Chickasaw Artist Shows “In.Sight” Through Gourd Art

“Sunrise” is a gourd purse with leather straps and a wedge cutout so personal items may be carried. Elaborate gold leafing and etched carvings of sun and flames add a beauty and conductivity to nature. Tiger-eye beading at the bottom adds weight to the piece, keeping it upright.

Published March 10, 2019

ADA, Okla. — A multi-talented Chickasaw artist is engaging admirers by crafting gourds into colorful and haunting vessels that can be functional or merely beautiful works for display.

Donna Welch’s art has been exhibited in California, Utah, ARTesian Arts Gallery in Sulphur and in the Chokma’si Gallery located at the Chickasaw Nation Arts and Humanities building in downtown Ada. She also provided gourd artwork for the 2018 Dynamic Women of the Chickasaw Nation Conference.

Chickasaw artist Donna Welch holds her work, “Spirit Bear,” during the 2018 Southeastern Art Show and Market (SEASAM), held annually in Tishomingo. The work is accented with spiral copper wiring, agate stones and Native American symbolism.

Her work, created to convey a message, was displayed in the McKeon Center for Creativity’s exhibition “Convergence: Challenging Anthropocentrism.” The center is an extension of Tulsa Community College.

Welch’s “In.Sight.” was used as the antithesis to the statement “mankind is separated from nature” by choosing to reside in huge cities and bustling metropolitan environments.

The 30-inch tall work features copper metal woven together representing the “tree of life” and the gourd’s focal art is of man, woman, birds, land and sea creatures. “It shows mankind that despite living in areas that would seem inhospitable to nature, in fact mankind remains a part of nature’s splendor,” Welch explained.

Within the hollowed gourd, Welch painted the world and its continents. Inside, it is lighted so “viewers understand the light of the world – God’s handprint – is upon everything,” she added.

“In.Sight.” was showcased in Tulsa through January. It is now at the ARTesian Art Gallery for area residents to admire and enjoy.

Art is Life

Welch honed her varying talents for more than 20 years as a resident of California, Oregon, Alaska and – as of two-and-a-half-years ago – Oklahoma.

It was in Enid, Oklahoma, her parents Ben and Phyllis Witham Courtney met and married before moving to Bakersfield, California. Her father was the son of Willie Courtney, an original Dawes Commission enrollee. Welch was born in Oregon.

“I have known about my Chickasaw heritage all my life,” she explained, hurriedly filling finished gourd pottery with decorative rocks to keep a brisk Oklahoma breeze from sending them airborne at a recent arts festival.

It was October and she was busy showing several pieces during the Chickasaw Nation Annual Meeting and Festival’s Southeastern Art Show and Market (SEASAM).

At SEASAM 2018, Welch was celebrating the two-year anniversary of moving to Oklahoma with her husband, Russell, and teenage daughter, Trinity. All of her life, she resided in the Pacific Northwest while her Chickasaw heritage tugged at her heart to reinvent life within the Chickasaw Nation.

“Blue Dreams” was one of the most admired pieces displayed at SEASAM. The butterfly is painted with a German brand of paint – called Inka-Gold, by Viva Décor – that provides brilliant color with a silky texture and appearance. Beading and metal wiring accent the gourd for a beautiful all-purpose piece.

The desire to relocate was reinforced by forays to Oklahoma. Trinity participates in the Chickasaw Nation Book Camp and Chickasaw Arts Academy, a highly successful program providing Chickasaw youngsters and teens with instruction in a plethora of art forms.

“We wanted Trinity to experience her heritage firsthand. She had the same experience that I had growing up on the west coast. My dad would say ‘You’re Chickasaw. Don’t ever forget it. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not Chickasaw.’ But being separated from Chickasaws, I did not meet anyone of Chickasaw heritage outside of the immediate family until I was in high school,” Welch said.

A deeper emotional investment to illuminate Trinity’s Native blood could only be experienced in Oklahoma, her parents realized. That epiphany is echoed by Trinity, who said the move from California opened her eyes to “my culture, my heritage (and) my ancestors. It has been such a blessing to find out more about who I am as a Native American.”

Since age 8, Trinity’s heart has been set on a career in fashion design. While one would think California would offer greater proximity to professional designers and learning experiences, the Welch family emphatically argues the opposite is true.

“We lived near Los Angeles. You are one person among 23 million living in the region. It is easy to get overlooked. We came to Ada, this small Oklahoma town, and Trinity has been given the opportunity through the Chickasaw Nation to study with top, world-class fashion designers such as Margaret Roach Wheeler, Maya Stewart, Adam Minor West and Patricia Michaels,” Welch said.

Branching Out

Welch designs traditional Chickasaw regalia, sewing garments from scratch, in addition to making quilts and handbags. She shares her knowledge with Trinity and is her daughter’s instructor through Oklahoma approved home schooling curriculum.

She draws with colored pencils; is experienced in beadwork and a traditional Chickasaw storyteller. The artist in her experiments, but the teacher in her researches Southeastern Indian decorative designs. She incorporates ancient motifs in her work, including her gourd art, which is the chosen medium in which she hopes to expand, grow and flourish.

“Gourds are one of the first forms of pottery. Plants that produce gourds are found on every continent. Each part of the unusual orbs may be utilized and are 100 percent reusable and recyclable,” Welch said. “Native women would haul water with hollowed gourds in ancient times. They were used to hold beads or cherished personal items. They were decorated.”

The gourd plant resembles a hard-shell pumpkin. When it is sliced and gutted, the fruit and pulp are usually discarded and the inner walls scraped clean and permitted to dry. Welch usually paints the inside to match the color palette of her work. It also acts as a sealant.

“Long ago, if women hauled water, the walls would leach and actually act as a coolant for the water within,” she pointed out. “Netting would be made to surround the gourd for easier transport.”

It is not unusual for Welch to use a small, handheld rotary tool to fashion intricate Native symbols to the outer shell, or reach for a drill for openings where metal wiring and beading are required for authentic Native artistry. Even a small jigsaw is used for specialty items – such as hair barrettes – or to accent spacious areas in a larger work, as illustrated on a gourd called “Spirit Bear.”

New Challenges

A special exhibit at the McKeon Center in June and July is moving Welch to create art unlike anything she has attempted. The exhibit will be called “Please Touch the Art” and specifically introduces blind and visually impaired individuals to art.

“Most art is appreciated visually,” Welch said. “I think this new exhibit is absolutely wonderful. It forces the artist to creatively craft art for those who cannot enjoy it merely by sight.”

One piece has already been manufactured. It is called “Ofi’ Tohbi Thunder Gourd,” named for the legendary Chickasaw White Dog that protected tribal citizens on their migration journey to the Mississippi Homeland.

It is a gourd made with acoustic holes and plastic mylar. When touched, the gourd emits a sound similar to thunder.

Donna Welch’s “In.Sight.” on display at Tulsa’s McKeon Center for Creativity.

Welch envisions making a gourd rain stick and a handheld gourd rattle for the exhibition. “It is very exciting. I am pleased they asked me to participate.”

As she pursues her passion, Welch is creating art at the request of patrons. Commissions are the dream of professional artists. Two “Thunder Gourds” have been commissioned thus far. New works will be exhibited at the Chickasaw Nation’s Exhibit C in Oklahoma City’s Bricktown and at welcome centers operated by the tribe in the near future.

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