Image: “Gift of the Earth” by Allan Houser.
I profess to being one of those longtime Phoenicians who takes the Heard Museum for granted. There it lies in central Phoenix, easy to reach from the interstate or from the light rail line, and I don’t visit it nearly often enough, even though I brag to visiting friends and relatives that it’s a world-class showcase of Native American art, culture and history.
And now the Heard has received a nice little boost from USA Today, which named “Build! Toy Brick Art at the Heard Museum” as one of 10 “must-see museum exhibits this summer.” On display through September 28, 2014, “Build!” not only proves the versatility and artistic potential of LEGO bricks, but also gives artists and designers permission to explore LEGO as a legitimate medium. Already drawing attention is a LEGO brick depiction of “Angry Birds: Tree of Life” by Marlowe Katoney (Navajo). Dave Shaddix served as designer and Heard volunteers helped put together the 6-foot-wide framed rendition of the artwork, using more than 57,000 bricks. In addition to the art, there are several hands-on stations for your own personal contribution to LEGO creativity, so no doubt the exhibit will be a crowd-pleaser this summer — for kids seeking a cool refuge and for many others.
But here’s my take: Don’t let “Build!” in the Lincoln Gallery be your only destination when you visit the Heard. In the next few months of brutal triple-digits you can escape to at least four other outstanding exhibits:
My first recommendation is “Stories Outside the Lines: American Indian Ledger Art,” which runs through September 21. Located in the Jacobson Gallery, it’s a precious collection of works on paper, beadwork and other items that provide narratives of Native life and times in the last century and a half. “Ledger art” comes from the use of materials at hand on the reservation, usually ledger books and pencils, to artistically document events and achievements. I was fascinated by a painting on cowhide by a Cheyenne artist, circa 1880, that depicts a battle in which enemies are delineated by their black moccasins and the hero bears a feathered shield. Also intriguing is a large watercolor-and-ink painting on muslin that recalls the famous Battle of Little Big Horn, and you can find General Custer in the right-bottom corner. The artist is a Crow named White Swan, who served as a U.S. Army Scout and who depicts himself in some of the battle scenes. The gallery’s second floor offers several contemporary forms of ledger art, including Native American pictographs on current-day clothing and quilts. I smiled at “Heath Ledger” (2008) by America Meredith (Cherokee), whose subject is, of course, the late actor. Take the kids on a short side trip to see “Stories Outside the Lines,” as there’s an area where they can make their own ledger art with magnetized pictures.
A second worthy show is in the Nichols Sculpture Garden: a year-long tribute to one of the Southwest’s most important sculptors, Allan Houser. It is a centennial celebration in two regards: Houser, a Chiricahua Apache, was born in 1914 (and lived until 1994) and 1914 was the year the Chiricahua people were released as prisoners of war and were allotted land in and around Fort Sill, Oklahoma.To underscore the milestones, the exhibit includes not only several of Houser’s medium-scale sculptures, but also work by his two sons, Phillip and Bob Haozous who, like their father, commemorate their heritage through sculpture.
Third, you might want to take a peek at “That’s the Way I Like It!” in the Lovena Ohl Gallery near the main entrance. The exhibit came about through a poll of museum visitors and Facebook followers as to which recent Heard acquisitions of contemporary art that they wanted to see on display. The result is an all-star lineup that includes works by Fritz Scholder, Dan Namingha, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Preston Singletary, Harry Fonseca and more. I spent some time with a work by Fausto Fernandez, who shows at Scottsdale’s Gebert Contemporary and who designed the beautiful “Tailplane Patterns” terrazzo floor at the PHX Sky Train’s 44th Street Station. On display is his “Demographic Fabric of America”(2009), a huge, dense collage of Texas flag imagery, the City of Phoenix logo, fabric pieces, blueprints and maps, all bringing to mind U.S.-Mexico border issues. The show is up through February 8, 2015.
Fourth, you can still catch “Chocolate, Chili & Cochineal: Changing Taste Around the World,” through November 2. It’s a kid-friendly lesson in history, culture, food and geography, all rolled into one as it delves into the origins of chocolate and chili and their ties to the Americas. In addition, it sheds light on a tiny insect called the cochineal, which arguably changed art many generations ago because it could be turned into a dye with a highly prized crimson shade. Several weavings and santos incorporating the dye are on display. Also, kids can study wall displays to find out which foods originated in the Americas (avocados, yum!) and the many ways in which corn became a symbol in utilitarian and decorative art.
The former teacher in me would be remiss if she didn’t mention that June 2014 is Teacher Appreciation Month at the Heard, affording 50 percent off general admission with a school ID. Military families, take note: through September 1, 2014, your general admission is free, thanks to the Blue Star Museums initiative. Finally, in July 2014, Sunday general admission is free, through Target funding. Just be aware that getting into the LEGO show requires a $5 gate fee.