From antique quilts and letterman patches acquired through eBay, Natalie Ball juxtaposes family history with easily recognizable modern-day objects. Her work is complex and coded, with a focus on challenging conventional narratives. In “Re-Run,” snakeskin, crystals and lightning bolts adorn a large textile stretched between pine sticks, and a canvas painting of a mouth and nose is sewn into the corner.
“The snakes are pretty powerful because my ancestors used the lightning bolt and the snake to then connect with their ancestors,” Ball said. “So seeing myself as a future ancestor, I wanted to bring that forward and reconnect with those — that symbol and that being through this work.”
Ball is Black and Indigenous (Klamath/Modoc). She uses her work to call into question expectations of an Indigenous person. Ball said her physical features don’t match how a Native person is “supposed” to look. She uses her studio practice to challenge the intersections present in her life. Ball is also confronting blood quantum laws, a controversial practice where one must prove they have a high enough percentage of Native blood. She’s interested in a more fluid definition. Conversely, the antiquated “one-drop rule” was applied to Black people — it only took one drop to be considered Black.
“I’ve always been creating proposals of refusal through sculpture and through this type of textile work and then using material that I feel is charged with meaning, to make new meaning then,” Ball said. “It makes the work more complex in those ways because I do come from those spaces.”
“Re-Run” is one of two new mixed-media sculptures on display at Seattle Art Museum (SAM) in the solo exhibition “Natalie Ball: Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Snake.” The title is a call to commonality, as most are familiar with the children’s lullaby “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”
“You Mist, Again (Rattle)” is in the opposite corner of “Re-Run.” Ball includes bullet shells, braiding hair and deer rawhide in the oversized, traditional Native baby carrier. Ball considers the rattle to be an object of power. While creating it, she saw herself as a future ancestor and it as an object she can leave for her descendants.
Ball draws inspiration from narratives such as the plight of missing and murdered Indigenous women. The mixed-media sculpture “When I Go Missing, North Star” addresses this through pine sticks, cotton and satin. It’s currently on display at the annual EXPO Chicago.
While she often broaches serious topics, the interdisciplinary artist also includes lighthearted objects in her sculptures. For instance, the rattle includes a child’s pink Converse shoe.
“I feel like humor is a huge part of my work, too,” Ball said. “Even though these are heavy, and I’m mad at things, and I’m upset — but I can also laugh at those same things or laugh through it.”
Ball is the 2018 winner of SAM’s Betty Bowen Award. The juried honor comes with a cash award and a solo exhibition at SAM. Catharina Manchanda, the museum’s Jon and Mary Shirley Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, described Ball’s sculptures as electric and defying expectations.
“The annual Betty Bowen Award gives SAM the opportunity to support and showcase the exceptional contemporary artists of the Pacific Northwest,” Manchanda said. “Natalie’s work presents a bold new narrative to Indigenous forms, histories and visual legacies, which is crucial to our understanding of the region’s past, present and future.”
Ball described the award as a huge stepping stone because it’s allowed her to transition into a full-time studio practice. She’s a mother of three and can now stay home with the youngest. It’s the ideal situation Ball sought before enrolling in the painting and printmaking program at Yale School of Art. She received an MFA from the school last year.
The artist had been working for her tribe in social services but took a chance on herself. Knowing it would be difficult being a single mother, she still applied to several top schools in the country. Ball gave herself what she felt like she deserved.
“I wanted more for myself,” Ball said. “I knew that I was really happy when I did art and was being a mom. So if I could just figure out how to do those two things, that’s the world then to me.”
Prior to enrolling at Yale, the Chiloquin, Oregon-based artist received a Master of Arts from Massey University in New Zealand in 2010. Her undergraduate degree in art and ethnic studies is from the University of Oregon. She’s also the recipient of the Pollock-Krasner Foundation 2018-19 artist grant and a 2018 Art Matters Foundation award winner.
Last month, Ball had four show openings in two countries. She recently converted her bedroom into a workspace and has hired a studio manager to help her stay on top of everything, from emails to shipping art. It’s intense work to keep everything together, but it’s exactly where she wants to be. She is making the type of work she’s proud of and is happy.
Ball’s openness and vulnerability come through with each absorbing sculpture. While audiences may not understand all the references she’s included, she wants them to connect with it emotionally.
“I want them to feel it,” Ball said. “I want it to pull or tug.”
WHAT: “Natalie Ball: Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Snake”
WHEN: Runs until Nov. 17
WHERE: Seattle Art Museum, 1300 First Ave., Seattle
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Lisa on Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge
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