By Lara Evans
Judith Lowry is a narrative figurative painter, whose subject matter arises from California Native traditions of storytelling, including her own family’s stories and traditional tales. Lowry (Pit River and Mountain Maidu) is deeply concerned with bringing the history and culture of California Indians to a wider audience. She does so very effectively with her compelling large-scale acrylic paintings that emulate the deep color and smooth surfaces of oil painting. Her compositions are evocative of religious paintings of the early Renaissance in Europe, but the symbolism is based on her own cultural traditions and experiences. Many of her works from the 1990s combine a portrait of a person with symbolic objects, such as Wilis-Kol-Kold (Susie Jack), Going Home, and The Awakening. Indian boarding school experiences are central to several of her paintings and her illustrations for the children’s book Home to Medicine Mountain (2002), written by Chioro Santiago.
Many of Lowry’s works focus on her childhood and nuclear family, transforming the tropes of family photographs into wry analyses of life and identity within an interracial family. Lowry’s Mountain Maidu/Hammawi Band Pit River/Washo/Scottish-Irish father was a career military officer who met and married Lowry’s Euro-Australian mother in Australia. Her paintings resist attempts to cast Native experiences in strictly assimilationist terms. Medicine Man (1994) and the triptych Family: Love’s Unbreakable Heaven (1995), for example, both show Native culture influencing Euro-American culture. Medicine Man uses the composition of Ingres’s 1811 painting Jupiter and Thetis, but with a long-haired Native man in the position of Jupiter and a pale-skinned blond woman kneeling adoringly at his feet. Family: Love’s Unbreakable Heaven features the artist’s white mother wearing a 1950s “Squaw Dress,” a style that borrowed elements from the southwest, including a decorated yoke and a silver concho belt.
The history of Native peoples of California includes many tragedies, making it easy to cast Native peoples as victims. There is nothing in Lowry’s paintings to imply victimhood, however. The formal poses of the figures, their stillness and central placement in the compositions, all bring a sense of dignity, permanence, and self-possession to her paintings about her family’s history. The official narratives that Lowry’s paintings subvert are the Euro-American narrative of the vanishing Indian, and the depiction of the modern Indian as a traumatized remnant of a once proud people. On the surface, a narrative that includes several generations of cultural intermarriage could be read as a story of assimilation. However, her representation of these relationships in her paintings complicates matters. Lowry’s painting The Good Marriage (1997) depicts her great-grandparents. The husband, John Lowry, once rode with Kit Carson and is depicted seated and holding a bouquet of flowers. His Indian wife stands towering over him, a firm hand on his shoulder. She wears a Victorian dress ornamented with a delicate ribbon at the high-collared neckline and a thin, beaded belt at her waist. The Good Marriage subverts our expectations of what a Victorian-era interracial marriage might be like.
In the past ten years, Lowry has produced a strong body of work, based upon the traditional creation stories that she learned from her father. The six-panel work Weh-Pom and the Star Sisters (2004) depicts Weh-Pom (Coyote) travelling to the stars in an attempt to seduce five celestial sisters. The sisters wear flicker feather headbands, shell necklaces, and tule skirts. They dance through the sky holding stars and comets and refuse Weh-Pom’s advances.
During her long career as an artist, Lowry has consistently interjected her works with current political and social topics, such as Indian casinos; American icons such as Madonna, Santa Claus, and Uncle Sam; war; and unscrupulous news media. Overall, Lowry’s paintings provide an opportunity to encounter an emotionally laden and contested history from a place of stability.
Judith Lowry, born in 1948, earned her bachelor’s degree in fine art from Humboldt State University (Arcata, California) and her master’s degree in painting and drawing from Chico State University (California). She has exhibited at the Crocker Museum in Sacramento, the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the C.N. Gorman Museum in Davis, California, the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona, and the George Gustav Heye Center in New York City. Weh-Pom and the Star Sisters was purchased by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian in 2009.
Additional Resources complied by students in the Contemporary Native American Art History Course at IAIA, Spring 2013
Dalkey, Victoria. “Victoria Dalkey: Judith Lowry’s show at Pence Gallery depicts aspects of Native California.” The Sacramento Bee, December 21, 2012, p. 10. http://www.sacbee.com/2012/12/21/5066063/art-judith-lowrys-show-at-pence.html.
Indyke, Dottie. “Native Arts, Judith Lowry.” Southwest Art, September 29, 2005. http://www.southwestart.com/native-american-arts/judith_lowry.
Pelline, Jeff. “Judith Lowry’s Artistic Reflections on Native California.” Jeff Pelline’s Sierra Foothills Report (blog), Feb 15, 2013. http://sierrafoothillsreport.com/2013/02/15/judith-lowrys-artistic-reflections-on-native-california/.
Bigfeather, Joanna. Native Views: Influences of Modern Culture. Ann Arbor: Arttrain USA, 2004.
Lowry describes her painting, Road Kill Warrior, Last of His Tribe, 2001.
Lowry, Judith, Lucy R. Lippard, and Theresa Harlan. Illuminations: Paintings by Judith Lowry. Santa Fe: Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, 1999.
This is a exhibition catalogue with substantial essays.
Ortel, Jo. “Exhibition Review of Continuum: 12 Artists at the George Gustav Heye Center, Part 2.” American Indian Art Magazine, Volume 30, Number 2, Spring 2005, 63-64
This is a brief review of a series of exhibits on display at the George Gustav Heye Center in New York. Judith Lowry is one of the 6 artists reviewed.
Russell, Karen K. Shapeshifting: Transformations in Native American Art. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.
The artist comments on Native American humor and why she does it and she comments on the portrait of her aunt Viola who in the 1940s frequented County fairs dress in generic Indian clothes.