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Ucross Celebrates First Native American Artist Fellows

Catherine Wheeler
Artists Sydney Pursel, left, and Brenda Mallory, right, stand in the Ucross Gallery for the opening of their exhibition. Pursel and Mallory received Ucross's first fellowship for Native American visual artists, and the exhibition is a part of their award.

The Ucross Foundation's ranch is usually very quiet and serene, but tonight, the art gallery that sits on the grounds is filled with the sounds of people and the art itself.

A video of performance art plays on the projector and its music simmers in the room. The sound of beer bottle caps smacking together punctuates the celebration as the audience walks through it.

Ucross is celebrating an exhibition opening for two, important former residents: its first Native American artists fellows.

The Ucross Foundation is home to a residency program that allows artists, writers, and composers to come to the ranch in northeastern Wyoming and focus on their work without any of the distractions of their regular lives.

The residency program has been around since the 1980s and has many celebrated alumni. But Ucross Foundation board of trustees member Lisa Hatchadoorian said, over the years, the board and staff started talking about bringing more diverse artists to Ucross.

"We saw there was a gap in representation and opportunities," Hatchadoorian said.

In 2017, Ucross announced its fellowship for Native American Visual Artists. The fellowship includes a month-long residency, a stipend, and the promise of an exhibition of the artist's work at the Ucross Gallery.

Artists Brenda Mallory and Sydney Pursel were the first recipients of the fellowships and attended residencies last year. Pursel said she was excited about the opportunity since she had just finished graduate school and didn't have a lot of time to work on her art.

"There's so much history of Natives in this land and really all over the United States, and so it's really exciting to see opportunities being opened up to that population," Pursel said.

Ucross board member Bill Gilbert said the Native American history and culture in the Ucross area was the big inspiration for offering the fellowship.

"We're in the high plains here, right in the middle of what was a very extensive Native Americanculture. So geographically and culturally it makes sense for us to be involved in Native American arts. It's where we are," Gilbert said.

He said the fellowship was created as a way to get recognition for more contemporary Native American artists.

"Native American culture hasn't been sufficiently respected and represented in contemporary art. We have great respect for Native traditional arts, but we haven't really done enough to bring Native artwork into the conversation in contemporary art," Gilbert said.

Fellow Brenda Mallory said that's important because not all Native American artists do traditional art like many expect them to.

"What is Native art? We are contemporary people who live in this contemporary world. We make work. And that work may reflect traditional ways of making or it may reflect more of the Endo-European cultures that we live in here," Mallory said.

Still, both Mallory and Pursel say their art sometimes takes on Native themes. For instance, while at Ucross, Pursel said she made a rainbow curtain out of beer bottle caps in the same way a traditional healing dress is made.

Ucross Board member Lisa Hatchadoorian said she has been impressed by both Mallory and Pursel's art. So impressed, she wanted the exhibition to go to the Museum of Art in Fort Collins, Colorado, where Hatchadoorian is the director.

"The art world can be stratified on a lot of different levels, and this particular fellowship evens the playing field out a little bit," Hatchadoorian said.

Exposure is one of the biggest benefits for the fellows. The exhibition will stay at the Ucross Gallery through September. After that, it will travel down to the University of Wyoming for a showing.

Pursel said the attention has been one of the lasting benefits of the fellowship.

"Definitely for me, not being someone who has ever worked in the gallery system, I'm getting a lot of exposure through that," she said.

The Ucross board and staff said they're pleased with how the program has gone so far. They've already announced their second round of visual arts fellows. Board member Gilbert said they also plan to expand the fellowship to Native American writers and those who work in the performing arts.

"And then we're starting now to reach out to curators of Native American art to see if there are ways to help our artists get connected with curators and help curators with promoting the Native arts, and hopefully from curators, get new artists to come here, so it all builds," he said.

Both Mallory and Pursel said they are thankful for the opportunity and they hope to see the fellowship reach more artists.

Catherine Wheeler comes to Wyoming from Kansas City, Missouri. She has worked at public media stations in Missouri and on the Vox podcast "Today, Explained." Catherine graduated from Fort Lewis College with a BA in English. She recently received her master in journalism from the University of Missouri. Catherine enjoys cooking, looming, reading and the outdoors.
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