Photo caption: Portrait of Lydia Cheshewalla, Tulsa-based Osage artist, for a Washington Post article about Indigenous women reclaiming their story. Courtesy Photo/Ryan RedCorn
Tulsa-based Osage artist Lydia Cheshewalla’s artistic practice is in a constant state of exploration, but with a simple premise: Take care of the earth and take care of the ones who will inherit it.
“To me, those are such Indigenous values,” Cheshewalla said. “And it’s crazy to me that it should even need to be said - to take care of the thing we all live on and need to eat and drink and breathe and experience life - and to also nurture life that is coming after you.”
Cheshewalla’s use of art as a freedom of expression began at an early age with encouragement from her mother, who holds an early childhood education degree, with exploratory play grounded in nature.
“I’ve always enjoyed art,” explained Cheshewalla. “For me, it [art] started out, and remains in many ways, a way for me to process the world, a way for me to process my responses to the world, how things impact me and how I’m feeling.”
While growing up in Pawhuska, Cheshewalla developed a strong sense of place on the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve. She attended the Inlonshka dances and made the decision to deepen that connection at an early age by entering the dances with support from the Gray family and other tribal members. This decision was formative as an Osage and as an Indigenous artist.
“When I entered the dances at the age of ten, that artwork really came into my life and into my home - my regalia and the preparation that went into it,” she said.
Although art remained a constant through her middle and high school years, Cheshewalla made a short detour by entering the University of Oklahoma seeking a double business degree of International Finance and Accounting. After her freshman year, she shifted her focus back to the arts and completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Painting and Ceramics.
“I was really interested in what art can be in a broader sense than what I had seen it used for, or how I had used it, to really become a mode of communicating big ideas and being able to impact a lot of people across a lot of different identities,” she said.
Because much of her work is cultural and in collaboration with nature, Cheshewalla has carefully shaped the framework that she operates in as an Indigenous artist. She questions how arts institutions acquire Indigenous art and artifacts, specifically when the collaborator is non-human.
“When you’re operating from an Indigenous perspective, the way that we view our relationship to land, our relationship to Buffalo Nation, to eagles, to owls, to the various plants and animals on the Prairie and the Prairie itself, where do we draw the line?” she questioned. “How do you own the work that you make and how do you give away intellectual property that doesn’t belong to us? Navigating that has been interesting.”
As an arts educator, primarily teaching ages four to ten, Cheshewalla has developed a youth curriculum that combines her love of nature and keen sense of responsibility for future generations titled “Reciprocal Wisdom: Symbiotic Learning Through Play.” According to her website, the curriculum combines Indigenous pedagogy and contemporary learning models that is informed by and responds to climate change, sustainability efforts, and art’s impact and reliance on the natural world.
In 2019, Cheshewalla presented “Building a Toolkit to be a Better Global Citizen” at a TEDx Talk hosted by the University of Tulsa. The talk, viewable at www.ted.com/tedx, focuses on how individuals can develop a toolkit to understand, navigate and shape the world around us; while asking the audience to consider learning from generations before them and being mindful of the generations that will come after them.
“I’m really getting to the point in my art practice to just say ‘Be nice to kids and be nice to our planet,’” Cheshewalla said. “Leave impressions without making marks.”
On Nov. 14, 2020, Cheshewalla collaborated with Yatika Starr Fields and Chris Pappan as guest artists for a Google Doodle celebrating Osage and first, major prima ballerina Maria Tallchief. Cheshewalla drew the Nutcracker background portion of the illustration, pulling from Osage designs and artistry. The top-secret project was fulfilling on multiple levels.
“I think most young Indigenous girls, especially Osage girls, grew up looking up to Maria and Marjorie,” she said. “I remember in fourth grade writing all my book reports about them, so it’s really a nice full circle as an Osage female artist to have gotten to participate in that. It was a really great experience and I’m really thankful to have had it.”
Prior to the pandemic, Cheshewalla was spending time exploring how various communities interact with their ecosystems and offering tools of reciprocity. She is looking forward to resuming that work, when able, and further developing that project.
“Everything points back to the Prairie for me,” said Cheshewalla. “The land is so important to me because all my thoughts have come from being here. It is an extension of my thoughts and I am an extension of its thoughts too.”
To find out more about Cheshewalla’s work, please visit www.lydia-cheshewalla.com and follow her on Instagram @goodwithcoffee.