Museum of Contemporary Native Arts

Frank LaPena

By Leanne L’Hirondelle

Frank LaPena (born 1937, San Francisco, California) is a painter, printmaker, sculptor, poet, retired professor, dancer and community member of the Nomtipon Wintu. His strong interest and involvement in Wintu culture has influenced his artistic production and his commitment to his community and family. Like many Native American children of his generation, LaPena was sent to federal boarding school at a young age. While enrolled at Stewart Carson Indian School in Nevada, his father died. LaPena never returned to live with his immediate family again. This childhood experience made him keenly aware of colonial practices that affected his life and his community.  His early adult years were, in part, a rediscovery of his cultural background.

LaPena’s first exhibition in 1960 at the Arts and Crafts Gallery in Chico, California, dealt with Native American concerns about place and land, while being aesthetically informed by the western dialogue of traditional landscape. LaPena states that the teachings he received from elders have had a more profound influence in shaping his work than the formal education he received, an education that did not consider traditional Wintu values and beliefs. By the 1970s, LaPena was living in what was considered to be the renaissance of California Indian culture.  As a key member of this movement, LaPena studied ceremonial traditions with artist Frank Day (Maidu). LaPena’s involvement was considered pivotal in the founding of Maidu Dancers and Traditionalists, a dance group that performs at ceremonies and events in California.

The importance LaPena places on cultural practices and beliefs can be seen in paintings such as Earth Mother (1990), based on a traditional Wintu Ceremony.[1] This acrylic on canvas work, with a textured surface and rich earth tones, depicts a central figure, surrounded by flying creatures. LaPena’s work is often regionally specific, as seen in his frequent depictions of Mount Shasta, an essential presence in the creation stories of his region. In Earth Mother, the mountain appears as a floating geometric shape, surrounded by clouds. Mount Shasta was also depicted in the work he presented for the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian group exhibition This Path We Travel in which all the artists were boarding school survivors.

LaPena has exhibited both nationally and internationally. Seminal exhibitions include Beyond Face Value, Heard Museum (2009), and Frank LaPena: The World is a Gift, Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian (1989).  Group exhibitions include Cultural Copy: Visual Conversations on Indigenous Art and Cultural Appropriation University of California, Los Angeles, Fowler Museum (2004). LaPena holds a M.A. in Anthropology and a B.A. in Liberal Arts. He was a Professor of Art and Ethnic Studies and Director of the Native American Studies Department at California State University, Sacramento.


[1] LaPena, interview with author, 2010.