Anita Fields (Osage/Muscogee)

Osage Ribbon worker, multimedia artist, and 2021 National Heritage Fellow
A woman wearing a woven shawl.

Photo by Tom Fields

Music Credit: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T from the cd Soul Sand, used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.

Anita Fields:  I started thinking about all of the mentors that I've had, all of my teachers, all of the people who shared their skills and their knowledge. But most importantly they taught me how to create-- how to connect my hands to my heart, to my mind, to be able to make an expression. And they gave me the confidence to do that.

Jo Reed: That is Osage ribbon worker and multi-media artist Anita Fields sharing the thoughts she had when she learned she was named a 2021 National Heritage Fellow. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.

Born in Oklahoma, Anita Fields, a citizen of Osage nation, is a renowned textile and clay artist. Her art reflects the world view of Osage philosophy and its connection to nature as it explores the complexities of Native history and culture. Native American ribbon work is colorful, precise, and complex. It’s the cutting, folding, and sewing of different colored ribbons into geometric patterns—it’s a form of applique and used as a decorative overlay, especially in ceremonial clothing.  The style of Osage ribbon work is unique and Anita Fields is an exemplar of the art form. An innovative artist, she honors the tradition while taking it to new places—drawing on the designs of ribbon work and incorporating them in her ceramic and clay pieces for example.  She is inspired by the Osage culture and inventively incorporates some its visual language into her art. Anita textiles and clay art pieces have been exhibited nationally and internationally—her art is part of the permanent collections at The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, the Museum of Art and Design in New York and the Minneapolis Institute of Art. A Tulsa Artist Fellow since 2017, her work was also part of the landmark 2019/2020 traveling exhibition, Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists. 

While Anita Fields was named a National Heritage Fellow for her outstanding Osage ribbon work. She clearly is a multi-media artist equally at home with clay as well as textiles. And that’s where I began my conservation: by asking her about navigating these two very different mediums--textiles and clay-- and the innovative ways her art frequently brings them together.

Anita Fields:  My work as an artist is multidisciplinary and I work in several forms, several mediums, primarily clay and textiles and the combination of the two. My background comes from very early childhood of learning how to sew when I was really young, asking my grandmother to teach me how to sew, but also, just creative play, playing outside with natural materials, dirt, mud, rocks, sticks, those are my earliest memories of creating. So, as an artist, I feel free to go in and out of materials and so, my practice covers a lot of materials, kind of whatever I feel is comfortable and what needs to be in the piece, but yeah, a lot of my work, my clay work is found in museums, galleries, collections, as well as my textile work too.

Jo Reed: I know you were born in Oklahoma. Were you raised there?

Anita Fields: We lived in Oklahoma until I was about eight to ten years old. I was born in Hominy, Oklahoma on the Osage reservation. My dad built us a home on his grandfather’s allotment, original allotment and we moved to Colorado. We made this kind of journey back and forth from Colorado back and forth to Hominy until we settled in Denver, Colorado. My dad was there and he wanted to be a guide and outfitter, which he accomplished and so, there was this back and forth journey for a couple of years because my mother was lonesome, but we always came home and stayed with our grandparents, our grandmothers during the summer. Yeah. It was a trek that we made many, many times during the year.

Jo Reed:  Your father was a painter and as you said, your grandmother was a great seamstress. So, I would have to imagine that art and appreciation for visual languages was something that you really grew up with.

Anita Fields: It was. My earliest memories, really, of pattern and design come from the trunks that my grandmother had that held her most prized possessions, which were our Osage traditional clothing and she would open those up when it was time for our dances and for our ceremonials and she would lovingly take each item out and kind of assign what relative would be wearing what, what cousin, what brother or sister and as an adult, I realized that was really my introduction to something finely and beautifully made with love and integrity, which held all of the basic principles of art, which are pattern, design, color and my dad was a painter and he painted wildlife scenes and he was really good. He didn’t have a lot of formal training, but he really enjoyed it and his passion showed in his paintings.

Jo Reed: As you said, your grandmother taught you to sew. This is random, but do you remember the first thing you made?

Anita Fields: Oh, I do. Yeah. So, my grandmother was a great seamstress and she had these baskets full of scraps of fabric and she would just throw them in there and I would kind of play around with those. So, one day, I asked her and said “Teach me how to sew.” So, she taught me with a needle and thread, first of all, you know, how to sew and encouraged me to do that for quite a while and I had this crazy cheap rubber doll from the dime store and she was probably only about five or six inches high and so, I made her a gingham-- it was blue gingham-- I can picture it right now-- blue gingham coat. I went into my grandmother’s bathroom and she had this little glass container of cotton balls, pulled out some of those cotton balls and glued them on to the cuffs and to the collar of the coat and it’s funny. I don’t remember a whole lot of clothing that I made for that doll after that, but that memory is really vivid to me.

Jo Reed: You ended up going to the Institute of American Indian Arts and you went to study painting, but there, you discovered other media. Tell me about the experience of being there.

Anita Fields: Okay. At the Institute of American Indian Arts, we were encouraged to try every medium that was available to us and at that time, I had very little experience with other mediums other than the ones that I was introduced to in high school or that I had found on my own. So, we were highly encouraged to try a little bit of everything hoping that we would land in a place where our passion was really at. So, that was my first introduction to clay and to multimedia and I felt like clay was-- that I was home, that I was very comfortable with it. It felt very intuitive to me to be working with it, that it’s just something that’s very easy to form, manipulate. It’s very human-like. It has a memory. For instance, if you roll out a piece of clay and you crack it and you repair it, it’s going to kind of remember that place where it was torn or it had been repaired. Yeah. It has lots of characteristics. It can be forgiving, it can be easily transformed. That’s one of the things that I really am drawn to by working with clay is that it’s a very transformative material to work with and, of course, it’s the earth that holds us up, provides everything for us.

Jo Reed: You were at the Institute of American Indian Arts at a really interesting time. Things were really breaking up and breaking out when you were a student there, correct?

Anita Fields: Yes. Yeah. There was lots of things happening in the world at that time and there was-- like this time when there was civil unrest and also, for native people, that is during the time that Wounded Knee was happening and protests were popping up on native reservations, on Indian land. So, there was a lot happening and that filtered through to the kind of work that people were doing at the Institute of American Indian Arts.

Jo Reed: Yeah, I would think. You met your husband in Santa Fe and he’s a photographer, whose work is really pretty fabulous.

Anita Fields: Right.

Jo Reed: You got married and began having children. Did you return to Oklahoma then? Did you stay in Santa Fe? Just geographically, where were you situated at that time?

Anita Fields: Came back to Oklahoma.

Jo Reed: Okay. Here’s the question. How did you juggle making art and being a young mother?

Anita Fields: That’s a great question because it was really difficult. I found myself wanting to continue to create and so, I would always try to find a community center, a junior college. Sometimes I just enrolled in classes to be able to have a studio to go to work at, always taking classes to further my practice in finding new ways to be able to create. But it’s hard because having little children, there’s little time left for that kind of thing. So, it was definitely a juggling act that went on for quite some time, but luckily, I always found the time to be able to satisfy that urge to be able to make something and to be able to create.

Jo Reed: Is this when you began to learn ribbon work or had your grandmother taught you some of the aspects of it previously?

Anita Fields: My grandmother did not teach me some of the aspects of ribbon work. So, when I was pregnant with my daughter, my husband worked for the Osage Nation. He’s not Osage, but he worked for my nation and so, they held classes at the Osage Museum for ribbon work, shirt making, Indian dyes, a lot of the cultural items that we use and make within our culture. So, these classes were free and they would provide all of the materials and had great mentors, great teachers who were very knowledgeable, who were skillful, who were masters at what they did and they were very generous in sharing that with the people who had interest in learning how to make these things. So, they would begin with kind of the simpler designs and encourage you to keep working up to the more difficult stages of making these items.

Jo Reed: Well, I saw a YouTube video of you making a ribbon and it is an immensely complicated process. Do you think it’s something that you can describe so even though we’re listening to it we can kind of see it in our mind’s eye?

Anita Fields: I’ll try.

Jo Reed: I know it’s asking a lot.

Anita Fields: We use all kinds of ribbons. Depending on what pattern you’re going to work on, if you’re working on like a four-ribbon pattern, the ribbons, perhaps, might be two to three inches wide and you would sew those two down the middle to create a seam, open those up. You would baste on top two other ribbons that are of contrasting colors. You would take a design-- for us, Osages are known for their patterns that are geometric-- and you would trace your pattern on one side. You would flip that pattern to go on top of the ribbon on the other side and then this is a process of cutting and folding under those top ribbons. When you fold those under, when you snip and fold those ribbons under, the two colors that are underneath those top colors create the design and so, then depending on what it’s going to be for, if it’s going to be for a woman’s skirt or a man’s blanket-- it just depends what it’s going to be for-- would be how long that pattern needs to travel.

Jo Reed: I saw that in my head. So, that was good.

Anita Fields: I was like-- I don't know if this will make sense or not, but it’s definitely visual.

Jo Reed: So, they’re used for skirts or for blankets-- decorative items that people would wear?

Anita Fields: Sure. So, they decorate the traditional clothing that we wear and they trim women’s skirts and women have traditional Osage women blankets. So, they also would be added to those. Osage men have a blanket that they wear and then that can be also the border for those blankets. The suits that men wear for the traditional dances are trimmed, the men’s bridge clothes and their leggings, all of that is trimmed with ribbon work.

Jo Reed: And the designs have meanings. I mean, there’s significance to the patterns that are used. Is that correct?

Anita Fields: Yes, they do and some of them are easily identifiable, like the double arrow pattern. There’s different patterns that have evolved. There are patterns that at one time denoted clans or belonged to families and depending on how you were taught and who introduced you to ribbon work, some of those names are going to vary a little bit.

Jo Reed: You’ve said that your artwork is really guided by Osage philosophy and duality has a centrality in the philosophy and in your work. Can you share a little bit more about that philosophy and then how you manifest it through your art?

Anita Fields: So, I’m looking into the worldview of Osage, of our culture and that is a worldview that is based on observation of nature. There is an order found within nature and so, our worldview thinks of divisions between the early and sky and so, they found that to be true in everything that happened within one’s life. So, this idea of earth/sky, night/day, man/woman, really these contrasts and these things that you find in everyday life in one’s time here, in one’s journey. And so, for instance, things like the movement of the sun, that is something that happens every single day and that it has a path and it has order and there’s order found in nature on this observation of nature where everything is interconnected and things rely on one another to exist.

Jo Reed: Okay. You had said that you really came to a decision that art is what you’re going to do. You really just committed yourself to art. Can you tell me about that moment and what shifted for you when you made that decision moving forward?

Anita Fields: I was young. Well, actually, I wasn’t that young. Yeah. It was very distinct. It was very direct and I was at a time in my life when I was having a lot of difficulty in deciding what was true for myself, what it is, what was it that I needed to be doing, doing things that weren’t really healthy for me, partaking in those kinds of activities and I was really looking at something to ground myself and to really find out what it is I was supposed to be doing for the rest of my life and so, I knew that making art was part of that. I knew I was having a difficult time attaining that because all of these other things that were happening in my life and so, I just really made a commitment to be able to honor my time here and begin doing what I was supposed to be doing and that really was the shift because I think it was the shift in my heart and my mind, alerting my hands that this is what I was going to be doing and I fully committed right then and there.

Jo Reed: Were you working in both textiles and clay then?

Anita Fields: More so in clay at that time.

Jo Reed: When I think about working with clay-- and this is everything to do with me and being limited-- I tend to think of things being functional, making things that are beautiful, but functional. You make things that tell stories. That is a qualitative difference. Can you tell me how you arrived at that?

Anita Fields: That was actually what that shift that I’m talking about because up to that point, I did make things that were utilitarian, throwing on the wheel. I still throw on the wheel because I can alter things to fit the ideas that I’m having when I’m making these things that are more narrative, but up to that time, that’s pretty much what I was doing. I was making things that were utilitarian, that you can use. It was when I made that shift in my mind that I decided to tell things that were-- I call them narrative. They’re pieces that are narrative in nature. I can be inspired by lots of things. I can be inspired by a good book. I love poetry. I can be inspired by poetry. Many times before I begin a body of work, I’ll just sit and read poetry. I can be inspired by something that I see at a social gathering with Osage people. I can be inspired by the kinds of things I was talking about earlier that is found in our world view. For instance, I make these landscapes and they’re abstract in nature, but to me, being able to travel to our Osage original homelands, which I had been fortunate enough to be able to do brought this feeling that the earth holds memory and that it holds the memory of the cultures who were first there and because of the way that clay is created, that erosion, time, layering. I think of all those kinds of things and clay holds this memory. So, it’s the perfect material to transform these kinds of ideas. So, yeah, it was definitely a shift with what I was talking about earlier.

Jo Reed: Well, it’s so interesting because you’ve made every-day objects with clay but in the service of telling a story and an example is your 2001 installation. In English, it’s called “Call to Eat.” I’m not going to attempt the Osage pronunciation but there you created a table set for dinner ready for a family or a party. Can you describe that installation and what you were doing and how that’s part of your philosophy of work?

Anita Fields: So, that piece is called “Wa-No'-Bree” and that’s the Osage word for “Come and eat,” the call to eat and so, this is particularly about Osage dinners and the sharing of food. We don’t do anything without the inclusion of food. As Osage people, we gather at that table in all of these instances from the celebration of a marriage, sending a soldier off to war, welcoming him home. It would be naming babies. It would also be saying goodbye to somebody on their final journey home. Every aspect of our lives, from birth to death, you gather people together to come and share this food with you as an expression of who we are. And I find so many things within our culture so very beautiful, and I’m always looking for the essence of what’s happening within these experiences and these times.So, in that particular piece, kind of based on memory when I was a young girl then I was thinking about the dinners when I was particularly a young person going to them with my grandmother. So, I used her dishes that she had, as many as I had left, and I press-molded the clay into her dishes so that they were actually the dishes that my grandmother used and then I used Osage designs on linen napkins and imagery that would reflect us and I know I took my tape recorder to a dinner and after the prayer, I told my relatives who I was sitting with what I was doing, that I was making this art installation and that I just wanted to record the noise that was happening around us and so, I put out my tape recorder and then everybody was quiet. I wasn't trying to intimidate. I was just trying to gather you know what it sounds like at a dinner.  And because a lot of these dinners, they don’t happen inside of a building. They happen outside under a tent. then I think I remember that the installation included, you know, limbs and trees and a scrim, you know, to give us the idea of being in nature.

Jo Reed: And you also had real fry bread.

Anita Fields: I did have real fry bread. I forgot about that. Yeah. I had real fry bread that I dipped in polyurethane about 10 times.

Jo Reed: Sometimes you take details from your ribbon work, and you recreate them in clay.

Anita Fields: So, for a long time, you know, I was just trying to replicate ribbon work on to clay like the surface, you know, when I would think about surface decoration, and it just wasn't working. For me it just wasn't happening. It didn't hold the kind of nuances that I wanted. And I thought, well, ribbon work is ribbon work. And this clay is the clay and the surface, they’re two totally different things. And then I thought about, well, I could take my patterns and impress them in the clay and make clay stamps. And then I could use those stamps to develop textures on the surfaces of my clay. So I would take bits of clay and flatten them out and then impress the clay stamps of ribbon work into them. And then just, you know, I call it's kind of like a clay collage for me, where I take these fragments of clay, stamp the texture into them and then apply that with slip to the surface of my clay forms. And I really I like that. You know? That worked for me because it was just a layer again, you know, of these languages that I have developed as an artist. And I think of that, you know, directly as that. It's a language that I have developed for myself because, you know, the ribbon work patterns aren't the only thing. I use all kinds of different objects to impress into clay to make stamps and they can be from a walk. They can be from travel that I've had. They can be a favorite pair of earrings. They can be, you know, beadwork. So, I think of it as a language, you know, that as an artist that I have developed that tells the story of my journey. But I also think of it, you know, as the language that this is the language as an artist that I have chosen.  Just as, you know, when I was a really young girl remembering the language that I remember my grandmother and all her relatives and peers, you know, speaking Osage as their first language.

Jo Reed: I'd like to talk about the exhibit Fluent Generations which was a show with work by you, and your husband who's a photographer, and your son who's a painter. And I can only imagine what that experience was like for your family.

Anita Fields: It was, first of all, a great honor to be able to show with them. And, you know, we don't really as a family sit-down and-- well, we do talk about art quite a bit. But we don't really talk about how we influence each other because that's just how we live our lives. We don't really have conversations about the relationship of my work to my husband's work or my work to Yatika’s work. Yeah. I try to stay out of the creative aspects of when somebody's making something about  what your opinion of it is because we know that that's a real solitary decision that has to be made by the person who's doing it. We think of it more in like, just real general terms, that we raised our children to understand this language of art, not to be intimidated by it. That this is very natural. And so, that exhibit we had to really kind of slow it down and really start thinking about those things because people started asking us those questions. And you know I thought about it and thought well we just wanted to give our children a lot of experiences to be comfortable in the creative aspects of life and to feel comfortable with it. And if that is the path that they chose then that's great, because we, as a family, all understand that it's a language that we do understand and deeply, deeply appreciate, and know its importance, you know, in our lives and in other people's lives, how important it is in culture.

Jo Reed: I wonder when you see your work in a gallery or a museum, is it like seeing it with fresh eyes? Is it seeing it anew in some ways?

Anita Fields:  It is. And it's, you know, it's one thing to see it in a beautifully lit gallery, a beautifully lit space, you know, with lots of light and plenty of room around it. As to seeing it on the table that you're creating it on, you know, or taking it out of the kiln or, you know, putting it under a sewing machine, you know, that's one thing. But yeah, when you are able to see it, you know, properly presented, it takes on a whole different air. I think more than anything when I'm able to see a piece I haven't made in a few years, you know, and I'm able to revisit that that is sometimes when I have these kind of really surprises. And then, you know, start thinking about oh I kind of remember that time and I think I'm seeing you know this in it where I wasn't really consciously thinking of that when I made that. You know? So that kind of realization oftentimes comes later.

Jo Reed: There was a large important path-breaking exhibit that you were a part of called Hearts of Our People, Native, Women Artists. And you created an installation for it called It's In Our DNA. It's Who We Are. And I would really like you to describe this for us. And beginning with how you begin a project like that. How you begin to conceptualize it.  Where do you start?

Anita Fields: So, I've been wanting to make a contemporary Osage wedding coat for quite some time. And I started that with my daughter, a couple of years earlier. We started one. And then the opportunity came a commission from, you know, the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts for the show “Hearts of Our People”. And proposed making the wedding coat-- another wedding coat. So, you know, the wedding coat is based on a military style jacket that has history and that is an iconic piece of clothing for Osage people. They made their way into our culture in the very late 1700s at a time when, you know, we were negotiating with foreign powers including the United States with treaties. And they were given as gifts by these foreign powers to our chiefs. And they made their way back and so that they were given to the women.  And the women incorporated them into to the wedding ceremony but it's not just a wedding ceremony. These marriages were arranged marriages between two clans. until the ‘50s actually, the late ‘50s, you know, there were still a few arranged marriages happening. And when that was no longer happening, the Osage the wedding coat found its way into our ceremonial dance, called the I’n-Lon-Schka Dance which is a man's dance. And so, they are used as a way of gift-giving, from one drum keeper’s family to the next drum keeper’s family and committee. And, you know, my initial thoughts were that this is such an iconic item for Osage people that I think of it as holding this history, this really important history of who we are. And so I wanted to make a contemporary Osage wedding coat because I felt like it's the thread, you know, it's one of the items that links the past to now and on into the future. But I wanted my wedding coat to be something that was reflective of that kind of history. So on the inside it has a silk lining that that has been set up with Photoshop images.  And these images are everything from historic documents, photos of relatives. The idea of our creation story, there's images from that. Also, there's oil wells on it because, you know, oil has impacted our culture, you know, in a huge way, the economics of our culture. And so all of these images speak to who we are as Osage people. And then, you know, it's embellished on the sleeves with ribbon work panels and different items that we use as Osage people, metal dots, embroidery.  Most always the panels on the front of these wedding coats are embroidered. And so I wanted to hand embroider with symbols that are reflective, again of our history and with plants that were and are important to us. I wanted it to be a reflection of all of those things and pay homage to the Osage people that I know who sew all year round so that our culture can continue.

Jo Reed: It's stunning. It's just stunning.

Anita Fields: Thank you.

Jo Reed: I wonder now, Anita as you reflect upon your career and what you've done so far, whether there's a through line that's going through it and what that through line might be. Or another way is, you know, are there stories that you find yourself returning to again and again that you tell through your work?

Anita Fields: Well, this idea of transformation I think is something that I think about a lot whether I'm working in fabric textiles printing on cloth, or making a form out of clay. Because it's this overriding idea that the idea of transformation is bigger than just transforming a material. You know? Because when I look at clothing I think of it.… for instance, when you put your Osage clothing on you are able to connect with who you are. And so this transformation happens, not only physically outwardly, but it's something that is a transformation of your heart and your spirit and your mind.  And a reflection of where you come from because you're wearing the same type of clothing that your ancestors wore. I think of transformation a lot in my work in all of the disciplines that I work in.

Jo Reed: And finally, Anita, what did it mean for you to be named a 2021 National Heritage fellow?

Anita Fields: You know that I'm still soaking that all in actually. Of course, I’m really honored. But you know what it took me to thinking about the whole journey, the whole beginning of creating, making. And I started thinking about all of the mentors that I've had, all of my teachers, all of the people who shared their skills and their knowledge. But most importantly they taught me how to create-- how to connect my hands to my heart, to my mind, to be able to make an expression. And they gave me the confidence to do that. They gave me the understanding of there's no right way to make something, there's no wrong way to make something. There's only the way that you feel is the most expressive for you.  And I am forever grateful for that.

Jo Reed: And Anita, I think that is a really good place to leave it. Thank you so much for giving me your time because I know you're very busy. And congratulations again on this well-deserved award for your wonderful, wonderful work.

Anita Fields: Thank you. I really appreciate being able to talk to you.

Jo Reed: Thank you.

That was Anita Fields—an Osage ribbon worker, multi-media artist and 2021 National Heritage Fellow which is the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts.  You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. Stay safe and thanks for listening.


Anita Fields, a citizen of Osage Nation, is a renowned textile and clay artist whose work has been exhibited nationally and internationally. Her art reflects Osage philosophy with its connection to nature and emphasis on duality. Her work also gives a new visual language to the complexities of Native history and culture. While immensely talented in other media, Fields has been named a National Heritage Fellow for her outstanding ribbon work. Native American ribbon work is colorful, precise, and complex. The style of Osage ribbon work is unique and Fields is an exemplar of the art form. An innovative artist, she honors the tradition while taking it to new places--for example, taking the designs of ribbon work and impressing it on her ceramic and clay pieces.  In this podcast, Fields talks about the centrality of Osage culture and philosophy in her art, her work in different media, her respect for and innovations of traditional textile and clay work, and her long and continuing artistic journey.