The Cultural Contributions of Artists: Balancing Artwork, Work, and Home

Dyani Reynolds-White Hawk, circa 2000. Image provided courtesy of the artist.

This essay examines the cultural contributions of artists and the ways that we negotiate our worklife and our homelife – something all artists have in common.


For the past two years, I’ve been thinking a lot about the topic of home. I thought about it before then, of course, but I had done my thinking on a purely personal level. I had so many categories of home: the literal house that I grew up in on Bank Street in Bakersfield, California. Then there was the town itself. Then there were regional homes, places my family has historically been connected to, that I heard stories about in my earliest memories.

An issue that constantly comes up in the field of Native American art is this same issue of home. One of the pieces of data about any artist, part of historical research on an artist, is where the artist was born, where the artist trained, and where they did their work as an artist at key moments in their careers. When talking about Native artists, some complications arise. The authenticity, or “Indianness,” of the artist can have a powerful impact on how the artwork is perceived. Market-wise, it seems to be preferred for the artist to have been born and lived for a long period of time on their reservation (or reserve in Canada). It isn’t usually possible to make a living off of art while residing permanently, full-time, solely on a reservation. Things get complicated for tribes in the US that went through the allotment process under the Dawes Act between 1887-1934. My tribe, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, does not have a reservation. We’re either urban or rural Indians, or we live on somebody else’s reservation. Consider that other tribes were forcibly moved from one region to another. There is an ancestral home and then there is the reservation home. Some tribes chose to leave one region for another and include the stories of migration in their history. Home changes. The question, “Where are you from?” gets complicated. Is it where do you live now? Where have you lived? How far back should one answer? Maybe home isn’t a place at all. Maybe it’s people, family, friends. Home might be where the greatest concentration of them is.

These issues come out in the study of our artwork, and sometimes within the actual artworks themselves. I’ve been writing about artworks that are in some sense about “home” for the past two years. I participated in a series of gatherings of Native and First Nations women artists on the topic of Art, Gender, and Community at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe, New Mexico. A team of those of us who attended wrote a book based on the conversations we held there at SAR. The book, titled Art in Our Lives, will be available this August. This essay here is not in the book, but came from listening to this group of women artists talk about home and work.

It became clear that we couldn’t really talk about home without also talking about work. Sometimes it was about our work as artists, but other times it was about making a living through other kinds of work, or some kind of combination of the two. I have loosely followed economic research about artists for the past several years as it relates to my regular wage-work teaching undergraduate students who aspire to be artists. The economic picture for artists in general is always one of doom and gloom, so I try not to pay too much attention to it. Incomes for artists are abysmally low. Economists have tried to account for the fact that large numbers of individuals seek training as artists in numerous disciplines regardless of the economic uncertainty and the high odds against appreciable success. Here is one of the more probable theories as described by Pierre-Michel Menger in “Artistic Labor Markets and Careers”:

Artistic work can be considered as highly attractive along a set of measurable dimensions of job satisfaction that include the variety of the work, a high level of personal autonomy in using one’s own initiative, the opportunities to use a wide range of abilities and to feel self-actualized at work, an idiosyncratic way of life, a strong sense of community, a low level of routine, and a high degree of social recognition for the successful artists. All these benefits have a so-called shadow price, which may be compensated for by a lower income than would be expected from less amenable jobs.[1]

For Native artists, there are additional factors. Considering that the highest rates of unemployment in the US and in Canada occur on reservations and reserves, any kind of work, even underpaid and uncertain work, can be crucial. When the work also serves to maintain cultural connections, fosters community interaction, and reinforces traditional value systems and natural resource management, the decision to pursue artistic work makes sense.

Work Diagram 1, designed by the author. Click to see larger version.

Managing the demands of artistic work, family life, community involvement, and sometimes a second type of wage work is complicated and gets negotiated in a variety of ways. One of the more interesting articles I came across regarding negotiating the boundaries of home and work came from work by Christena Nippert-Eng. She envisioned a continuum between segmentation and integration. Some individuals segment their activities, keeping home and work as separate as possible. Work does not impinge upon family life and family life does not insert itself into the workplace. Integrators do not delineate between the categories. Work is done at home and at the office. Work is integrated into family life and family is also integrated into work. She ties the individual focus on boundaries between work and home in with our modern view of self, which tends toward multifaceted identities operating within multiple social roles. We separate out different aspects of ourselves which operate in specific times, places, and socially appropriate circumstances. We may then make distinctions between who we are at home and who we are at work. The distinctions are more noticeable for segmentors than integrators. This boundary work is important in supporting the variations in who we are. Nippert-Eng says,

In this light, the boundary work of home and work is the process of creating and maintaining more or less distinct “territories of the self.” This implies that much of what we see in our boundary work is the classification of certain forms of self, as well as time and space. Moreover, the idea of a “territory” is important because it implies that a self does not equate with a mentality, alone. Rather, we portray and reinforce a self through our bodies and our physical, tangible surroundings. Boundary work takes two forms: boundary placement work and boundary transcendence (or transition) work. Both are essential for placing and maintaining boundaries. Placement work more visibly draws the line between realms and selves, while transition work helps us accommodate that line, by allowing us to mentally jump back and forth over it.[2]

Nippert-Eng carefully points out that this boundary work can shift quite dramatically according to the needs of the individual in any given circumstance. The analysis of this kind of boundary work was a bit simplistic for consideration of the complexities in the lives of artists who live and work in multiple cultural communities, so I started thinking about how Nippert-Eng’s integration/separation model might be adapted to fit our experiences. I think there is a kernel of truth there – many of our struggles as artists, as women, as Native and mixed-race persons, come down to trying to separate those parts of our lives at some points and integrate them at others. I am often a visual thinker, so it helped me to draw diagrams that illustrate some of the complexities and variations in our lives, based on a series of conversations with a group of Native women artists that I had been a part of during the project hosted by the School for Advanced Research.

Work Diagram 2

Here are my observations, based on our conversations:

Some Native artists have a home off the reservation and also have a home on the reservation. We may not “own” the home on the reservation (hereafter abbreviated as res because it can stand in for the US term “reservation” and the Canadian term “reserve”); the home may belong to a family member and we may always have a home there that way. This kind of living has obligations to both homes and both households. Others live on the res full-time and may work on-res or off-res. Some of us live entirely off-res and only come to the res for specific activities. Incorporating art-making in to the mix, in addition to wage work, further complicates the picture. Everyone in the group I participated in has had to work another job in addition to artwork at some point, and most of us are still working a wage-earning job in addition to making art. I further separated art-making into three stages:

Stage 1: research, learning, gathering materials

Stage 2: art-making

Stage 3: networking, marketing

I tried to diagram particular moments of how the artists in our group have arranged our work/home lives. From the stories, it is clear that those organizations, those boundaries, have had to shift repeatedly. Sometimes these shifts happened as a result of conscious choices, sometimes in response to family necessity or economic necessity. None of the diagrams represent better or worse arrangements. None of the diagrams reflect a permanent state either.

Diagram 1 shows how the dynamics of an individual with two homes, on one the reserve or reservation, and one off, might work with this situation. Wage work, housework, and art work are not the only kinds of work that we engage in. I included a category for cultural work such as community projects, fostering native language usage, tribal governance, clan involvement, etc. Many of these activities might also have some overlap with the household work category depending upon the degree of integration or segmentation a person builds into her life. (All of the participants in these conversations were women. I am interested in hearing from men about how the factors in organizing family and work might differ from the situations I have diagrammed here).

Work Diagram 3

Diagram 2 illustrates how one might organize the boundaries in a situation where the artist lives on the reservation and works off-reservation. In this case, the nature of the artwork requires materials, knowledge, or collaboration with family and friends on the reservation and there is a high degree of overlap or integration between the category of cultural work and art work. Diagram 3 represents an artist who lives and works off-reservation but maintains involvement on the res without a household there, and obtains materials or some other type of cultural resource as part of the artistic process. The proportion of time commitment to urban-Indian cultural endeavors is usually higher than reservation-based cultural work in this case. Diagram 4 represents an artist who lives and works on the reservation and whose off-reservation activities are marketing artwork and involvement in inter-tribal organizations, perhaps on a national or international scale.

Of course, relative time-commitments are changeable and overlaps between categories can be cultivated or segmented out in response to new circumstances. At one point or another, every artist in our group spoke about trying to balance all of these factors in our lives. The diagrams may not be helpful in thinking about our dilemmas, but they may help clarify what some of the balancing acts are. I find it intriguing that these diagrams, with very small adaptations, could describe the experiences of non-Native artists as well, whether they have one home or two. Everyone does some kind of cultural work, and most people are involved in more than one kind of community. Many whites feel an absence of culture. Personalizing a diagram in this format might make cultural involvement in white culture just as visible for white artists as for Native artists. I don’t know any artists, regardless of ethnic background, who don’t do some kind of cultural work in addition to wage work and household work. The fault of the diagrams is that they make dividing up one’s time and energy seem like a simple, logical, and painless matter. Dyani Reynolds White Hawk’s painting circa 2000 (at the top of this post) depicts the emotional costs much more accurately.

I would love to hear from more artists, Native and non-Native, on this topic.

Work Diagram 4.

[1] Pierre-Michel Menger, “Artistic Labor Markets and Career,” Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 25 (1999), p. 555.

[2] Christena Nippert-Eng, “Calendars and Keys: The Classification of ‘Home’ and ‘Work,’” Sociological Forum, Vol. 11, No. 3, Special Issue: Lumping and Splitting (Sep. 1996), 569.

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