Tag Archives: Metropolitan Museum of Art

America’s Lost Treasures: The Plains Indians

Buffalo picture of tipi of Never Got Shot. Photo credit: Claudia Santino

Buffalo picture on teepee. (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

“The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art transports you to another place and time. For anyone who’s been itching to pay New York City a visit, it’s a perfect reason. But it’s got a short run and will close on May 10, 2015, so start planning.

You don’t need to be an art critic to understand the value of this exhibit. It’s easy to fall under the spell and spirit of what the Plains Indians were all about. Some of the artistic forms on display go as far back as 2,000 years when migrating peoples contributed items into Plains Indian culture.   The bounty at the Met represents pieces from many Native American nations.

Man's vest, Oglala/Lakota. (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

Man’s vest, Oglala/Lakota. (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

The Great Plains of North America was once a vast open landscape of earth and sky, running from the base of Texas and heading north across the mid-west and into Canada. That idea alone made it easy to immerse myself in understanding how the moving canvas of their environment influenced Native American Indians.

We lost the treasures of our country’s earliest artists  a long time ago. The 130 items in this exhibit are on loan from museums in Europe and North America. This treasure chest of Native American art was tossed across the ocean ages ago when soldiers and other opportunistic eyes recognized their value and traded then off.

Horse sculpture by Lakota artist.  (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

Horse sculpture by Lakota artist. (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

Animal power and a reverence for nature was central to Native American culture and that relationship is on full display here in almost every piece. The pipe is also a significant item in the exhibit. It served as a sacred instrument used in prayer and other rituals. A symbol of friendship and trust, the peace pipe helped seal the pact.

For the Plains Indians these items served more than one purpose.  They were more than form and function. They were part and parcel to their way of life. A war club made of walnut wood is smooth and glossy and engraved with a constellation of four-pointed stars.

War club with constellations. (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

War club with constellations. (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

The arrival of Europeans in the mid-1500s and onward had a significant impact on the Plains Indians, for good and bad. The goods they acquired from these new settlers entered into their artistic expression, with glass beads from Venice, cowrie shells from the Pacific Ocean, and brass buttons from England adorning their clothing and other materials. Battle gear, blankets, dresses, moccasins, shirts and headdresses, mix the natural and the New World and the items on display are a wonder. One very cool looking man’s coat of native tanned leather, porcupine quills, brilliant embroidery and metal hooks and eye fasteners was handcrafted by a Sioux-Metis woman, yet looks like something you’d see on London’s Carnaby Street.

Handcrafted man's coat. (Photo credit:  Claudia Santino)

Handcrafted man’s coat. (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

Traveling north from Mexico, the Spaniards introduced the horse. Native American Indians quickly harnessed its power, joining the spirit of this animal into their way of life and swiftly adapting to a more nomadic existence. If they were one with nature before, now they could ride alongside her changing seasons. They could hunt better and find the food and shelter necessary to sustain their way of life. Now on the move, they couldn’t afford to be materialistic. The creativity and craftsmanship around their evolving lifestyle is brilliant and inspiring.

The horse transferred the beast into an animal with sacred powers.

The mask transferred sacred powers. (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

A saddle blanket made of leather, glass beads and wool cloth was used for resting beneath a woman’s saddle and used on social occasions to convey wealth and power. A horse mask transferred this animal into one with sacred powers in warfare or during ritual. A crupper, a strap that secures a horse’s saddle, is beautifully crafted from rawhide, native tanned leather, wool cloth, silk, glass beads, porcupine quills and metal cones. A riding dress with a Morning Star motif signals the four cardinal directions.

Photo by Claudia Santino

A crupper. (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

There are many standout items on display. One of them is a cradleboard. Passed down as family heirlooms, these baby carriers worn on the back were crafted by a woman’s family and featured elaborate designs. Thunderbirds accented this one, mythical creatures recognized as powerful guardian spirits. Tiny metal cones hang around the top of a framed strap, creating a tinkling sound to soothe a baby. The thoughtfulness of which stayed with me.

A cradleboard. (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

A cradleboard.  (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

Something called the parfleche envelope blew me away. It was the Ziploc bag of its time, only a lot better and, clearly, a work of art. Made from buffalo rawhide by Great Plains women, this painted envelope functioned as a beautiful weather resistant container. Central to life on horseback, it was expandable, lightweight and unbreakable. I may only ride the iron horse to work every day but I like the idea of having one.

Headdresses made from raven feathers and other bird feathers and beads are majestic. Porcupine quillwork, an art form unique to Native American Indians, features strongly in their clothing and other adornments. Painted hides depict ceremonial battles, mythic birds and other forms of life and spirit, using every bit of canvas. They wasted nothing.

Oglala feather headdress worn by Chief Red Cloud. (Photo by author)

Oglala feather headdress worn by Chief Red Cloud. (Photo by author)

The Plains Indians spun materials from the natural world to evoke spiritual powers of animals and celebrate creation. A shield with a painted buffalo bull was passed down through five generations. A Cheyenne shield was used in war for almost 100 years. The animal depicted on their battle armor was the owner’s guardian spirit. The belief was that it was the image that would protect the warrior, not the shield.

Buffalo spirit shield. (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

Buffalo spirit shield. (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

Sadly, in the end nothing could protect these Native Americans. Frontier settlers and the US government stripped them of their land and devastated the natural resources, mainly buffalo, that the Indians relied upon to sustain their way of life. The artwork here, from pre contact peoples to contemporary artists, are all of the elements used in their life which serves as a canvas to tell their story. In essence, they are America’s earliest experiential travelers and storytellers.

There’s a lot to marvel over in this collection. These in between days of spring when the weather toys with us are a good excuse to call in a mental health day or take vacation and play tourist for a day or two at one the city’s greatest cultural playgrounds. A chance to see what the Plains Indians contributed to American culture.

Come see this beautiful sight before it leaves town.

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Autumn In New York, We’ve Got You Covered.

A bird’s eye view of the Cloisters Museum & Garden in New York City.

October’s the time of year when New York’s Hudson Valley is teeming with weekend visitors who leave their urban boundaries to witness one of nature’s greatest displays, fall foliage. For anyone who can enjoy this scenery on off hours, good for them. For others, it’s often a painstaking experience as they sit in traffic along the highways and byways that lead them to this glory.

For those of us who can’t get away, or for anyone visiting the New York metro area, we’ve got some pretty nice displays of our own on tap. Some natural, some manmade, but all of which are pleasing to the senses. So if you’re local and feeling at all guilty about not heading north, don’t feel so bad. There’s plenty of good stuff right here.

Anyone bent on appreciating the jewel tones of fall need only to spend some time strolling through Central Park or Inwood Park in Manhattan, Prospect Park in Brooklyn, or Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx to get their fix. There are also loads of smaller parks throughout the boroughs with showy displays where you can walk, contemplate life and check out the local neighborhoods.

One of them is Fort Tryon Park where the Cloisters Museum and Gardens is one of the city’s most unique treasures. Spending the day among its medieval art, architecture and gardens is like being transported to another place and time. A branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, they offer events, talks, tours and exhibits that cater to all age groups. Sights & Scents at the Cloisters is a specially designed gallery program for visitors with dementia and their care partners. A current exhibit, The Forty Part Motet is a sound installation set in the Fuentiduena Chapel where visitors can experience an 11-minute immersion of Renaissance music. It closes on December 8th but I’m heading there tomorrow and can’t wait to experience it.

Fuentiduena Chapel houses the Forty Part Motet.

The Fuentiduena Chapel houses the Forty Part Motet.

The Raven, The Bells, Annabel Lee. These haunting pieces of literature make for great reading, but why not enjoy them by surrounding yourself with the works of the macabre master himself? Edgar Allen Poe: Terror of the Soul is the Morgan Library & Museum’s newest exhibit and explores the writer’s fiction, poetry and influence on his contemporaries. Located on Madison Avenue and 36th Street, you can easily pair a visit to the museum, followed by a walk down to Madison Square Park at 23rd street where you’ll find a delicious assortment of culinary pop-up food vendors that await your selection.

A tech talk at See/Change at the South Street Seaport.

A tech talk at See/Change at the South Street Seaport.

With the first anniversary of Hurricane Sandy fast approaching, there’s been a lot happening on a local level in and around New York City. I don’t typically spend time around the South Street Seaport in lower Manhattan but I recently passed through it. The last time I was in that area, all the restaurants, shops and businesses were shuttered because of storm damage. It was basically a ghost town. No more.

As of May, a group of like-minded folks from different walks of urban life saw the opportunity within a bad situation to improve the area for its residents, businesses, tourists, and the city. The result is See/Change and it has created a rebirth in this area and it’s a nice thing to behold. The October Fall Fest of events features music, a farmer’s market and pumpkin carving demos. Landbrot is partnering with the Seaport to celebrate Oktoberfest with their beer, brats and pretzels…yum. It’s the perfect way to spend a sunny weekend in the city. You’re out, you’re about, and even better you’re near the water.

So those are just a few things off the top of my head that are within an easy walk, train or bus ride throughout the boroughs.  If you can get away great but if not, we’ve got you covered.