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A Native American Artist Bridges Indigenous and Western Cultures

Oregon artist Ka’ila Farrell-Smith celebrates her multicultural Pacific Northwest upbringing through her art.

Andrew Salomone

This article originally appeared on Creators.

Family plays a profound role in the work of Oregon artist Ka'ila Farrell-Smith. As the daughter of Al Smith, a member of the Klamath Native American Nation, and Jane Farrell, who is of European descent, Farrell-Smith's work reflects her cultural heritage as well as the impact that her parents have had on her as individuals. "I grew up in a family that encourages the creative process as a life practice. My mother and father both studied art and deeply valued free, open-ended creative expression, through access to mixed-media," Farrell-Smith tells Creators.

Raised in Oregon, Farrell-Smith was exposed to both Indigenous and Western influences throughout her childhood. As a result, her work often combines techniques and imagery from both cultural backgrounds. "Art has always been made from people from different times, cultures, and places spanning human history. To fully grasp the images I make and exhibit, the viewer also needs to do the work of standing on the bridge between Western and Indigenous cultures," the artist says.

Farrell-Smith says her parents encouraged her to be creative from a young age. As a toddler, they even made a studio space just for her. "My mom said that wherever we were, we would make a beautiful, comfortable space, and that 'our home was our canvas.' We had an aesthetic in the home that was really conducive to making art out of nothing. She calls it 'creative poverty.' With enough fabric, paint, and rugs, you can make a beautiful space to invite creativity," Farrell-Smith says.

Outside of the home, Farrell-Smith was introduced to powerful cultural experiences by her father. "My father was in his 70s when I was a kid, and it was a time in his life that he had returned to Indigenous ceremonies and practices that I now understand as authentic actions of decolonization and re-Indigenizing," she says.

In addition to sun dance and sweat lodge ceremonies, Farrell-Smith and her father worked to provide Native American inmates with access to cultural practices. "We were a part of an inter-tribal, urban Indian community, and I was brought up understanding the protocols and importance of Indigenous culture and practices," explains Farrell-Smith. These rich experiences inform Farrell-Smith's current art practice. "All of this has deeply impacted how I make paintings now: intentionally layering marks, building surfaces, and erasing and revealing the history of the paintings I make," she says.

Farrell-Smith continues to mine her personal ancestry for inspiration through exhaustive research on traditional processes and materials. "During this continual research, I noticed similarities of functional, beautiful objects and artworks that humans have made across cultures—like baskets, tools, abstract designs, and the way symbols are used to mark history and tell stories," she explains.

Farrell-Smith now works in a studio in Portland, OR, where her art practice is constantly changing as she strives to visually express the experience of her diverse background—a challenge that she says is well worth the effort. "The rewards of making and exhibiting work that occupies a space in-between different cultures is the plethora of beauty, connections, and humanity that is found in my inspirations. I get to be a mentee and a mentor, and the ongoing learning process keeps me fresh and excited to keep researching, which inspires new ways to make marks and think about materials," Farrell-Smith says.

Ka'ila Farrell-Smith's work is currently on display in Celilo Falls: The Center of the Universe at the Gretchen Schuette Art Gallery in Salem, OR through May 5, and at the Oregon Fringe Festival. See more of Farrell-Smith's work and upcoming projects on her website.

All year, we're highlighting 50 States of Art projects around the United States. This month, we're covering Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Tennessee, and Delaware. To learn more, click here.

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