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Omaha Magazine

Indigenous Inspirations: Lakota Artist Mixes Mediums

Jun 23, 2020 01:14PM ● By Lisa Lukecart
artist Sarah Rowe photographed at her exhibit

Sarah Rowe watched the apocalyptic comedy Zombieland on a television at Brothers Lounge. Rowe sipped on cheap whiskey—Old Overholt—and mused on how art reflected reality. Zombies weren’t feasting on human brains, but a coronavirus pandemic surged around her. Many of the visual and performance artist’s jobs had just been canceled. As a single mother of a teenager daughter, the lack of money coming in worried her. Thankfully, income from her prints and paintings helped during this difficult time. 

Rowe, of Lakota and Ponca descent, uses Native American rituals to create artwork in a spiritual way. Some of her designs feature the thunderbird, which represents power and strength to protect people from evil spirits. A black and white thunderbird appears in the middle of one print surrounded by a sliver of a moon and raining clouds. Geometric shapes, such as little crosses, appear between the thin legs of the beast. Most ideas are spawned from free-thinking sketches. Color and shape combinations fit together like puzzles or grow like rock formations. It’s a personal and visionary process that is typical in native art. 

“There are universal symbols in there. I want people to have their own experience with them,” Rowe said. 

Rowe carved the image on wood and inked it. She rolled thin Japanese rice paper through a press and peeled it away from the wood. Rowe also works on series. These dreamlike animals, a bestiary of tales, are put in these imagined landscapes.

Rowe doesn’t shy away from color. She utilized the Lakota medicine wheel to create bold color blocks of black, red, yellow, and white for an abstract painting of Chief Standing Bear. The 24 by 36-inch painting was filmed as a stop motion movie for the backdrop of the Standing Bear Cantata and later sold at Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts.

Dr. Mikal Brotnov Eckstrom, a post-doctoral researcher for Center for Great Plains Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, loved it so much he is commissioning Rowe to make a similar version. Eckstrom believes it is important to buy indigenous art from indigenous artists. Rowe listens to her elders and interprets history in a contemporary way.   

“I think that is crucial. Native people are still here, they have not left. Putting these stories in the present tense in a present format is so important,” Eckstrom added. 

With a B.A. in studio art from Webster University, Rowe interacts closely with the community, building power bundles with middle school students, at-risk populations, and trauma patients. She makes extremely long threads of prayer ties, and tangles those up so it is easy to stick feathers and herbs into them. These are sometimes hung in houses, positioned near trees, or placed on graves. Other items, or even a written note, can be added, but it should be organic material because these are oftentimes burned in a visual representation of prayer similar to a pipe. Power bundles should never be photographed because of their sacred ties, she explained. 

Ironically, Rowe conceived of an apocalyptic shopping experience last winter. The concept morphed into an interactive satire show, Commercial Break, which centered on the disintegration of capitalism. The show was held March 6 at Petshop in Benson. 

“Her work is incredibly collaborative and participatory. It asks, ‘What’s going to happen to the Earth when we buy each other to death?’” said Annika Johnson, Ph.D., the associate curator of Native American Art at Joslyn Art Museum.

Rowe said she’d never be one of those screaming maniacs in Zombieland. A better strategy would be to find a weapon, be prepared, and laugh about it. Sure, that weapon might be a brush, paint, and a wall, but it sends a significant message. 

Connect with Rowe at instagram.com/lady.wink to view or buy her prints and paintings.

Visit bffomaha.org/commercial-break.html to view her art show exhibit Commercial Break. 

This article was printed in the July/August 2020 edition of OmahaHome. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.