When artist Georgia O’Keeffe was living in northern New Mexico in the 1940s, she’d look out from her home – dubbed Ghost Ranch – and be spellbound by Pedernal Mountain, a nearby flat-topped mesa almost 10,000 feet high.
“God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it,” O’Keeffe famously said. And so she did, casting Pedernal onto her canvases almost 30 times before her death in 1986.
Inspired by a chance encounter with a Cherokee prophet, Ormond Beach artist Rachel Thompson felt a similar mystical calling: to paint the faces of Native Americans, to paint what the Black Feet tribe called “Spirit Dogs” (horses), and to paint the Indian-rich landscape of the American Southwest (including O’Keeffe’s Pedernal).
And Thompson felt compelled to explore the connections she began sensing between her Jewish spiritual path and her Native American calling.
“Resurgence: Southwest Native Americans in Literature & Art,” a two-day event at Ocean Art Gallery in Flagler Beach, will feature an exhibit of Thompson’s Native American and Southwest paintings, and she’ll discuss her art at a reception from 7 to 9 p.m. Friday Jan. 20.
The reception will feature a performance by Rick de Yampert on Native American flutes, as well as recorded music by Dine’ (Navajo) chant singer Louie Gonnie, Native American flute player R. Carlos Nakai, and powwow drumming.
Mystery novelist and Tony Hillerman protégé Susan Slater, who moved to Palm Coast after living for 39 years west of Taos — within sighting distance of O’Keeffe’s Pedernal – will speak on “The Resurgence of American Indians in Popular Literature” at 1 p.m. Saturday Jan. 21 at Ocean Art Gallery. Slater, whose mysteries feature the Pueblo people of New Mexico, also will be signing her books at the Friday Jan. 20 reception.
Before Thompson returned to Florida several years ago, she was running an art boutique in western New York where, she says, “There’s a lot of Native American history.”
“I had some wind chimes out (at the boutique) and this Cherokee guy came in,” Thompson says. “He started prophesying to me, talking about my life. He said, ‘The wind from the chimes brought me in.’ He said, ‘You have Cherokee in you. It’s in your eyes.’ I’ve had two people tell me that, but I have no proof of that.”
And so Thompson’s artistic path was rejuvenated in a surprising way: She felt called to paint Native American portraits, often working from the evocative photographs taken by the renowned Edward Curtis in the early 1900s.
And Thompson’s newfound art path coincided roughly with her burgeoning, newfound spiritual path: Raised in a Christian household while growing up in Virginia and later Jacksonville, she was feeling called to follow Judaism, a spirituality she pursued long before officially converting in 2006. That was evidenced in 2000 when she took a new name – Rachel, after the favorite wife of the Biblical patriarch Jacob.
“My journey is like that of Abraham,” Thompson says. “I came out of one spirit path and into another path.”
Last year found Thompson, who was named the Gargiulo Art Foundation’s 2015 Flagler County Artist of the Year, literally walking the walk of both her Jewish and Native American paths. In April 2016, she sojourned in Israel for the umpteenth time, spending time in solitary retreat beside the Dead Sea while her painting “Mourning into Dancing” was on display as part of an Israeli-American joint exhibition in Hadera.
In October 2016, Thompson, visited northern New Mexico for the second time. There she traveled in the shadow of Pedernal and explored the ancient ruins of the Anasazi pueblo people at a site known as Tsankawi, which is part of Bandelier National Monument. Tucked in the Jemez Mountains between Los Alamos and Santa Fe, the cliff dwellings of Tsankawi date to the late 1100s.
“That was a divinely ordained trip,” Thompson says of her New Mexico visit. “I know I was on sacred ground and do feel I needed to walk that land, to reconnect with that land. I know I was ordained to go back there just as much as I was ordained to go to Israel this year. But I haven’t perceived the reality of what transpired. I still haven’t gotten to the bottom of this tribal connection, but there are many people in this area that have that Jewish-Native American common interest and have been drawn to both places. I don’t have the answers – I know there is one, but I don’t have it.”
Thompson explored that connection in her triptych painting “Tribal Ties: East Meets West” (which is not in her current exhibit at Ocean Art Gallery). The work depicts a galloping horse at left, a wave on the right with a string drooping from its middle, and a feminine figure in between – with a shock of actual horse hair coming out of her belly button.
“That was a totally spiritual thing that I ended up with the horse hair coming out of the belly button and the tzitzi (Jewish prayer strings) coming out of the wave,” Thompson said.
Scholar Larry J. Zimmerman, in his book “The Sacred Wisdom of the Native Americans,” writes that “when the Blackfeet of the northern plains first saw a horse, they thought it was like a dog, except larger and swifter. The Blackfeet thought of it as a wondrous gift from the spirits and decided Old Man, the creator, must have sent the creature from the sky as a gift. The Blackfeet called the horse ‘Spirit Dog’ or ‘Medicine Dog.’ ”
Thompson’s exhibition at Ocean Art Gallery includes paintings of “Spirit Dogs,” two paintings of Pedernal (her most recent works) and a number of Native American portraits, including two historically prominent chiefs: Two Moons and Joseph.
“It’s almost therapeutic for me to paint a Native face,” Thompson said. “I paint it until I feel that face is looking back at me, telling me that I’ve honored it.”
Two Moons (1847–1917) was one of the Cheyenne chiefs who fought against Custer in the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
Joseph, of the Nez Perce tribe, was born in 1840 in the Oregon territory and given the name Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt (which translates to Thunder Rolling Down a Mountain). He became known as Joseph – the name his father took after converting to Christianity.
After assuming the leadership of a band of the Nez Perce in 1871, Chief Joseph and other tribal leaders balked at a U.S. government plan to move their people to a reservation. In 1877, the Nez Perce embarked on a 1,400-mile march to find sanctuary in Canada, but they surrendered to pursuing U.S. military forces in the fall of that year.
In was then that Chief Joseph delivered his famous speech that concluded: “Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.” Until his death in 1904, he would never see his homeland again.
“Two Moons had a countenance that transcends the immediate and he has the countenance of a visionary,” Thompson says. “And his countenance was not broken, like some of the Native people you see. Chief Joseph always looks really sad.
“But there was something in Two Moons beyond the immediate of what he experienced. He wasn’t broken down. That dignity, that long-term vison – he saw something positive down the road. I take heart in that. When I look at him, it lifts me up. I enjoy having him around.”
–Rick de Yampert
“Resurgence: Southwest Native Americans in Literature & Art” is a two-day event at Ocean Art Gallery, 206 Moody Blvd. (S.R. 100), Flagler Beach, Florida. The Native American paintings of Rachel Thompson will be on display and the artist will give a talk during a reception from 7 to 9 p.m. Friday Jan. 20.
Mystery novelist Susan Slater will speak on “The Resurgence of American Indians in Popular Literature” and hold a Q&A at 1 p.m. Saturday Jan. 21 at the gallery. She also will be signing her books at the Friday Jan. 20 reception.
Tickets for the reception are available only at eventbrite.com for $25, which includes admission to Saturday’s talk/Q&A event. Tickets for Saturday’s event only can be purchased on eventbrite.com, at Ocean Art Gallery during open hours, or at the door day of the event for $15. For more information call the gallery at 386-693-4882 or go online at flagleroceanartgallery.com.