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Town of Vail drops art program over political concerns, Danielle SeeWalker gives her perspective

Danielle SeeWalker in her studio. Inset image: "G is for Genocide"
Headshot and painting scan images courtesy of Danielle SeeWalker
Danielle SeeWalker in her studio. Inset image: "G is for Genocide"

The intersection of art and political or social views is common, as art is a method of communication and self-expression. But what happens when an arts patron decides that the expression of those views is a deal-breaker?

Danielle SeeWalker is a Lakota artist, originally hailing from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe of North Dakota. Her art ranges from quillwork and leather, to canvas paintings and public murals. Earlier this year, a staff member with the Town of Vail’s Art in Public Places program reached out to offer her the opportunity to be an artist in residence for the summer.

“It was like right after the New Year. And the email was basically like, 'I've been following your art for a while. I'm a big fan. You know, we've had other artists come into our community that have also recommended I reach out to you and I'd love to invite you to become our artist in residence in the summer. And if you're interested and willing, let's jump on a call to talk about the details.'

So, that's really how it all started. Obviously, it seemed like a really awesome opportunity. I'd never really spent much time in Vail, and was interested to learn more about their community, kind of what they were seeking in terms of an artist in residence.

So, we had tons of conversations. It seemed really great. It was a big, robust residency that we started to plan for that included not just a mural, but also community engagement. I was going to do art workshops with the community and youth. I was going to do a talk with the symposium during my stay there and it was all planned, ready to go…"

According to SeeWalker, the situation around the residency changed substantially  and without warning.

"So at the end of April I got an email from my contact that I've been working with. And at the end of April she said, we're really excited and I'm just finalizing up the contract and I'll get it over to you, next week, and that contract never came, although, you know, emails, it was sort of in an informal agreement, um, all the details were already hashed out.

We were just formalizing everything and I was getting ready to submit a proposal of the mural design, but I was waiting for that contract to come through first and it never came. And so I was a bit confused."

A staff member of the Town of Vail soon reached out, requesting to speak about an “urgent matter.”

SeeWalker says they cut to the chase, "Somebody from our community saw a piece of artwork on your social media and it upset them tremendously and it upset our greater Jewish congregation community. And unfortunately the residency is no longer."

The painting is titled “G is for Genocide”, and features a figure in gray on a green background. Drips of black paint provide texture, and one hyperrealistic brown eye gazes at the viewer. The figure’s long, vibrantly red braid peeks out from beneath a white keffiyeh in a traditional print of intersecting black lines. This particular pattern of Keffiyeh is currently seenas a symbol of the Palestinian nationalist movement, and have historically been a men’s headdress in Bedouin communities. Some movements in support of Palestinian activism have taken up the symbol as well in solidarity.

"So it is a piece I did in March, completely on my own time, nothing to do with Vail. It was never presented to anybody at Vail. It's, you know, again, my studio art practice. I'm an artist. I'm constantly creating different pieces. And that particular piece was for a gallery show here in Denver that I was part of in March.

And, um, it's really centered around the parallels of what's happening in Gaza compared to like what I felt was very similar to what happened to Native American people here in America and my ancestors in terms of genocide. And so it's really just drawing expression between those two parallels."

SeeWalker says she is surprised by the Town of Vail’s reaction. Nevertheless, online comments in response to her painting, and the cancelled artist residency, are overwhelmingly in support of her work. She notes that a similar response materialized at the original gallery showing of the painting.

"Well, what's interesting is that leading up to the opening of that gallery show where the piece was featured, literally it was like wet off the easel when I was delivering it to the gallery, but I took a quick photo of it just to kind of promote and say, Hey, come to this opening. This is the piece I'll be submitting for this group show.

And so it was on social media the day before the opening and somebody caught wind of it. And at the very moment of the opening of the show, somebody came in, purchased it. It was the first piece to sell. It was the most expensive piece in the gallery show as well, and it sold immediately to a private collector.

And I've really gotten no other backlash about this piece other than that it's like really provocative. It's, powerful. It really challenges the mindset of what's going on. I've never gotten any negative feedback about it up until this week, but that's okay. I always welcome all types of feedback on my artwork.

That's the beauty of art, right? It's supposed to challenge your mindset. Sometimes it is uncomfortable. I just think it's unfair that this one particular piece of artwork that was created months ago is the result of a residency being canceled just because somebody in the community did not like the piece of art and it had nothing to do with the residency.

I don't know that there's any comparison to draw on like that piece of artwork as to why this opportunity was canceled and especially canceled in the way it was canceled. I still am shocked and I've never gotten an explanation really, other than that I am too political as an artist for their community."

KDNK contacted multiple Town of Vail staff members for a response, but has not yet heard back from them directly. A recent press release from the Town states that the decision to cancel the Artist in Residency program was, "made after concerns arose around the potential politicizing of the art program." Officials also note that, "While the Town of Vail embraces her messaging and artwork surrounding Native Americans, in recent weeks her art and her public messaging has focused on the Israel/Gaza crisis."

SeeWalker is also a self-published author. In addition to writing for The Red Road Project, a documentation of the Native American experience in the 21st century, she has also written the book “Still Here: A Past to Present Insight of Native American People and Culture”.

“It's no mystery that the United States has a long standing history of constant attempts of cultural genocide and assimilation to Native American people. We were once a thriving, thriving population in these lands of millions, and now we make up just about 2 percent of the entire population in the U. S., which is growing slightly from about a decade ago, where we were about 1%.  So we are a growing population, but time and time again, starting with the boarding schools and Forced removal of people on land and taking our languages, not allowing us to practice our,  , cultural practices and traditions, cutting our hair, making us wear,  Western clothing.

I mean, this is something that's just been constant all the way, even up till today. You know, recently, the Urban Indian Relocation Act of the 1950s and 60s, which, you know, took Native Americans off reservations, brought them to cities like Denver. Denver was the headquarters of this program at one point, and the whole purpose was the government wanted Natives to be assimilated into cities, hopefully to marry outside of their race and to get diluted.

All of these attempts of genocide have failed, and people like me as a Native American are still here, and we are thriving, and we are resilient. We've had a lot of historical tra a as it relates to genocide, and it's a lot what's going on today in Palestine and Israel.” 

The larger story isn’t over, SeeWalker says that she has so much more to look forward to.

“The whole thing and how it unfolded is really, really unfortunate. What I would have really hoped and would have respected was to have a civil conversation, allow both sides, myself and the town of bail to have a constructive conversation about this.  , that was not the case. I was never given the opportunity to have a conversation.

And so, you know, with that, I'm not, I'm never going to be silenced. I'm not one to be silenced. So that's why I did bring it forth the story to talk about it. And now this is just not right. And I think that I've done and accomplished what I set out to do in terms of this cancellation. And from here, I think it'll just continue to be what it is on its own, but it's onward and upward from here. I mean, I am definitely have a positive outlook. I've had a lot of opportunities come my way since. This came out and so I'm just really excited to be welcomed into communities and environments where people appreciate diversity. And so that's what I'm really excited about.

Part of the residency in Vail was to do a talk with the Vail symposium, which is a separate entity outside of the town of Vail and the symposium. Reached out to me and instead that they would still love to have me be part of their talk in June. And so I do plan on being part of that. It'll be on June 19th at 5 15 PM and I'm in bail.

And so I just, I'm really excited that with all of this happening, and that I wasn't completely, banned from their town, I suppose. And I'm excited to engage with the community and have the opportunity to talk more about my art, which is really centric to what the residency was about.”

Copyright 2024 KDNK

Hattison Rensberry