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arts

Grunwald Gallery hosts ‘Blanket Songs’ exhibit with contemporary Indigenous art

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Grunwald Gallery is hosting “Blanket Songs,” open until March 4. This display opened on Jan. 27 with a live performance by the artist, John Hitchcock. According to the artist’s website, Hitchcock is an award-winning contemporary artist, musician, professor and the associate dean of the arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It is free to the public and visitors can visit the gallery noon-4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. 

The exhibit features work that derives inspiration from the contemporary artist’s Indigenous background by incorporating his childhood memories of growing up on Comanche Tribal lands in Oklahoma, and reinterpreting various indigenous customs, traditions and culture.  

The gallery spotlights pieces such as neon sculptures, prints, audio, video and fabric work, alongside other objects that discuss themes of Indigenous identity and Native narratives. 

Grunwald Gallery Director Betsy Stirratt said she first came across the artist when he was invited to the Eskenazi School of Art as a part of the McKinney Visiting Artist Series in 2021. 

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Stirratt said she familiarized herself with his work. When she formally approached him about a potential exhibit, they started talking about Leah Kolb, an independent curator and arts consultant who he had met in Madison, Wisconsin, she said.  

“I just thought it would be a really exciting project to put on,” Stirratt said. “Visually, it’s amazing, and there is a lot of important content behind the scenes which is great to showcase.”  

The content behind the featured pieces is compelling and captivating. There is a clear sense of appreciation for both traditional and contemporary artistic craft, as each work is packed with influence stemming from his childhood growing up in the Wichita Mountains in Oklahoma and interweaving Native culture and narratives into each featured piece. As a professor of screen printing, relief cut and installation art, the display personifies mastered technique while paying homage to his Indigenous roots. 

“I like how it instantly immerses you into light, color and beautiful patterns,” Sarah Shutters, a senior at IU who visited the exhibit, said. 

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As seen on the exhibit introduction label, the title “Blanket Songs” refers to a tradition the artist observed in his childhood. His Kiowa grandfather and Comanche grandmother used to honor esteemed guests by wrapping blankets around them as a gift and symbol of respect and friendship. 

The installation has a visual and auditory experience for visitors, focusing on pulling in the viewer through its use of image, light, sound and movement. In the gallery, there is an audio-visual piece, a six-minute loop of spoken poems and music provided by the artist and his loved ones. 

The exhibit also features multiple hand-beaded moccasins. The artist said in a gallery label that his grandmother specialized in beadwork and often encouraged him to work with her when he was younger. He practiced drawing the geometric shapes he saw in her designs, and from this, said he learned observational drawing. In many of his works, such abstract patterns are visible. According to the gallery, the moccasins are an example of Hitchcock’s language as an artist during his initial phases.  

“The show is very layered, in a physical sense,” Linda Tien, the program coordinator at the Grunwald Gallery, said. “But also, in a conceptual sense in that he is layering his lived experience, cultural tradition and references both his Comanche Kiowa and Northern European background.”  

Tien said she hopes visitors will take time to experience his work, listen to the audio and read his words to understand his perspective of his pieces.  

“I hope that visitors will dive in with an openness and take a moment to hear about someone’s life that they may or may not be familiar with,” Tien said.

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