PEMBROKE — Beneath the layers of paint on Jessica Clark’s creations, stories unfold. Colors billow onto the canvas like a loosened spool of ribbon and weave a commentary on her culture, her people and her identity.
“Margaret Cummings Bullard, Lumbee,” is a painting of Clark’s grandmother sleeping in her favorite recliner. Shadows rumple her apron, and lines are etched onto her American Indian hands using pinks and yellows and browns.
“I think a person’s hands can tell a story,” Clark said, her ringed fingers punctuated by chipping nail polish. “You can tell if somebody works hard or if they do manual labor by their hands. My grandma worked on a farm and she raised 13 children.”
Clark recently shared this and other paintings at the annual Native American and Indigenous Studies Association Conference, a professional organization for those in scholarly fields related to indigenous nations and people throughout the world.
A member of the Lumbee Indian tribe, Clark was part of the first Lumbee panel to speak at the event. In a presentation titled “Southeastern Native Peoples Living in a Postmodern World,” Clark, who joined other alumni as well as staff and faculty of The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, discussed her use of art to challenge stereotypes. Through her paintings, she tells the stories of her people by telling the stories of her family.
“She is my mother’s mother … . She loves gardening, which is represented by the flower,” Clark said, pointing to a red flower pot in the painting. “She has a sleeping disease … so she’ll fall asleep in the middle of a conversation and then wake up and start right back to talking … . The flag represents my granddaddy. He was a veteran.”
Clark’s work could describe any American family, but like her and her grandmother, the painting comes from the perspective of a Lumbee Indian; a culture Clark never really reflected on until she left home.
At 24, Clark, who will be a visual art teacher at Lumberton Senior High School in the fall, moved to Savannah, Ga., to pursue a master’s of fine arts at Savannah College of Art and Design.
“I had a roommate and when I told her I was Native American … she looked at me and she said, ‘Well your cheekbones are kind of high and you’re a little tanned and your hair, I guess, is kind of straight.’”
Clark says these are the stereotypes she encountered of what an American Indian should look like. She said the stereotypes spilled over into other areas.
“I was constantly under a microscope. People thought I should dress a certain way, they thought my artwork should look a certain way, like with pictures of the pow wows or pine-cone patchwork — it should fit into the stereotype of very flat, with feathers in the hair, that kind of thing.”
But Clark’s work is as dynamic as her tribe’s history.
In her artist statement, she writes: “We intermix with other tribes and settlers, retained our cultural identity, and assimilated into European culture in order to survive, not succumbing to the meta-narrative of the Native American. Our daily lives bear witness to these tactics: We have various physical features, host pow wows, attend Christian churches, have lived in the same area for the last 10,000 years (not a reservation) speak with a distinct Southern drawl, and identify ourselves as Native American.”
Clark said that her cultural identity, combined with her experiences being stereotyped, only made her more tolerant and open-minded. It’s for that reason that she feels particularly satisfied when people of all ethnicities identify with the painting of her grandmother.
“It shows that a Native American grandmother looks different, but that anybody can still relate to her. So many people love this painting because they say it reminds them of their grandma. Some were white, some were black, some were Hispanic. It isn’t just Indian people who can relate to it, and that’s what I want — people to understand that Native Americans are different, but that you can still relate to us and our story.”
Clark credits her time away from home with strengthening her artwork by giving her the perspective to analyze her identity. She says having a sense of self gives her a sense of comfort. She has found that what makes people different, also makes them relateable.
“Everybody has a story to tell,” she said. “It’s just sometimes you need somebody to sit down and to listen to it. Or to even ask.”