Creating Art to Beautify the World

Artists as Activists By: Saad Ghosn

Michelle Red Elk’s work speaks of her Native culture and her love for animals

Michelle Red Elk in her studio. Photo by Rob Jefferson

“Artists have the power to illuminate their beliefs through their work; they have a remarkable platform for resonating emotionally with people,” says Michelle Red Elk. “I hope my art is able to seep and embed itself into the hearts of others. Sometimes one image can change a person; it can spread peace, love and understanding.”

Two subjects have always permeated Red Elk’s artwork, her Native American heritage and her love for animals. She is a well established visual artist, born in Lawton, Oklahoma, to a Comanche/Kiowa Indian father and a French Canadian mother. She lived most of her life in Ohio, where part of her father’s family resettled in the 50’s, as a result of the Indian Relocation Act. She attended The Art Academy of Cincinnati and earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in printmaking and drawing.

Growing up, Red Elk was exposed to art very early on; surrounded by drawings of her father, an artist in his own right, and visiting the local museums regularly. She started drawing at age 5 and never stopped since.

As a child, she discovered the American Indian culture and its history through her father and regular trips she took to Oklahoma to visit her grandmother, uncles and their family. She learned in particular the history of her family, the area where her father grew up and part of his family still lived; the fate and traditions of the Comanche and Kiowa tribes to which she belongs.

“The Indian culture was always an integral part of my life,” she says. “It played an important role in the way I think and see things. Stories my father and grandmother told me accompanied me all along. Visually, the land and the people stayed with me; they remain vivid in my mind.”

Red Elk’s father would reminisce on the past of the Indian tribes, explaining what happened to them and to their land. He would describe the way things were traditionally before the settlers came; the old style of living; the predominant types of housing, cooking, and clothing; the religious beliefs and habits. These stories would generate many images that found their way, intentionally or subconsciously, into her drawings. They became her glimpses to the Indian culture, its ways of life, its landscapes, its companion animals; also her means to sensitize the viewers to it.

Standing Watch, pencil and watercolor drawing. Drawing and Photo by Michelle Red Elk

“I like to remind those who see my work of the Native people who lived on this land long ago and who still exist,” she says, “to weave pieces of their customs, beliefs and lives into my drawings; to show that their culture remains strong, beautiful, living, enduring…”

The Wood Cutter is a drawing she did about Wovoka and his vision. A prophet of peace, Wovoka believed that Native people could peacefully end white American expansionism by performing ritual circle “ghost” dances; that they could bring back the past by living the culture and tradition, relinquishing all that Europeans had brought; guns, alcohol, etc. Red Elk incorporated his beliefs into her image.

Standing Watch, another drawing, refers to the prairie dog, an animal part of the Indians’ environment, surveying his burrow, controlling his area. Red Elk meant it as a reminder of all creatures we overlook and the importance of their own worlds. Included in her drawing, buried underground, are also elements of the past: railroad spikes alluding to the expansion of railroads through Indian territories, altering the geography and favoring hunting of the buffalo on which the Natives relied for their survival; bones, symbols of the Native people killed. An elk, animal attentive to his environment, (also in this case an intended link to her last name), connects to the souls of the Indians gone, sensing their spirits and messages, perpetuating the cycle of their life. In the background, tall and steady are the Wichita Mountains of Oklahoma, witnesses to the history of a people and its land.

“By standing watch we can open our hearts to the people and animals in our lives, become nourished by all that surrounds us,” says Red Elk. “My drawing asserts that despite the fact that the land was taken and altered, the people and the spirits keep watch.”

Her paired drawings Sumusu (One Time) and Sihka Tabeeni (This Day) speak of the before and after, of the change that occurs in a landscape when one culture disregards the vitality of another. It is again her statement that even if physically driven away, the spirits of the people remain planted. Red Elk also included in her 60 drawings series, The Four directions, many Native scenes. Medicine man, hunter, cook, fish and fishing, buffalo… all traditional elements of the Indian culture unite her imagery.

Animals have also always occupied a privileged place in Red Elk’s drawings. She depicts them in their beauty, innocence and wisdom, and makes a strong case for their rights to exist without human interference, rights she wants to protect and advocate. Few years ago after a friend told her how one cow, shot in the head to be slaughtered, ran away bleeding, braving her jailors, towards her freedom, she decided to become vegetarian, then vegan, and a proponent of animal rights. She educated herself about the violence and cruelty directed against animals, watched documentaries portraying their mistreatment, and strengthened her resolve to fight for their cause.

Her drawing Food Chain, done in collaboration with her husband Rob Jefferson, considers the oppression of man and beast alike, linking injustice towards animals to injustice towards humans, generalizing the fact that in our world convenience and want often come at someone else’s expense.

Following her grandmother’s steps, Red Elk also does functional and artistic beadworks, often related to animals, represented either in stories or as amulets.

“Art is an important and essential part of my daily life,” says Red Elk. “I use it to convey my messages and beliefs, to trigger thinking. I hope my work can contribute to the beauty of the world; that it can speak to the value and rights of animals, and portray glimpses of my Native culture.”