Catawba Artist Alex Osborn Pays Tribute to Sally New River in Path of Portraits – qcnerve.com | Ad On Picture

Raised on the Catawba Indian Nation reservation in York County, South Carolina, Alex Osborn lived a life that was somewhat different from off-reservation, although he didn’t realize it until his old age.

He recalls, for example, that there was a Native American coordinator at his elementary school and that many of his health care experiences as a child were in Indian Health Service facilities.

“The Indian health service is usually run by military personnel and so there is only one type of bedside. It’s not quite the same,” he tells me. “Not only are they military, they’re just not very gentle.”

I speak to Osborn in a conference room at the University of South Carolina Lancaster’s Native American Studies Center, where he works as an assistant curator. Our conversation followed Osborn’s appearance with three other Catawba artists, where they discussed media representations of Native Americans after television show screenings Rutherford Falls and Reservation dogstwo topical shows that portray Native American themes in a way that is rare on American television.

Osborn says he made fun of a certain scene Reservation dogs it was about an Indian healthcare facility, as he could relate to the surreal environment such facilities cultivate.

“[The military presence] is also combined with many people from the tribe who are employed there,” he explains. “So it’s this interesting mix of people who don’t care but don’t relate that well and then people who relate very well and it’s an odd mix at times.”

Osborn, a digital artist and painter, uses art to bridge the gap between life on the reservation and the outside world, and between generations. He’s aware that his love of digital art is a far cry from the pottery his people are most artistically known for, and that’s what makes it so effective, he says.

Two men and two artists sit on chairs during a panel discussion
Alex Osborn (second from left) with three other Catawba artists at a recent panel discussion. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

“For me personally, it’s fitting to make modern art but also to make a statement like, ‘I’m here now and I’m Native American,'” says Osborn. “We’re not just in a textbook, we’re not just a historical moment, we’re a living culture that’s alive to this day, and we haven’t existed for 6,000 years just to exist in a textbook.”

Osborn has an opportunity to build on that connection with one of his most recent works, Sarii, a portrait of Catawba Indian icon Sally New River, who lived in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and was unveiled in June at The Path of Portraits of the Charlotte Museum of History.

Osborn will join Catawba Nation Archivist Ensley Guffey on November 22 in a virtual panel discussion hosted by the museum to explore Sally New River’s legacy and the importance of women in Catawba history.

An icon of the Catawba nation

Sally New River was born in what is now Nations Ford in 1746. Her grandfather was King Hagler, leader of the Catawba from 1750 until his death in 1763. Not much is known of Sally’s early life, although it is believed that she was probably orphaned during the smallpox epidemic of 1759 and eventually settled in the so-called New Town settled .

New River assumed a leadership role in the tribe after the death of her grandfather. She owned all 20,000 acres claimed by the Catawba Indian nation in the late 18th century and helped preserve them and keep the Catawba name.

She is also credited with helping grow the Catawba nation after it had dwindled to just 100 souls after a century of disease and displacement by European settlers.

Alex Osborn said he first heard about Sally New River as a teenager and then became more aware of her importance as he got older.

There are no photographs or artwork of Sally New River from when she was alive, so Osborn had to use his imagination for the digital portrait. In a collage style, Osborn used a photograph of his great-great-grandmother as a child to depict New River’s eyes.

“The eyes belong to my great-great-grandmother, and the reason I did that is to paint a portrait of Sally New River as a historical figure, but not just as a historical figure in the sense of a person who lived long, long ago, but also to connect with these people that we are literally connected to,” he explains.

Osborn used watercolor-like digital brush tools to paint and shape around the eyes.

“It was nice to paint around it, and other elements of the portrait art also revolve around culture and protection,” says Osborn. “So like you’re finding your culture, it’s wrapped in a blanket, so we don’t know it fully, but we also want to protect what we have. And I think that speaks to my perception of her, because when I think of Sally New River, I think of my great-great-grandmother. I think of that leading figure.

A painted portrait of a Native American woman
“Sarii”, Alex Osborn’s portrayal of Sally New River. (Artwork by Alex Osborn/Courtesy Charlotte Museum of History)

“The blanket is meant to hide her because we don’t really know what she looked like,” he continued, “but it’s also like she took on that mantle of responsibility to lead our tribe more, and literally, to survival.” I tried to mix the literal and the figurative there.”

The work is also an example of Osborn’s engagement with digital art, with which he deliberately connects the present with the past.

It’s a connection he learned during an artist residency at the Native American Studies Center that ended in August when he was offered his position as assistant curator.

“I realized that my art is unique for the moment; It’s influenced by my culture, but it’s also meant to present things to people in a new way that I hope will interest them in my culture as well,” he says. “So I’ve always loved this combination of old and new with digital representations of markings and very old work. And so people might see that and say, “Oh, what is that?” And then you will learn more about my people.”

Art as Therapy

Alex Osborn has been an artist since a young age, only the media have changed. During his childhood he played music, had a passion for drawing and eventually dabbled in photography, collage and digital design.

He recalls a Polaroid camera printing photos that could peel off and use as stickers in the 1990s as a tool that held special meaning for him as a budding creative. As a child, he attended the Special Talents in the Arts (ST-ARTS) summer camp at Winthrop University, where he studied photography.

He still practices in this medium; He will be shooting photos at the annual Yap Yè Iswà Festival, which will be held on November 19 at Rock Hill’s Catawba Cultural Center.

Eventually, Osborn’s love of photography merged with his love of technology, and so he began creating digital art.

Osborn identifies as pansexual, meaning he doesn’t limit his sexual choices in terms of sex, gender, or gender identity, and says art helped him reach that space.

“My art was a source of introspection for me,” he says. “I’ve always found some form of art as therapy – like I made music growing up, and I’ve always loved to draw, I’ve always loved to take pictures – and these methods calm my brain and give me some space to think: “Well, who am I? And what does that represent?’ So that can mean Catawba, that can mean queer, that can mean he/him to me. It was a very cathartic space to be myself and I want to represent that for everyone else.”

While he has made subtle references to his oddity in his art, which can range from abstract illustrations to figurative depictions of members of his tribe, he wishes to explore how he can become more intersectional with his art in the future.

“I want to do more art that’s more explicitly queer, but I haven’t figured out a way to do it in a public setting,” he says. “It’s not like hiding in the closet or anything, I’ve alluded to some of that in some of my work in a way that’s not very obvious, but it’s just that I want to bring those things together, and I do haven’t figured it out yet.”

Another goal of his is to be more present in Charlotte’s art scene, both individually as an artist and collectively as a tribe. He says he now sees Charlotte as a second home since his partner currently lives in the city, and hopes his new work at the Charlotte Museum of History can be a foot in the door.

“I love Charlotte as a city. It is wonderful. We have our issues, but I think we’re going in a really good direction in general,” he says. “However, I would like my people to be more represented there because we were there thousands of years ago. So I think to show that we’re here now… we’ve been there and we’re here and I think it would be nice to show that. And then I also think that there is probably interest. I think there are probably people who want to see that too.”


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