Art That Connects Us – A Visit with Mentor Artist Fellow Brenda Mallory

When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down in-person activity across the nation last year, Brenda Mallory (Cherokee Nation) had just received a 2020 Mentor Artist Fellowship from the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation (NACF). Adjusting to new social protocols required her to pivot and reevaluate plans for working with apprentice Lehuauakea (Kanaka Maoli [Native Hawaiian]).

Mallory is a contemporary visual artist from Portland, Oregon. Her sculptural works consist of materials, including cloth, fibers, beeswax, and found objects that result in order or unity where something was once chaotic. The patterns and repetition of her art create calm and order from the discarded, working with mostly salvaged materials. She often joins multiple forms with crude hardware to suggest the evidence of struggle while mending a disruption.

As a Cherokee citizen and a Native Hawaiian living in the Pacific Northwest, both Mallory and Lehuauakea live outside their Native homelands. While they don’t share a common cultural background, there is a commonality in their experiences as Indigenous artists living in a place that is not Indigenous to them. “We are living in a place that is not our natural homelands,” Mallory said. “I wanted to explore ways that we could work and source local materials from the place where we live,” she added. While the two artists mostly met virtually during the mentorship year due to the pandemic, they were able to attend a workshop to learn natural dyeing techniques with regional mushrooms. They also spent two days working with master printers to create monotypes at Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts in Pendleton, Oregon.

Despite the separation imposed by social distancing, their artwork draws parallels with textiles and color palettes of red and black. These colors carry a personal and cultural significance for each artist explored through contemporary and traditional media within the collection. For their final project, they curated an online exhibition (now closed) this past summer titled ᎩᎦᎨ x PŌ, the Cherokee word for “red” and the ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi word for “black.” The work of both Mallory and Lehuauakea explores interwoven histories of displacement, mixed identity and cultural erasure, an act of resilience expressed through a contemporary Native lens.

The inspiration for my work doesn’t always tie back to my ancestry, but I like that I can trace history and mend the broken in my art process while connecting a larger audience to learning about concepts that are traditional, things that connect us.”
— Brenda Mallory (Cherokee Nation)

Brenda Mallory is currently preparing for a solo exhibition at the Heard Museum in Spring 2022. In addition, Lehuauakea’s work will be featured in an upcoming Mesh exhibition at the Portland Art Museum, opening on November 6, 2021. The Mesh exhibit will feature the work of other NACF Mentor Artist Fellow apprentices, including Ka’ila Farrell Smith (Klamath, Modoc), Leah Rose Kolakowski (Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa) and Lynnette Haozous (Chiricahua Apache [San Carlos Apache Tribe], Diné, Taos Pueblo).