An Interview with Rochelle Kulei Nielson, HARTS 2021-2022 Artist-in-Residence
Caitlin Dwyer Young
From my first question, Rochelle Kulei Nielson gently shifted my focus. I arrived at our interview ready to talk about her career as an artist, a singular individual with a series of successful gallery openings. She is that — but she widened the conversation to encompass her context: as an Indigenous artist, someone for whom art is communal endeavour, spiritual practice, and cultural inheritance. This year’s HARTS Artist-in-Residence played peekaboo with my daughter on Zoom while we talked about the generosity of art-making, her commitment to process, and the essential role of community in creative work.
This interview has been edited for brevity.
Caitlin: I want to hear about the origins of your art practice. When did you start making art and what originally got you interested in art making? Where does that come from for you?
Rochelle: First of all, I’m from the Northwestern band of Shoshone Nation. Sometimes there’s a stereotype of what Indian art is supposed to look like, Native American art, Indigenous art, and yet it’s also contemporary work. And what does that mean? In the Indigenous perspective, we look at: how does art serve the community? And it has always served the community first. It was never individualized. It was not about gaining profits. It’s not about seeking to be an artist. It’s not a singular thing. Art is made for the community and that’s how you serve each other.
But then as an artist, you bring in the community to be a part of your work. So then everyone has that ownership of the work.
One example is Maria Martinez. She was a famous Pueblo potter. And she felt bad for her community because they were selling theirs [for less money]. And so she would go to their pots and she would sign all their work so that they could get the same price as her. It was all about that community.
Then along come the Europeans and then they tell us what art is…There were several [artists] who broke that and said, wait a minute, we’re doing contemporary art, we’re abstract artists. We’re seeing so many different types of art. And then they’re like: why are we required to stay in this [traditional] way? And that’s another thing, historically: we’re always adapting to new materials. We borrowed, we traded with new materials.
Caitlin: It’s really interesting to hear you contextualizing this, because one of the questions I wanted to ask you about the use of repurposed modern materials. You bring in cars in some of your exhibits. So you’re really explicitly taking found objects in the community. Can you talk a little bit about how you try to incorporate those different materials?
Rochelle: Why I make the work I do is because of my history and upbringing. My reservation was burnt in the sixties and seventies. And the land was sold underneath us in Washington and Utah illegally and given to the farmers, and the farmers came and they burned our homes. And so everyone had to move to different reservations or the city, in my case. We moved to the city in Boise, Idaho.
My mother didn’t want me to learn the language. She didn’t want to teach me the traditional craftsmanship that she had learned, the foods, the cooking, all those things that define who we are as people. None of that was passed down because her fear of discrimination and the difficulty she had and her family through boarding schools. And so with that, then they’re like, okay, we don’t want to teach any of this because we fear that you’re going to experience this.
When I first entered art school at Marylhurst University, I thought I had to just mimic whatever was shown to me, mainly European artwork. It wasn’t until a professor introduced me to James Luna — he’s an artist, but more of a performing artist — and when she showed that to me, I’m like, you mean I could bring in my own culture? I could bring in things that I connect with?
And that’s when I started really delving into my history. I started to make angry work because I realized what the government had done to the people. And I’m mad. I’m exposing everything. I’m trying to paint everything I see and learn, owning that story and that power.
In my master’s program, I thought, I want to connect with my language. I want to connect with the craftsmanship. I want to connect with storytelling.
On the reservation, there were abandoned cars. We didn’t have the concept of something that it was never going to get disintegrated, wasn’t going to go into the earth naturally. So it just stayed there. And then at that time, we didn’t have the means to get a tow truck and take it to a junk yard, or we used it and always recycled the parts.
And that’s where the car comes in. Because I realized that we all can relate with vehicles. And as an artist, you want to try to reach your audience. Everyone has stories that they can tell in their vehicle, right? Their first kiss, their first time they get to drive alone by themselves or take out friends. For me, these reservation cars, we call them Rez cars, that was my playground. I didn’t have a jungle gym. I didn’t have the monkey bars. I had these abandoned cars and I would play in them for hours and hours. So that’s where that idea came from the truck: I wanted some way to really have people relate with that, but it was also my story.
And then bring it into community. If you go in and look at the car there’s details of beadwork. I had everybody in my Native community over to my home and they all beaded. And then I would have dinner. I’d have food for everyone. And that way, when they went to the show, they could take ownership of that.
But during this whole process, I’m teaching myself and having my mom teach me the language again. She’s now open about it. And she’s learning the history of her history.
And then I got to record my mother telling stories in the Shoshone language. And she gave herself permission. It became this beautiful event of healing for everyone. I didn’t have an interpreter. I didn’t want to have one. So [in the exhibit] you got to sit in the car and listen to the stories.
It was beautiful. It just brought tears to my eyes to see her tell the story and, and her language. She was so happy and it was like her inner child, like I get to tell a story and not be ashamed about that.
Caitlin: Have you always been an artist?
Rochelle: I was in nursing and then I decided I didn’t really want it. I just was a nurse because everybody told me I was a nurturer and that’s what I should do. My mom went to school; she’s the only person in her whole family of 13 who actually graduated from high school, got a degree in college and served in the army for seven years. So I had an example and just knew I needed to do it. I didn’t know why I wanted to go to school. So they said nursing. I’m like, I guess I like science, so sure.
I was specifically told through a dream that art was where I needed to be. And I had never done anything. Never studied art, never taken classes. Never even knew I was creative, but I was. That wasn’t a thing that my mother recognized because she is trying to put food on the table. She was a single mother. And that’s something traditionally would have been recognized, had we been a community. But because of the trauma, we’re separated. And that’s purposeful by the government too, to separate community — because [community] is strength.
Caitlin: I love hearing how process is really important. So it’s not only inviting people to do the bead work, but it’s also having a dinner with people. It’s not just that people are involved in the end product, but that people are involved in the process. I’m wondering, obviously since we’ve been so isolated has the pandemic affected your ability to make art in community? Has that been difficult for you?
Rochelle: It’s been depressing in that way. Like I really connect with the Native community. I always had women come over — and men — but I would have an activity night where everybody brought a project. Even if it’s just bead work, whatever the project was. Or maybe someone had someone who passed away. Well, our tradition is we have giveaways. And so they would bring all their things or we would all contribute to that, and then create these packages for these giveaways. We are starting it again, but it’s just only my daughters and a niece. I just miss community so much and always want everyone to be safe. I don’t want to be responsible if someone got sick.
Caitlin: Do you have particular artist influences, artists that have really been powerful for you?
Rochelle: Jaune Quick-to-See Smith does that same thing, always bringing in the community, but she’s a feminist in a matriarchal indigenous society in that feminism means everyone rises together. Not who’s going to get to the top first as an artist. She advocates for every indigenous man, but more so women. She’ll introduce you to so-and-so and so-and-so, and so-and-so because she wants everyone to be elevated, to be successful. And Marie Watt does that really well, too. Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, she was my idol. I read everything about her and love her work. She’s been my inspiration.
Caitlin: So you teach painting and drawing and then in the Native Studies program, Intro to Native Studies and Indigenous Art in U.S. and Canada. Native Studies is a relatively new program at PCC. What has that experience been like teaching in that program?
Rochelle: I feel like I’m in my home, because I don’t have to compartmentalize who I am. As an Indigenous person, teaching Indigenous courses, I can’t separate mind-body-spirit, because that is who I am. And I can’t. And I get to talk about that. I get to talk about my wisdom. I get to talk about the culture because it’s not religion. It’s the way of being. I love that part that I get to totally divulge everything about myself and my experience as an Indigenous woman. So that is the part I really enjoy. Not to say that I don’t talk about it in art classes because spirituality is part of the making and connection for all artists. But I don’t get to totally delve into it in the way I get to in the Native Studies program.
HARTS 2021-2022 Artist-in-Residence, Rochelle Kulei Nielsen, is a member of the Northwestern Band of Shoshone Nation and holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts at Marylhurst University and Master of Fine Arts in Contemporary Studio Practice at Portland State University. She is very involved in the Native American community having spent the last ten years as Coordinator of the Native American Education Program in Vancouver, WA. She is an Adjunct Professor of Art at Portland Community College, Eastern Washington University, and an affiliated faculty with the Indigenous Nations Studies Program at PSU through her course on Indigenous Critique of Native American Art. Rochelle served as the coordinator of the Northwest Indian Story Teller Program with the Wisdom of the Elders, Inc. Rochelle maintains an active studio practice, with over 20 solo, competitive group and invitational exhibitions and portfolio exchanges dealing with Indigenous inappropriate appropriations and Indigenous history. Visit Rochelle’s website via this link.
HARTS 2021-2022 Writer-in-Residence, Caitlin Dwyer Young, is a writer, storyteller, poet and multimedia journalist. She’s always curious about the deeper story behind the headlines. Her essays braid reflection, observation, journalistic interviews, and scholarly research, all in search of intimate, human portraits. In her poetry, she explores mythology and motherhood. She also helps produce and host the podcast Many Roads to Here. She studied journalism at the University of Hong Kong and creative writing at the Rainier Writing Workshop. For the last five years, she has taught at PCC with the Future Connect program and the English department. When she’s not teaching, she is probably wandering around in the forest or lost in a book. Visit her website here.