Omak, Washington-based artist Joe Feddersen is perhaps best known as a printmaker, but in a career spanning more than four decades he has pushed past disciplinary boundaries, working in glass, collage, installation, basketry, painting, and photography. One constant throughout his work is that Feddersen–an Indigenous Okangan and Lakes artist and a member of the Colville Confederated Tribes–draws on his heritage to create a unique visual vocabulary that mixes traditional Plateau imagery with contemporary, urban symbols. He is, as Skagit elder Vi Hilbert told him, “a storyteller” who imbues his art with narrative and humor. The artwork in Feddersen’s current exhibition Extended Family at Adams and Ollman invites viewers to consider how they are in community not only with each other, but also with the land and its inhabitants, large and small.
Feddersen’s Extended Family is in some ways emblematic of the current national and international interest in contemporary Indigenous art. There are multiple, high-profile exhibitions curated by Indigenous scholars and centering contemporary Indigenous art (including work by Feddersen) taking place now and planned for 2024. In a phone conversation about Extended Family as well as the future of Indigenous art, Feddersen shared with me a strong sense of optimism that this is not a “moment” in the sense of something fleeting, but rather a hoped-for turning point. These exhibitions could well mark the art world’s permanent shift to not only consistently include and celebrate Indigenous art, but to do so in nuanced, meaningful ways.
Extended Family contains 18 works: 16 analog collages, one small-scale glass work called Codex, and one showstopping glass installation so large that it occupies an entire gallery wall. The visuals are striking, as Feddersen delivers bold shapes across works in different media, and bright colors in his collages. But beyond the visual, the exhibition engages the senses of sound and touch. The textures of the works create a strong sense of tactility, prompting in viewers a desire to hold or touch the works, to imagine the feel of the materials. Most surprising from my perspective was the pleasing, wind-chime like music that filled the space. Feddersen’s large-scale installation Charmed–Canoe Journey, features hundreds of hanging, transparent white glass shapes that sway and shift gently, clinking against one another to create an inviting sound that makes the white cube of the gallery start to fade away.
The origins of Charmed–Canoe Journey go back to 2013, when Feddersen was invited to create a work for a group exhibition at the Sun Valley Art Center. But he had the best kind of creative dilemma: he had three good ideas. “One of them was a charm bracelet, and one of them was a wind chime. And the other was a petroglyph wall,” says Feddersen. The result was this work, an “installation [that] became all three.” The glyphs, or glass charms, hang in a curtain-like configuration. Like Feddersen’s collages, these glass glyphs feature a mix of forms rooted in Indigenous Plateau culture: fish, horses, and humanoid figures, some hunting, others possibly warriors, shamans, or even deities. These symbols are interspersed with images of contemporary, urban life, like helicopters, cars, a handgun, a martini glass, and the biohazard symbol. It’s a clear visualization of the ways that past and present exist in the same space, overlapping, connecting and moving apart in myriad new ways. The glyphs constitute a kind of deconstructed charm bracelet, while the clinking together creates a gentle, wind-chime effect and the shadows create the petroglyph wall. The combination of the movement, the shadows, and the fragility of glass give the work an incredible lightness, as if it is ephemeral rather than an installation that has in fact traveled and been shown in several venues.
Feddersen’s small-scale collages–the most abundant type of work in Extended Family–are intimate by the very nature of their size. At just 8.5 x 11 inches–the size of a standard sheet of paper-Feddersen describes them as being “like little sketches.” All of the collages here are titled Family Album and numbered, as if each sheet marks a particular moment in time, like a snapshot. Half the fun in viewing the works is mentally picking apart the layers, figuring out the order in which pieces were affixed to the paper, and observing how different shapes seem to advance and recede based on moving around slightly and letting the lighting shift. In this sense, they have an affinity with Charmed–Canoe Journey, one that is even more direct when considering that some of the shapes in the collages come from Feddersen’s tracing and cutting out the forms of the glass charms.
In works like Family Album #25, the pencil lines where Feddersen has traced his glyphs are still present. “I intentionally didn’t erase them,” says Feddersen, “because I like that memory of the mark, . . . the kind of the physicality of these.” That physicality comes through in most of the collages, like in Family Album #49, where vertical rows of staples on the left side of the composition seem to suggest rain. They are balanced visually by a large white celestial body on the right, rendered in layers of shaped paper and energetic, unblended strokes of white paint. The layered backgrounds in the collages, for which Feddersen often cuts up and rearranges his prints, also enhance the physicality of the work, creating complex interplays of color and texture that at the same time gesture to other facets of his artistic practice.
The palette for Family Album #65 consists of shades of cream, white, silver, and small flecks of reddish brown, making it one of the more subdued works in the exhibition. Even so, it is imbued with texture and physicality, perhaps even precarity. The two sheets of paper on which the composition is built are stapled down the center, but not truly joined; there is a visible gap between them. We see that they are one thing, unified, but fragile.
This fragile joining seems like an excellent metaphor for the exhibition as a whole. Having read through Feddersen’s oral history interview with the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, I knew he came from a family of makers. His grandmother made gloves and other items from hides. His early memories include mornings his mother spent drawing at the dining table. His family history includes stories of his Uncle Tom, who passed away young but is remembered for his wood carvings of animals. At first, I thought maybe works in the exhibition were loose representations of specific people since family appears repeatedly in the titles. Although he has made previous works honoring his relatives, like the Tama works honoring his grandmother and several prints named after his aunts, for this exhibition Feddersen explores family much more broadly; “We humans are not alone in this world. We need to think about our relatives, the other animals we share this world with and to be thinking of them, as part of our family as opposed to ‘the other.’”
While there’s a message, Feddersen is also clear that he is not trying to make “didactic” work. I see his art as inviting contemplation rather than prescribing any specific meaning. It asks viewers “to open our perceptions of our surroundings, to be broader.” I think of those papers stapled with the gap between them still visible. They are stronger and more cohesive because they are joined, their separateness bridged to create something new.
While I was gathering my thoughts about Feddersen’s work, I also attended a powerful talk at Pacific Northwest College of Art (an institution where I teach) by the Klamath Modoc artist, author, and activist Ka’ila Farrell-Smith. While Feddersen’s and Farrell-Smith’s artistic practices are quite different, they both use their work as a way of giving abstracted, visual form to the idea that connections between beings, and connections between humans and the land, are of vital importance. In Feddersen’s Extended Family, traditional imagery exists alongside contemporary scourges like Covid molecules and handguns. Farrell-Smith spoke about the ways her painting, printmaking, and academic work are thoroughly intertwined with her activism, which recently has focused on intervening in pipeline and lithium mining projects that would endanger the ecosystems and waterways across huge sections of Oregon and Nevada.
Humanity has been reckless in its treatment of the planet and our fellow inhabitants. Feddersen and Farrell-Smith both gesture to the ways that survival depends on reconfiguring our relationships to foster respect, empathy, and care, and to the ways in which Indigenous peoples were engaged in such stewardship long before settler-colonizers showed up.
Both Feddersen and Farrell-Smith described the present as a crucial moment for contemporary Indigenous art. I asked Feddersen how the conversations about, or the reception of contemporary Indigenous art, has changed over the course of his career. In his response, he looked back to 1992 as “a big year for native Indigenous art.” But tokenism in the art world has led to Indigenous art being treated as something that treated Indigenous art as something “comes in vogue and falls out. . . You think, oh, things are going to change. But they kind of went back.”
Farrell-Smith referred in her artist talk to the present moment as a kind of “Renaissance time for contemporary Native art.” To this point, both Feddersen and Farrell-Smith currently have work in two major exhibitions in Washington, D.C. Both are included in The Land Carries Our Ancestors: Contemporary Art by Native Americans, an exhibition of work by 50 Indigenous artists that is at the National Gallery through January 2024. Feddersen’s Untitled (Mother and Child) and Farrell-Smith’s Enrollment are both in Many Wests: Artists Shape an American Idea, an exhibition that has been traveling since 2021 and that was on view at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Eugene from September through December 2022.
Both artists–Feddersen in our conversation and Farrell-Smith in her artist talk– expressed their excitement about the announcement made earlier this year that Jeffrey Gibson will represent the U.S. at the 2024 Venice Biennale. Gibson, a member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and of Cherokee descent, will be the first Indigenous artist to have a solo exhibition at this long-running, prestigious international exhibition. Kathleen Ash-Milby, the Portland Art Museum’s Curator of Native American Art and a member of the Navajo Nation, is co-curating Gibson’s exhibition, making this the first time that a Native American curator has had this prominent of a role at the Biennale.
Feddersen will have a retrospective of his work in 2024 at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture in Spokane, curated by Nez Perce Tribe (Nimiipuu) scholar Rachel C. Allen and likely to travel to several other institutions. It is, indeed, a moment of tremendous interest in, appreciation of, and critical thinking about the many forms and practices that make up contemporary Indigenous art. “I just hope that we can sustain it,” says Feddersen, “And that the art world really does become more pluralistic . . . I think it’s like a glimmer of hope.”
Extended Family offers its own glimmer of hope, right here in Oregon. Through a dynamic collection of work, Feddersen suggests that humanity could unlearn its own self-centeredness and come to new understandings of our relationships with each other, with non-human beings, and with the land. We are navigating this world, with all its joys and heartbreaks, together. Feddersen’s work offers a bit of joy amongst the chaos, something beautiful and compelling that, rather than being escapist, asks us to renew a commitment to working with our communities, our extended family, in hopes of making a better future.
Extended Family is on view at Adams and Ollman, 418 NW 8th Avenue, Portland, Oregon 97209, through November 25th. The gallery is open Wednesday through Saturday, 11am–5pm.