The Highlight of the Month program at The Indian Craft Shop focuses on a particular craft area, region or artist family/group. Our aim is to illustrate the diversity of tribal groups and the wide variety of artistic expressions and traditions in the country today.
Kathy “Elk Woman” Whitman is an innovative and multi-talented artist. She paints, sculpts in stone and welded steel, and also makes jewelry and clothing. Her idea of excitement is to find a new artform, material or technique she can try. Born in Bismarck, North Dakota, Kathy is an enrolled member of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Tribes and was raised on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.
Kathy is a self-taught painter and sculptor. Early in her career, she traveled to art shows in Colorado where she found herself drawn to the work of Native sculptors. At one of the shows, she met Lloyd Pinay, a Cree from Canada, who noted her interest and encouraged her to begin sculpting. She immediately went out, bought alabaster and the basic tools he recommended — wood chisels and sandpaper — and began her first sculptures. Today, she is an accomplished sculptor working in alabaster, soapstone, marble, serpentine and steatite. Kathy took some art classes at the University of Arizona and found two new directions for her creativity – jewelry making and sculpting welded steel.
Kathy states that participating in a Sun Dance Ceremony on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota changed her life and transformed her art. It was here that she was given the name, Elk Woman. A powerful animal, the elk is an animal with great endurance and grace, and among the Northern Plains tribes, it is associated with love. "I try to capture that great healing power of love in all my work," says Kathy.
Growing up in a family involved in tribal government, she knew the struggles of her people and that pain could be seen in her early paintings. After the ceremony, she realized how much was still here. “The spirits are still here,” says Kathy. ”The plants and animals are still here. We have so much to be thankful for.”
Kathy connects people to the world around us. Her style is both representational and abstract. Her images of birds, butterflies, dragonflies, buffalo, prairie dogs and mothers and children are heartwarming. “I can’t just sit down and draw what I’ll do,” says Kathy. “The spirit is already in the stone. It’s my job to release the spirit within.” She says her creative process reminds her of when she was a child, looking at clouds to see what is there. “I start working on that image and it evolves as I work on it.”
Her jewelry is sculptural, with some designs and motifs that recur. The Circle of Life represents the medicine wheel, the interconnectedness of all creation and growth and change. Spirals and gentle lines represent the smooth flow of life. Hard lines and edges represent the hard times and struggles gone through to become stronger. Lightening represents connection to the elements and triangles represent the teepee and home. “I use hands a lot in my jewelry. Hands can mean so many different things – friendship, healing and/or our connection with each other and the elements. They can also remind us of petroglyphs and our connection to the past. We can even send love through our hands.”
Kathy Whitman is an active member of the Indigenous Sculptors Guild and has been an artist-in-residence and a board member of the North Dakota Council of the Arts. Her art has won numerous awards and honors at many prestigious events, including the Santa Fe Indian Market, Northern Plains Tribal Art Show, Eight Northern Pueblos and Gallup Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial.
Her life-size sculpture of the “Spiritual Warrior” is a powerful reminder of the journey each of us takes for enlightenment, but it takes on special meaning for Kathy. “I am still working hard to grow into my Indian name,” says Kathy. “It’s a lifelong process.” We can all be grateful that her search has resulted in so many beautiful expressions of art.
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©The Indian Craft Shop 2005