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Ruthe Blalock Jones, Medicine Woman

Ruthe Blalock Jones, Medicine Woman, late 20th century, gouache on poster board, 58.8 x 50.7 cm (Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa) A conversation with Dr. Chelsea Herr (Choctaw Nation), Jack and Maxine Zarrow Curator for Indigenous Art and Culture, and Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(jazz piano music) - [Chelsea] We're at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and we're standing in front of a painting by Ruthie Blalock Jones called "Medicine Woman." And this painting perfectly encapsulates her lifelong role as an educator and as someone who was raised within the Native American Church. - [Lauren] Ruthie's work in "Medicine Woman" in particular is very well known for showing some of the quieter or more daily life scenes in native communities, especially those communities in Northeastern Oklahoma. She often shows a single figure where the scene is cropped close. There's not a lot of context for the scene around the figure. - [Chelsea] What we're seeing here is a woman who is seated on the ground. We have just enough information to associate her with the edge of a teepee of the Native American Church. And she's seated on several different brightly colored and patterned blankets. - [Lauren] And she's also holding and wearing several items that are recognizable as associated with the Native American Church. In her left hand she holds a beautiful pheasant feather fan that also has macaw feathers slightly sprinkled around the handle. And it's also beautifully beaded with this long luxurious buckskin fringe. She's also wearing a rich, blue, silk embroidered shawl with this beautiful and meticulous rendering of silk fringe. - [Chelsea] And she has used her medium, gouache, to her advantage here. We're seeing saturated colors that pop against the largely unadorned background. - [Lauren] At the beginning of the 20th century, this flat style of painting, meaning the background of the images are sparse on detail, and that was really developed into a distinct style at Bacone College under Dick West. Ruthie was educated at Bacone, so Ruthie took this recognizable aesthetic and has made it her own. - [Chelsea] And she has also paid close attention to some of the details. Look at the way that the fringe in this brilliant red color hangs down from the shawl. We can see each individual strand as it's moving across her body, as it is layered over her arms. And that's picked up even in her attention to this woman's hair where each strand is so carefully rendered. - [Lauren] And that red fringe also brings the viewer's eye down to these very brightly colored blankets along the edge of the teepee and they're recognizable as Native American trade blankets. On the left side of the image, you have this Pendleton style blanket that would likely be made of wool. And then as you move to the right on the other side of the figure, vivid fire colors or flame colors where it's a blue outline and then on the interior are shades of yellow, orange, red, and black. You can almost feel the texture of the cloth. - [Chelsea] Here we're seeing this painting with such careful attention to details, and yet the fan that she's holding is blocking her face, and the artist does that intentionally. - [Lauren] Much of Ruthie's artwork is a very careful balance between showing representations of native life, of native events, ceremonies, and dances, but without revealing too much information to a viewer who might not be part of that community. Ruthie is careful in her work not to paint specific people, and likewise her clothing and her adornments like the fan, her silver earrings, are not specific either. So they are general representations of what a woman in the Native American Church would be wearing. in an instance like this. - [Chelsea] Also part of the rituals associated with the Native American Church is the cup. - [Lauren] This is a small camp cup made out of cast iron or tin. The woman's role typically in a Native American Church procession or ceremony is often to provide sustenance and water to the practitioners who are gathered around the fire in the center of the teepee. So at this moment, she is waiting for her turn to fulfill her responsibility of passing out water and food to those who are in prayer. And as a child, Ruthie has recalled sitting at the front of Shawnee ceremonials and dances and taking in the vibrancy of those events and visually recording them at a young age. But her experiences that she has captured in artwork are from lived moments in her life. - [Chelsea] Jones is taking a different approach to the rituals of the Native American Church. - [Lauren] She's showing scenes of the role of women, but we can see a very stark contrast when we look at artworks by native artists like Woody Crumbo who show Native American Church ceremonies or processions that are focused on the center of the teepee, so they often show representations of the ceremonial fire and of the prayers or the leaders of that procession gathered around the fire. Jones only shows a small section of the interior of that teepee, and it's not focused on the ceremony occurring in the center at all. - [Chelsea] Jones felt it was important to show what was appropriate for outsiders to be seeing. - [Lauren] In the late 19th century, the church really came into being in Indian Territory, and it's a blend of different spiritual traditions. What most people recognize about the Native American Church is their use of peyote. Around the turn of the 20th century, the ritual use of peyote was banned by the United States government, and so many Native American Church groups went underground. A lot of traditions, representations, imagery associated with the Native American church, even though it is now legal to practice, is still very highly regulated because of that history. - [Chelsea] Jones is trying to help gently correct, or to educate people about misunderstandings about the Native American Church. - [Lauren] Ruthie in particular creates artwork that is meant to be seen by large audiences. - [Chelsea] She's not just helping educate people who are seeing her paintings, but she influences a whole new generation of artists. - [Chelsea] She became the director of the art department at Bacone in 1979. So the importance of education can be seen in all aspects of her life, both in her role literally as a teacher, but also as an artist. (jazz piano music)