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Artist Interview: Ted Sitting Crow Garner


By Patrick Folise

Ted Sitting Crow Garner is an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Tribe, of Sihasapa and Miniconjou descent.  He has been making sculpture in Chicago since the age of sixteen, and his own since the age of seventeen.  He earned a B. F. A. from the Kansas City Art Institute in 1982; and while there founded its first formal student gallery, authoring its application and jurying guidelines as well as the referendum that was required to be approved by the student body in order for the gallery to be created.

In addition to making his own work and having served as assistant to well-known sculptors Mark diSuvero and John Henry, Garner has worked with numerous other artists of international repute including Arman, Vito Acconci and Gabriel Orozco; completing projects from coast to coast and, as well, on three other continents.

Garner€™s artwork may be found in numerous public and private collections across the United States and Canada, including the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis and the Iowa State Botanic Gardens in Ames.

His work has received numerous prizes and support in the form of fellowships and grants, including from the Joyce Foundation and the Warhol Foundation.  He has also been a nominee for the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Fellowship.

In addition to his sculptural production, he is also a published photographer, author, editor, illustrator and poet, and more recently; JEOPARDY champion.

Tell me about your work space and your creative process.

I work in a building that was originally built as a power-generating plant for the elevated train line of the Chicago Transit Authority in about 1914.  It had an existing bridge crane to service the large dynamos, and the other artists in the building and I have installed a number of other cranes to facilitate moving our work in and out.

My space in the building is roughly divided into a metal working half, and half to work with wood; my €œother€ material, which I mostly use in indoor pieces.  Some metal materials, like aluminum, partake of both realms; so my compound miter saw and table saw are almost as likely to be cutting aluminum as wood.

As I make work in several different modalities, it€™s a little tough to generalize about the process of creating pieces, so if you€™ll indulge me, I€™ll discuss the piece at Skokie specifically.

The inspiration for the piece evolved out of the politics surrounding the €œPierWalk€ exhibitions during the 1990s, and in particular, out of having to deal with one of the organizers, an extremely prickly individual, jealous of his power, influence and talent far beyond what any objective viewpoint would justify.  Hence, the €œdance of the scorpion€ in the title, and in the general outline of the artwork€™s shape, being a stylized depiction of that titular arachnid.

The actual form of the sculpture is influenced by my long-standing interest in transparency and moiré patterns, combined with another long-held interest, that of making sculpture that offers the possibility of physical interaction with the audience, in this case use as a bench.

Galvanizing suggested itself as a long-lasting finish for the steel sculpture, particularly appropriate in both filling in any interstices between sections, and in €œsoftening€ the edges of the expanded metal sheets; as well as its more normal use as corrosion prevention.

How does your Native American heritage influence your work?

Frankly, sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn€™t.  I would suppose that it comes through more in my indoor work, which is more often of a political bent.

While it isn€™t particularly germane to my own tribal ancestry, I grew up on the northwest coast, where my parents were involved with quite a few people in the then just-burgeoning €œNative Arts Renaissance€.  In fact, my father worked on a village re-creation at the University of British Columbia with Bill Reid, the Haida art icon; and Bill rented a room in our house while going through a divorce at that time.  I even have a construction board, tape and tempera sea-wolf headdress that he made for me to wear to a friend€™s birthday party when I was 5 or so- AND, he was so serious that after Bill died Canada put him on money- the twenty dollar bill introduced in 2004 has images of his artwork- they€™d done postage stamps while he still lived.

So, that €œformline€ style of curvilinear abstraction that most people associate with totem poles has influenced me since childhood, as well as the underlying modes of depiction that made that North West Coast Indian artwork so attractive to the Surrealists and other theorists like Claude Levi-Strauss, who collected that work voraciously.

Of course, since both my parents were involved with American Indian art both professionally and by personal passion, I was lucky to be have had exposure to most all the native art forms of the Americas, and in great depth.

What artists have influenced you, and how?

Well, obviously, Bill Reid, as the first professional artist that I knew.  Later, John Henry and, more especially Mark diSuvero, two sculptors that I worked for while in my €˜teens; especially in mastering modes of work.  In terms of historical precedents, Alexander Calder, David Smith, hell- everybody!  As long as they€™re good- I€™m in!

As an established sculptor, what is the best advice you could offer an artist who is just starting their career?

This may seem quaint these days, but I would say learn how to get good at whatever you choose to do.  This may mean going outside of the art education system for answers.

Installing a great many exhibits that include a great number of other artists as I do, I am constantly struck by the high percentage of artists that don€™t know what the hell they€™re doing when it comes to designing and making their artwork.  That this number very often includes art professors, instructors and other €œart professionals€ is even more striking.  Perhaps it is in part because of the fact that most artists have never been under the constraints of having to do things in a correct and workmanlike manner, as for example, as one must when working in the trades, and to code and inspection.

I think that one can make groundbreaking and revolutionary work, and still have it be of physical and structural quality to be able to assure long life of the object, and, more importantly, the safety of the public.

artist bio provided by Ted Sitting Crow Garner

Ted Sitting Crow Garner’s “Baile De Alacran” at the Skokie Northshore Sculpture Park