The spirit of a culture is revealed through the artistic expression of its people. Their art widens the scope of the inner and outer senses and gives a greater awareness of their world. Although contemporary Native American art is a living, evolving art form, it owes a debt to tradition which provides a base or sustenance that enriches and enhances the creative work and helps to preserve the traditions and values of the artists and tribes.
– Joan Hill, 2019
For more than five decades, Joan Hill (Muscogee Creek, 1930-2020), whose Native American name is Chea-se-quah (Redbird), has been one of the Nation’s most recognized and awarded Native American artists. Born in Muskogee, Oklahoma, to parents of Creek and Cherokee ancestry, she began drawing as a child on her family’s ranch on the Arkansas River, a property that includes a prehistoric mound dating from the 13th century A.D. Her parents were gifted storytellers and singers, and they instilled in her a great reverence for Native American culture and history.
Following Ms. Hill’s graduation from Northeastern State College in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, with a degree in education, she taught art in the Tulsa public school system. During this time she “longed to paint paintings." Following the fourth year of teaching, she notes she "resigned, moved back to my home community” to attend Bacone college in Muskogee.
Southern Cheyenne artist and educator Dick West (1912-1996) chaired the art department at Bacone College. He encouraged Ms. Hill to seriously pursue painting studies. As a mentor, Mr. West encouraged her to observe and research traditional Indian cultures, ceremonies, and arts which she then incorporated in her paintings.
In 1959, Ms. Hill entered her first art show at the Philbrook Art Center in Tulsa, and eventually became the first female Native American painter from Oklahoma to attract serious attention from art collectors and museums across the United States and abroad. At the recommendation of Mr. West, who praised Ms. Hill's outstanding artistic and educational skills, Lloyd Kiva New, founder of the Institute of American Indian Art, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Indian Arts and Crafts Board Commissioner, traveled to Muskogee to meet with Ms. Hill. Mr. New sought to recruit Ms. Hill to teach a new category of art classes at the Institute being introduced as "Experimental Painting - New Directions for Indian Art." However, after much soul searching, Ms. Hill declined the job offer.
Ms. Hill’s paintings consistently feature human subjects. She said, “I have never been interested in landscapes until I started incorporating them in my fantasies…The human is God’s supreme creation.”
The Indian Arts and Crafts Board organized a special exhibition of Ms. Hill’s paintings at the Southern Plains Indian Museum, Anadarko, Oklahoma, in 1993, entitled Paintings by Joan Hill. In the exhibition catalog, Ms. Hill spoke about her other sources of inspiration.
“All of my work, whether traditional or contemporary, owes a debt to my Creek-Cherokee heritage for the teachings of my beloved parents and grandparents. I was also taught to have a deep, spiritual faith in God, a love and respect for the land, nature, the elements and the powers of creation, with a feeling for the eternal and the monumental. Consequently, I am inexorably drawn to the beauty, illusion and mystery of Native American legends and history, which serve as inspiration for the images I use to create a world, not as ‘seen,’ but as it is ‘felt.’ ”
The Southern Plains Indian Museum houses several works by Joan Hill, including Temple Mound Ceremony of the Sun (1995, 36” x 36”, acrylic on canvas, A.95.3). In this colorful and dramatic work, a chief, dressed in ceremonial clothing, greets his elder brother, the Sun, and shows him his course across the heavens. A large temple mound stands in the background.
Over the course of her career, Ms. Hill has received more than 280 awards, thirteen of which were Grand Awards. Her national awards include the Waite Phillips Special Artists Diamond Trophy for Lifetime Achievement from the Philbrook Art Center. Her work is included in many prominent museum collections in the United States: the Heard Museum, Phoenix, Arizona; Indian Arts and Crafts Board's Southern Plains Indian Museum; Bureau of Indian Affairs' Museum Collection, Washington, D.C.; Philbrook Art Museum (formerly Philbrook Art Center); and the National Museum of the American Indian, New York, New York. Ms. Hill’s painting will also be featured in Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists, a traveling exhibition which will be shown at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, June through August 2019.
Ms. Hill served as Co-Chairman of the Indian Arts and Crafts Board from 2000 to 2003.
– Lars Krutak, PhD, Indian Arts and Crafts Board