, while the overall abstraction of the work allows us to note vigorous gestures of the brush.
Night Skies, the second painting, shifts focus from a single star to the billions that appear in a cloudless sky when our side of our planet rotates away from the sun. We can imagine ourselves stretched out on the grass somewhere, engulfed by the scale of what we can see -- and sometimes just sense -- overhead. With time, the night sky appears to pivot above us, and Heldman imitates that by keeping the "background" brushstrokes to a circular pattern. She tells us that she worked on this painting off and on for several years to attain the precise feeling for her experience and understanding of the heavens at night, again incorporating paint shards from the restored totem pole. She has flicked a brush loaded with silver paint across the black surface, then tapped it gently elsewhere, to suggest stars, galaxies, swirling dust clouds . Both impressionistic and abstract. When we consider the enhanced but still quite abstract images that the recently inaugurated Webb telescope has furnished us, and then van Gogh's famous Starry Night (just to name two examples), we realize that there are multiple thrilling ways of visualizing the cosmos.
The image of the night sky here at first might strike us like a black-and-white photograph, especially when paired with the brilliant and compositionally linked Sun, as you can see them in the Summa Collection. The contrast is deliberate: Engulfing color, then black and white... The final painting in the series, Moon, completed in 2021 and also incorporating saved fragments of totem pole paint, was originally exhibited between the two Summa canvases and is now in a private collection. As a triad, sun, moon, and star-filled sky were part of what governed Native American life, from agricultural practices to social values and ritual calendar, and they form a part of the belief system about the origin of life on earth and in the universe. Heldman sums up in a twenty-first century art form both historical and timeless verities celebrated by her people.
A lifelong resident of Cuyahoga Falls, Oyate Wankan Wiá ("The People See Her Woman") has made art since adolescence. Her mother, Delma Marie Ducheneaux Heldman, took pride in her own beadwork and jewelry, serving as inspiration to her daughter. Claire Heldman then often chose to work with less predictable materials, although these, too, are associated with traditional Native American artifacts and are gathered on-site on tribal lands: horsehair, leather and sinew, bovine skulls, slate, and driftwood. She combines these with what we might think of as more conventional art materials to create paintings and drawings. Her process involves prayer and meditation before and during work; she acknowledges with thankfulness the contribution that all these physical substances bring to her creativity.
In her twenties, the artist worked in the Native American Educational and Cultural Center at Crazy Horse Mountain in the Black Hills, where she learned curatorial and research skills that deepened her enduring commitment to preserving native traditions and the objects integral to it. Her art has always been grounded in those traditions, and, as these paintings demonstrate, her talent for abstraction bring her Native American heritage into a conversation with the work of other contemporary artists working in other, more time-bound styles. Her work was recognized in 2004 by the Ohio Arts Council.
Where you can find more works like this:
Claire Heldman has exhibited across the U.S. for more than 30 years, and in Ohio in Cleveland, Toledo, and Columbus. She also had work included in the Governor's Residence in Bexley. Her first major show was at the Canton Museum of Art, while most recently the University of Akron's Cummings Center for the History of Psychology (part of the Institute for Human Science and Culture) featured her work in Lakota Wià, an exhibition dedicated to her mother, in which the trio of large celestial canvases appeared for the first time along with other artifacts attesting to the vigor of Native American culture.