Art Talk with visual artist Shan Goshorn

By Paulette Beete
a native american woman with long dark hair surrounded by a selection of handwoven baskets featuring photographs and snippets of texts

Shan Goshorn with a selection of her baskets. Photo by Adela Sanchez

“[E]very time I sit down to weave a basket, I feel the presence of all of the people that came before me that made the baskets that I studied, the patterns that I observed. I feel many, many people around me assisting me. When I’m in the archives, ideas fall in my lap. I’ve become even more convinced that not only are the ancestors supporting me but they are impatient to have their story told.” – Shan Goshorn

While Shan Goshorn--a newly minted USA Fellow--initially considered other careers, she has always considered herself an artist. From drawing with sticks in the dirt as a kid, her art practice has evolved to include a number of media, including basketmaking. But these are no ordinary baskets. Goshorn, who is Eastern Band Cherokee, spends significant amounts of time digging around in archives of materials relating to Native American issues to inform her art. Using splints made from paper copies of the treaties, photographs, Native American memoirs and oral histories, and other primary sources she unearths, she creates double-woven baskets primarily in traditional Cherokee forms. Goshorn’s work has a dual goal: to untangle Native American identity from stereotypes that have been historically perpetuated, and to create a conversation around the ways in which historical treatment of indigenous people informs and affects contemporary conversation around Native issues. We spoke with Goshorn via Skype from her Oklahoma studio about what it means to her to be an activist-artist, how working with the Indian Arts and Craft Board led to her “crazy idea” to make baskets, and what she wants her art work to do for people.

NEA: What do you remember as the earliest art making that you did?

SHAN GOSHORN: A stick drawing in the dirt. I don’t come from a family of artists and so I think my parents were flummoxed that I had such an intense desire. But they always supported whatever I wanted to do. That doesn’t mean that they bought me art supplies, but I would save up money and I would purchase art supplies whenever I could. It was always really hard to break into that first set of paints or pencils or crayons because they were just so beautiful and I had worked so hard to obtain them. But I always was busy, always creating things, always writing books and drawing, experimenting with things I would find in the woods. I’ve always been an artist.  

NEA: Can you talk about a decision you made that you think was really pivotal in your career as an artist?

GOSHORN: Well, one was when I made a decision to go to art school right out of high school. My parents really were not crazy about the idea but, once they saw how devoted I was, they completely backed me up. I went to art school on probation because I didn’t have a very strong background of arts in high school, but I did fine once I got there. Another pivotal decision was getting married. We have five kids. We’ve got grandchildren. And my husband has been with me every step of the way. I don’t think anyone really knows how hard I work except him.

A big decision was in 2008 when I had this crazy [idea] to create a basket out of paper. My husband told me years later, he said, “You know, when you told me that you had that idea I thought that was the craziest idea I had ever heard.” <laughs> But I’m glad he didn’t tell me then. It wouldn’t have mattered. I would have gone ahead and done it. I don't know even know how that decision came about. It was an idea that I had around addressing sovereignty because I’ve been a human rights activist with my work for over two decades. But it was an idea that I had about sovereignty and somehow because of my experience as a teenager working in our tribe’s arts cooperative I saw all of this [basket] work. I knew how it was made. I just had this idea, what if I made a basket out of paper with documents that are relative to the state and printed on. I have no idea where that came from. But that was momentous in my career.

NEA: You said that you’ve been a human rights activist with your art. Can you talk about how activism emerged as part of your art practice and the relationship between arts and activism for you?

GOSHORN: When I moved to Oklahoma in 1981 I became acquainted with a lot of native artists right away. Meeting Edgar Heap of Birds and Richard Ray Whitman was big. I became very influenced by their work about social issues that affected native people…. [Edgar] heard me talking about this idea that I had of exploring some of these issues and he challenged me. He said, “Listen, Amnesty International is coming to Tulsa and they’re coming because of the native issues and we’ve been invited to submit work. I think you should try to follow up on some of these ideas and exhibit here.” And so that was really my first political statement beyond work that addressed women’s issues. This was my first body of work. It was called Honest Injun and it really was addressing the issues unique to Indian people that affected all Indian people.

NEA: Can you say more about the Honest Injun series?

GOSHORN: It’s a collection of black-and-white photographs of commercial products that use either a native name or native imagery to promote something that has little if anything to do with Indians. I remember after talking with Edgar about this my kids and I were at the grocery store and I said, “Take this basket and anything you can find in the store with an Indian on it put it in this basket.” Land of Lake butter and Calumet baking powder is what I thought they’d come back with. But they came with about fifteen items and I thought, “Man, if I’m not seeing these items nobody else is seeing them either.” It’s just this insidious form of advertising that we’re not consciously aware of.

I began a conscious effort to notice and collect these objects, and I ended up with hundreds of contemporary products. I’m not talking cigar-store Indians; I’m talking about things that were being mass-produced in the 90s. I photographed maybe thirty of these items in black-and-white and I used one color of paint as an accent—red. The color of Indian people, the color of blood, the color of our violence, the color of action, the color of stop. When I exhibited [the series]--and I often exhibited it--I would also do a presentation with slides to different organizations like Boy Scouts, teachers’ groups, PTAs, churches, Indian groups. Most people felt very hostile about [the project]. Looking back I think maybe it’s because they felt that it was the first time it had been pointed to that perhaps they were participating in very racist or bigoted behavior. People literally would wrap their arms around themselves like barbed wire and step back.

I did have one enlightened teacher say, “Okay, yeah, I get [the idea of this project] but with what do we replace these images?” So I did another series. It’s the only series I’ve ever done that was in a journalistic documentary style—black-and-white photographs of Indian people as who we really are. I was photographing traditional artists… but I was also photographing contemporary things like an all-Native American board of directors or a Native-American television show or Indians protesting the proposed site of a toxic dumping on Indian land. What I found was that every single one of these images is contemporary, of course, but it’s also very a close tie to traditional teachings. This series was called Reclaiming Cultural Ownership: Challenging Indian Stereotypes, and I have exhibited these photographs with cases full of stereotypical caricature renderings of Indian people.

NEA: You’ve previously written that people weren’t very open to the conversation about Native American identity, but you found that that changed when you started working with the baskets. How so?

GOSHORN: I’m not exactly sure why the baskets are so much more friendly. Maybe it’s the unassuming shape. Maybe it’s the curiosity. They’re pretty to look at, but maybe it’s the curiosity when people move in and look at [a basket] and they’re like, “Oh my gosh, this is not painted on the outside. This is woven. This is a photograph that’s woven back together. Oh my gosh, there’s words in here. What does this mean?” I mean they literally lean in to the basket and they’re engaged with the dialogue that I’ve been trying to have for 25 years.

Maybe my audience is more sophisticated because I’m showing at museums and I’m showing in places like Santa Fe Indian Market where collectors come from all over the world to attend the Indian market. So I think there’s some of that. But I also think it’s the actual shape, just these little unassuming shapes…. I’m very thoughtful about my statements, and I try to make statements that affect as many people as possible, preferably an inter-tribal issue, preferably one that ties in a contemporary issue that people maybe wouldn’t expect to be part of Native-American issues.

[I made one] basket that was a result of a crowdsource request that I did on Facebook. I asked women to send me photographs of themselves dressed in inter-tribal shawls. There are 50 women on this piece, and it is a direct response to the 2013 signing of the Violence Against Women Act Amendment that was signed by President Obama because Indian women have the highest rate of violence directed at them than any other group of people in the country. Surprisingly, over 80 percent of that violence is by non-natives. This act will give tribes the right to prosecute non-Indians on Indian land. What was happening was maybe an Indian woman would marry a non-Indian man. They would live on tribal land and he could almost kill her, but tribes couldn’t prosecute him because he was non-Indian and the state couldn’t come on tribal land. I mean it was this little loophole. I’m looking for ways to show that these documents that I find in museum archives have relevance. How many times will Indian people hear, “Oh, you people need to get over it. That happened 500 years ago.” Well, these historical documents still are impacting us and they still have great effect over us in our lives.

NEA: Can you talk about how you imagine and then physically make your baskets?

GOSHORN: I’ve got lots of ideas. I still have ideas from when I was [on a research fellowship] in the Smithsonian two years ago. I keep different archival books. I keep notebooks when I’m traveling that I might have sketches or ideas. When I get the idea, I start looking for documents [to illustrate that idea]. Every time I have an idea for a basket I create extra splints. They’re all labeled so I know which treaty [they are made from]. I go over and visit with my computer guy, and we create great sheets of text and photographs. I bring them home and I put acrylic wash on them. I put gold foil on them. I do whatever I’m going to do, paint both sides, paint one side, whatever. And by the time I get the splints cut, when I start actually weaving [with the paper], I’m often about 75 percent finished with the basket. Which is also true with traditional people because traditional people would go out and gather either the white oak or the river cane and they would create the splints. They would go and gather the natural dyes. They would dye the splints. They would smooth the splints. And by the time they actually were ready to start weaving--weaving is a snap. A double weave starts on the interior. It’s woven up however tall I want the piece to be. Then the splints are turned and woven down the outside and finished on the bottom. So there’s no obvious beginning or end with the basket. Every basket has a file and I save all of my notes in it because when I go into the archives I want to know the process.

NEA: What’s your relationship to the word “traditional” in terms of your work?

GOSHORN: One of my first jobs when I was a teenager was working at our tribe’s arts cooperative called Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual. I had always been aware of art because my family had kept baskets. We had kept jewelry. We were always interested in Native creations. Working at the cooperative I became familiar and acquainted with different forms of art and the different artists who were bringing work in. So when I started college, I started working with the Indian Arts and Crafts Board. One of the things that we did was follow a person from the very beginning to the very end of creating a basket-- gathering the supplies, dying the splints, preparing the splints, and then weaving. After I graduated, the Indian Arts and Crafts Board hired me to create about twenty black-and-white drawings of traditional Cherokee basket patterns. By the time I got through twelve or thirteen I thought, “You know what, I understand this. I understand the math. I understand the rhythm, I think I could make a basket.” But it wasn’t until 2008 that I had this idea to do so.

Tradition is really important to me because no one actually sat down and taught me how to weave a basket. In that sense I’m self-taught. But every time I sit down to weave a basket, I feel the presence of all of the people that came before me that made the baskets that I studied, the patterns that I observed. I feel many, many people around me assisting me. When I’m in the archives, ideas fall in my lap. I’ve become even more convinced that not only are the ancestors supporting me but they are impatient to have their story told. Truly

NEA: Can you talk about the evolution of your art practice?

GOSHORN: I feel very strongly about always challenging myself, which is probably why I have worked in so many different media. I don’t consider myself a basket maker. I don’t consider myself a photographer. I don’t consider myself a jeweler. I don’t consider myself someone who works in glass. I consider myself an artist that chooses the best medium to express a statement. I mean I work with words. I want to always be challenged. I don’t want people to say, “Oh yawn, you know, she’s still doing that.” I want to always be challenging myself so that it's interesting to me and that it gets the message across.

I feel like my work is very collaborative. Not only do I have two assistants that assist me but I’m doing some research right now in the Gilcrease [Museum] with a team of three other people that are assisting me. I listen very careful when people talk to me about my work because I get ideas from other Indian people. I get ideas from non-Indian people. I listen to the news that’s going on.

NEA: What’s the role of failure in your art practice? How do you define success?

GOSHORN: I don't think I’ve had any failures as an artist. I’ve had things that didn’t turn out the way I expected them to but I really can’t recall failure. When I was a teenager we had an esteemed carver in my tribe, Goingback Chiltoskey, and he led a very good life. His house was on a river and he would go out and fish whenever he felt like it. He had a lawn chair out there and his fishing pole and he would sit there and fish. He was an extraordinary wood carver. Extraordinary. He had a list on a legal pad--he showed it to me once--of all of these people that wanted to buy work from him. He would go into his studio when he felt like it and he would work on things. When he finished [a carving] he would call the first person on the list. If they were not interested in buying it, he would call the second person. But he never got very far down the list because people wanted his work. I thought, that’s where I want to be. Well, my mother pointed out last year, she said, “You realize that that’s kind of where you are.” And I thought, “Well, why the hell aren’t I fishing then?” <laughs> I sure think I’m working a lot harder than he was. <laughs> But my work is being collected. I have very low inventory most of the time because museums are calling to put it in shows. Museums are calling to purchase it. Collectors are calling and saying, “What do you have?” It’s great but it’s a little stressful just trying to manage it all. My assistant said something last year. She said, “Oh, Shan, your baskets need an assistant.”

NEA: You’ve mentioned several artists who have been influential as you’ve developed your work. In this month’s spirit of gratitude, is there an artist or non-artist to whom you’re particularly grateful because of how they’ve helped shape your art practice?

GOSHORN: Hands down my family. My family--my parents, my sisters, my husband, my children--my family is my rock. There are about a million artists that I admire and look up to and I’m grateful to call peers now. There’s Edgar and Richard, Kay Walking Stick, Fritz Scholder, T.C. Cannon, Anita Fields, so many artists whose work I admire and follow. R.C. Gorman. Charles Loloma, Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie. When I was the only Indian in my art school, there was a new magazine called American Indian Artist that had just come out. On the inside back cover for maybe a year the Elaine Horowitz Gallery showed this astounding work by Fritz Scholder, and it was like nothing I had ever seen as a painting, and certainly nothing I’d ever seen in Indian art. I mean that was profound for me to see that and be inspired way up in Cleveland, Ohio, far, far away from other Indians. All of the weavers of my tribe, I’m inspired by all of them.

NEA: When people engage with your artwork, what’s the exchange that you want to happen? What do you want them to walk away with?

GOSHORN: I want them to walk away with curiosity to learn more, and with the understanding that perhaps the history they learned in school was not an accurate one. And the desire to open up the dialogue and question some of our policies and legislature and be better educated about some of these issues that Indian people deal with every single day.

NEA: The final question is a fill in the blank: Art matters because…

GOSHORN:  Art changes opinions. Art cajoles, encourages, forces us to stretch out of our comfort zone and to consider things that we might not have considered before.

To see a selection of Shan Goshorn’s work, click on the hyperlink to visit our Pinterest page.