Whitehot Magazine

Vanessa Dion Fletcher's Solo Show "Slow Lines" Invites The Viewer To Slow Down

Nii Nuwiishaleew, Vanessa. Quillwork on paper, 12 x 9 in.

Vanessa Dion Fletcher: Slow Lines

K-Art Gallery

May 25 through August 19, 2023


Vanessa Dion Fletcher's solo show Slow Lines, on view from May 25th - August 19th, 2023 at K-Art Gallery in Buffalo, is a nod to the slowness required to produce work using porcupine quills. This time-consuming Indigenous art form was practiced pre-colonization and incorporates dyes (natural and synthetic), as well as needlework in Dion Fletcher's work. It also stands as "a way of making a way of being and an assertion against demanding power structures." (K-Art - Curatorial Statement)

In an interview with Dion Fletcher, we discuss how the concept of "slow living" was expressed through Indigenous art and culture before colonization, and how she centers that concept in her practice. In a society that values "hustle" as a necessity for a successful life, how can honoring Indigenous Ways of Knowing challenge those standards? Recognizing that Indigenous people across the Americas are individuals with their own lived experiences, how does the artist avoid or mitigate the unintentional stereotyping of those communities? What does it mean for her to navigate a very institutional, Western art world as an Indigenous artist, and who gets to decide what Indigenous or "Native Art" is supposed to be? What's the importance of Native-American owned and operated galleries (like K-Art) for making viable space for Indigenous artists in the contemporary art world?

Vanessa Dion Fletcher 

BA: When I was reading the curatorial statement, it felt to me like an ode to slow living. Can I ask how that concept of 'slow living' was expressed through indigenous art and culture, prior to colonization? How do you center those concepts in your upcoming show?

VDF: I'm more kind of piecing together slowing everything down from a perspective that resists capitalism. But that can also come from a very bougie position in terms of how and who gets to engage with those concepts. So going back to indigenous art making before European colonization, life was so much more influenced by practical things, like food and shelter. I'm thinking a lot about spirituality and community actions that are tied to ideas of taking care of oneself and one's community, which includes the land and the water.

BA: How do you pursue those themes? Challenging this idea of hustle culture?

VDF: Over the past four or five years I've been engaged in this textile practice, I've started to think more about the idea of slowness. I've also been taking Lenape language classes, which can often take 10 minutes to learn a single word. As a neurodiverse artist, I am also thinking about the description of 'being slow' as a pejorative for somebody who's disabled. I guess that also ties back into what we started off talking about, which is who and how does one engage with this idea of slow living? Who has the sort of agency that allows for a slow life where you can take your time to prepare and enjoy a meal or make some art while still being able to meet your needs? Can you do that without being defined as slow because of the capitalist hustle mentality?

BA: Understanding that the art world is, to some extent, very capitalist, how are you negotiating and engaging with the world of contemporary art, especially as an indigenous artist exploring the concept of slowness? Do you ever find yourself in conflict in some way?

VDF: Yes. I would say most recently, when selling work to institutions like banks, I'm just thinking more about who my work's being sold to and how it's being used. Who am I  working with? That's newer for me in terms of navigating those kinds of choices. Before I was more removed from those choices — working with artist-run centers and selling artwork to friends and family — but even then when we look at the bigger picture, I know artist-run centers get their funding from the government, which gets a lot of its money from resource extraction. So that's a complicated question I don't have an answer to. 

BA: So when you're dealing with certain institutions or private individuals I imagine it's because they want 'Indigenous Art' ... what does that mean to them versus what it means to you?

VDF: When I started making work professionally, one of the first things you have to do is write a bio. And from what I remember, the instructions on how to write a bio were to say who you are and what you want people to know about yourself so that they can understand your work. So I wrote my name is Vanessa Dion Fletcher. I'm Potawatomi and Lenape. I'm disabled. I don't know my language. I guess I did not realize the extent to which my audience would grab onto those identifiers. Particularly, saying I was disabled in my artist statement, there were a few times when I know that that's exactly what they were looking for and I think it's because I put it in writing publicly. I thought I was just introducing myself and just being like, 'Yeah, this is who I am.' But now, I guess I see more how the politics of how you introduce yourself works in a broader form. So yes, people I think all the time are asking for either indigenous or disabled or queer LGBTQ art and I checked those boxes.

BA: So let's talk about the boxes. How often do the expectations of people coming for A, B, or C box align with your work, how you perceive your work, or what you're trying to say most of the time?

VDF: There's one example where curators asked for a particular work to show. It wasn't available and I proposed a different body of work that didn't fit with what they wanted. I think what they wanted was something that would be more recognizably native, and the work I proposed wasn't native enough for them, so to speak. But right now I make work with porcupine quills. People love it because it's very direct. It's material with a huge history and having a bit of a revival right now.

Nii Nuwiishaleew, Vanessa. Quillwork on paper, 12 x 9 in.

BA: How do you find yourself addressing those situations where people try to put you in a box?

VDF: I think it's important and challenging to be making work that is integral to myself and to what I look at it in terms of history and my peers. I try to make things that are well made, visually, physically, and conceptually based off of my own standards. I think there's kind of two ways to look at this. Sometimes people will see my art and say ‘it aligns with such and such identity. Yes or no?’ Whereas curatorially, some people will say ‘This whole group of people has this experience, and let's see what they're making’ — like more of a survey of what's being Made by Indigenous artists.

BA: So it kind of feels like you're saying sometimes identity is necessary to talk about the the thing you want to talk about, but sometimes identity also becomes sort of like a cage depending on who's looking at it.

VDF: I think that's true to some extent, but I also think community is pretty important for humans and so finding commonalities is vital. It's debatable how important the biography or identities of the artist are to the work. But it's pretty common, I think, in the art world, right? Even if it's particular locations like painters from this time period in Paris, location-based or identity-based, I think if you're talking about this like a chapter in a book, they're always creating some kind of outline.

BA: Do you want to talk about one or two pieces of work that are going to be actually at the exhibition?

VDF: I like tall loops. I'm always working with North American porcupines. But there are a few different subspecies in North America. A porcupine quill has a white part and a black part. On the Eastern porcupines, the black part is much longer and kind of like fades out which creates this really beautiful gradient. That gradient has been used in quillwork to create a shading effect. I wanted to do the same thing. I had some quills that it had that beautiful long gradient. So there's a line that loops. There's a slowness in the making as well as the observing of the work. For me, there's just great enjoyment in this kind of close observation that happens for myself while I'm making it, and then when I'm looking at other people’s quillwork. A lot of quillwork artists will make representational work, or create geometric patterns. Those larger forms are beautiful and fun to look at, but I love observing the lines of quill work outside of what they're kind of coming together to represent.

BA: On average, how long does it take you to complete a piece of work?

VDF: I would say once the quills are harvested, washed, dyed, and sorted, it could be a few days to a few months.

BA: And what's the process of all of that harvesting? 

VDF: So myself or a friend will find a deceased porcupine on the side of the road. And then you can either pick the whole thing up and take it home or pull the quills on the side of the road, which is more dangerous. I was taught to put ash from a wood stove on them to help the quills come out more easily. So you pull all the quills out, sort, and wash them a few times. You want to sort them out by length and by diameter. Dye them. And then you can start making. So it does take a long time, but video editing takes a long time. Photo editing takes a long time. Cleaning the floors takes a long time...

BA: What's the importance of indigenous-owned galleries like RA in the contemporary art world? 

VDF: Within capitalism, there's a large benefit to having at least more control over our artwork, our cultural resources and controlling the money, I guess.

BA: Is there also another end to that, which is the understanding of the work and less possibility of misinterpretation?

VDF: I think so, but I also think that it gets a little bit more complicated if artists are working very specifically within their nation or experience. It's entirely possible that work wouldn't be understood. I also think that it's also possible for non-Indigenous artists and curators to learn and appreciate the work while working ethically and at a high standard. WM


Byron Armstrong

Byron Armstrong is an award-winning freelance journalist and writer who investigates the intersections between arts and culture, lifestyle, and politics. Find him on Instagram @thebyproduct and on Linkedin https://www.linkedin.com/in/byron-armstrong

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