Museum of Contemporary Native Arts

Kay WalkingStick

Wallawa Mountain Memory, Variation, 2004, Oil and gold leaf on wood, 36 x 72 inches, Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Wallawa Mountain Memory, Variation, 2004, Oil and gold leaf on wood, 36 x 72 inches, Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

By Gail Tremblay

Kay WalkingStick (born in 1935) is the child of a Cherokee father from Oklahoma and a Scotch-Irish mother from Syracuse, New York. WalkingStick received her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1959 and completed her Master of Fine Arts in 1975 at Pratt Institute under a Danforth Foundation Graduate Fellowship for Women. She began exhibiting in New York City in the 1970s and had a solo show at Bertha Urdang Gallery in 1978 when few Indigenous artists exhibited in New York galleries. Not only was Walkingstick the first Native American artist to appear in H.W. Janson’s History of Art (6th Edition, 1995), a book with few women or artists of color, WalkingStick has work in the collections of forty prestigious art museums including the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, and the National Museum of Israel. She has won numerous awards including the Joan Mitchell Foundation Painters and Sculptors Grant and is a faculty emerita at Cornell University where she was a professor in the Department of Art from 1988-2005

WalkingStick’s early paintings have rich painterly surfaces; layers of paint and wax encaustic are built with her hands. In the mid-1980s she began creating diptychs that paired stylized landscapes with rich abstract paintings. The resulting interior spaces of the canvas serve as complex emotional metaphors. After her first husband, Michael Echols, died suddenly in 1989, she began to paint waterfalls. In an interview about these works she said, “… I felt that our lives were like these cascades, which are not damned but just rush on.”[1] In the painting Abyss (1989), the water, viewed from above, is blood red and foaming white. She pairs this tumultuous scene with somber, red and black fan-shaped images on a red and black field, an image that the artist describes as having, “… the quiet, still timelessness of abstraction.”[2] One senses the raw emotions Walkingstick feels, but also her interior strength to cope with unexpected death.

Between 1996 and 2003, WalkingStick traveled frequently to Italy. She painted the Alps and began to pair these mountains with figurative elements. In Gioioso Variation I, painted in 2001, the left side of the diptych contains sensuous, mountain crevasses that fold and ripple to create a lush visual space; on the right side is a dancing couple, brown against a lighter brown ground, both sides under a shiny, metallic sky. The physicality and sensuousness of this image is both poetic and erotic.

Goioso Variation II. 2004

Goioso Variation II. 2004

In Wallowa Mountains Memory, Variations, painted on wood in 2004, WalkingStick pairs white and gray Sawtooth Mountains with an abstract Nez Perce parflêche design over purple mountains, all under a sky covered with gold leaf. These Oregon mountains are the traditional homeland of the Nez Perce people who were removed to reservations so that settlers could take over their land.  The parflêche represents the long tradition of abstract painting in the Americas. Accessioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, this work speaks eloquently of the way that Walkingstick combines abstraction and representation to explore visual poetry.



[1] Anne Barclay Morgan, “Kay WalkingStick: An Interview,” Art Papers (November/December, 1995).

[2] Ibid.

Additional Resources compiled by students in Contemporary Native American Art History course at the Institute of American Indian Art, Spring 2013 


Web-based Resources

“Kay WalkingStick.” Http://, n.d. Web. <>. 

WalkingStick, Kay. Http:// N.p., n.d. Web. <>.

Vantage Point. Smithsonian NMAI.


Selected Bibliography 

Bivens, Richard A. “Kay WalkingStick.” Contemporary Native American Art. Oklahoma: Metro, 1983. N. page. Print.Contents include earlier, original Paintings by Kay WalkingStick.

Gouma-Peterson, Thalia, and Kathleen McManus. Zurko. “Kay WalkingStick.” We, the Human Beings: 27 Contemporary Native American Artists. Wooster, OH: College of Wooster Art Museum, 1992. 39. Print.Page 39 contains a 21″ x 42″, charcoal on paper image titled:”I Can’t Make It Without You IV,” 1989, by Kay WalkingStick.