Judith Lowry's vibrant paintings tell the story of her California Indian roots. Ranging from images based on her family history to oral legends inspired by her Pit River, Maidu and Washoe heritage, they represent her reflections on Native California.
Up at the Pence Gallery in Davis, "Our Stories" encompasses works from nearly two decades of the artist's career. The bulk of the show, selected by guest curator Karah English, comprises recent works that illustrate myths and stories told to Lowry by her father, Leonard Lowry, an American Indian who was a decorated hero in World War II.
Leonard appears in the earliest painting in the show, "Beautiful Dreamers," which depicts Lowry's father with his then-girlfriend and another Indian couple at a bar on New Year's Eve, 1945. According to English, at a time when alcohol sales were forbidden to Indians in many places, the portrait represents a moment of resistance when Leonard and his friends refused to be treated as second-class citizens.
In this compelling painting, Lowry reflects her mixed cultural heritage (her mother was Australian) and her experiences as an Army brat growing up in places where she was able to see European Old Master paintings. Symbolizing the deleterious effects of alcohol on Indian culture, small European-style cherubs set fire to the scene.
This work is her masterpiece. Also masterful is "Obedient Wives," a fiery image that depicts a scene in the legend that explains how the rat lost his hairy tail. Here Rat's wives, witchy owl-like creatures, surround their husband as he roasts in flames after losing a wrestling match with Weasel. It's a dramatic and bewitching image.
Moving forward in time, "He Glitters When We Walk" is an homage to the late Harry Fonseca, a much beloved Indian artist from Sacramento who won fame in Santa Fe, N.M., a strong center for Indian artists from all over the country. Here Lowry depicts Fonseca, who died in 2006 at the age of 50, with a golden halo. He wears a fine overcoat but his pants legs are rolled up as he stands in a pool of cleansing water as if deified by his passing to a more spiritual realm.
Most of Lowry's newer paintings are done in blue and white on a black background, the colors symbolizing a spiritual state. In the series "Weh Pom (Coyote) and the Star Sisters," she illustrates a story about the trickster god Coyote who tries to seduce the beautiful and chaste Star Sisters, who punish him by making him dance endlessly in the sky. Coyote, at the center, threatens to fly apart, as the beautiful sisters in California Indian regalia surround him.
In the same palette, she gives us smaller images of indigenous men and women with tribal tattoos on their faces. They range from an old and wizened woman to a beautiful young woman with a feather headdress and a necklace of beads and abalone shell.
"Cry Song," a triptych painted on ironing boards, represents a ceremonial song used to lessen the pain of losing loved ones. A male and female figure, with skeletal bones, flank a fiery spirit in the center who is split by a lightning bolt. The piece, notes English, honors all ancestors, male and female and the spirit of interdependence.
A group of small paintings from Lowry's illustrated children's book written by Chiori Santiago, "Home to Medicine Mountain," tell the story of Lowry's father and uncle, who were separated from their family and culture in an Indian boarding school. Here the boys escape their confinement and return home to see their family and attend the annual Bear Dance. English provides wall text that explains the cruelties Indian children endured in these schools.
On display along with Lowry's paintings are examples of Indian basketry from the California Indian Heritage Center. There are two magnificent burden baskets, used to gather food and medicine, and several basket caps, which Hupa, Yurok and Karok Indians wore as part of their women's dance regalia. A picture of women participating in a Flower Dance demonstration at a DQ University powwow in April 2012 demonstrates that basket caps are still worn today as a source of pride by Native California women and that cultural traditions continue to be observed.
What: Judith Lowry's artistic reflections on Native California
Where: Pence Gallery, 212 D St., Davis
When: 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. Through Jan. 27.
information: (530) 758-3370, www.pencegallery.org