At a Women Writing the West conference several years ago, I attended a session called “Expanded visions: Four Women Artists Print the American West.” The story behind each artist and their work – all of whom were women of color – changed my writing life. I received permission from the curator to get slides of the artwork and use them in teaching writing classes, organizing two non-fiction works and in every historical novel based on the lives of real women that I’ve written. The prints inspired four story threads: Landscape, Relationship, Spirituality, Work.
The landscape print Jackstraw was done by Navajo artist Emmi Whitehorse. The word means “something perceived as worthless or barren.” But in her print of desert seeds and weeds one finds insects used to dye cloth and grind flour. It isn’t barren at all. I use this lens to ask what is the relationship of my characters to rock, wind, fire and water? I use metaphors of landscape to show readers how they see the world. “Like the slow rising of the river after an early snowmelt in the mountain, he seeped into my life, unhurried, almost without notice until the strength and breadth of him covered everything that had once been familiar, made it different, new over old.” (From A Sweetness to the Soul).
Chinese artist Hung Liu’s print she titles Sisters. I describe that theme as “Relationships.” The painting shows a girl carrying another on her back. They’re laughing. I ask my characters who they lean on? Who do they need to avoid and why? I make a list before I start writing identifying possible relationship tensions and how those pressures help or prevent my protagonist from achieving their goal. In memoir, this is a critical question. In biography, answering who supported whom can open up new avenues of exploration.
Hispanic artist Anita Rodriguez gave me “Spirituality” in her work Homage to Selena honoring the singer killed by a fan in 1995. The skeleton in the print is happy, dancing over an undulating floor. It invites exploration of how my characters struggle with mortality. Are they fearful or does danger invite them into risk? Spirituality asks us to question where they get their strength from to endure life’s challenges? What takes them from their cellar of sorrow to new light?
The final print is of an African-American washer woman. We see her face only reflected in the water of the tub she’s carrying. Artist Alison Saar titled her woodcut Washtub Blues and for me it shows how the subject is reflected in her work. Did they choose their profession or fall into it? How someone builds a fence or bakes bread also offers beats for authentic dialogue. “’My stitching is improving, don’t you think?’ “Don’t change the subject,” her mother said.’”
The artistry of these women can help us all weave better stories rich with landscapes, relationships, spirituality and work.
All the prints are now in the Autry Museum in Los Angeles.
Jane Kirkpatrick is the New York Times and CBA bestselling and award-winning author of forty books, including Something Worth Doing, One More River to Cross, Everything She Didn’t Say, All Together in One Place, A Light in the Wilderness, The Memory Weaver, This Road We Traveled, and A Sweetness to the Soul, which won the prestigious Wrangler Award from the Western Heritage Center. Her works have won the WILLA Literary Award, the Carol Award for Historical Fiction, andthe 2016 Will Rogers Gold Medallion Award. Jane divides her time between Central Oregon and California with her husband, Jerry, and Cavalier King Charles Spaniel,Caesar.
Learn more at www.jkbooks.com.