Clay. It is one of the oldest materials used by the Indigenous peoples of this continent to create utilitarian objects. Clay pots held the food that fed our bodies. Clay was also used to create decorative items, spiritual items, and items of adornment. Now, the raw material continues to play an important role in Indigenous traditions and creativity. It is of the earth and is an important facilitator for creation.
Shinnecock artist Courtney M. Leonard takes the material and creates special dangle earrings formed from glittering micaceous clay.
On this "Earthen'Wear'", she paints pathways: lines going this way and that, representing magnified records and paths we take in life. On these tiny spaces we get a glimpse of activity. Courtney is a thoughtful artist and one with a keen intellect. I recently had the great opportunity to chat with her about her work and her ideas on art.
BB: Can you tell us a bit about why you decided to create jewelry as one of your primary forms of art?
CL: Jewelry is an extension of the body and mind. An opportunity to design architectural renditions of our being. My design response remains with our Eastern Algonquin vessels. The “mouth”, “neck”, “body”, and “foot” are all metaphorical links to our human architecture and so I wanted to re-establish this material conversation. The linear compositions are merely zoomed in aspects of our stamped records of time, usually placed within the “neck” of the vessel.
BB: Can you tell us a bit about the general process you go through to create your work?
CL: As a hand-building alchemist, experimentation, questions, and conversation are all at the beginning of my process. Then through touch, the rest tends to manifest. I have always been material responsive, placing elements of design and function as an imperative aspect of jewelry as human architecture.
BB: Where do you find inspiration for your pieces?
CL: I realized a while back that everything comes full circle. There is no true claim on “innovation” without recognition of a past collective response. I am inspired by that record. I am inspired by our cultural landscape.
BB: What has been your most challenging project to date?
CL: Current work is always the most challenging, just like sparking a conversation with a new group of people. I might be familiar to a certain degree, but I never know exactly where the action may take me. I remain fascinated that one word can have multiple definitions in the English Language. Presently I am exploring the word “breach”, as in a whale breaching the surface or failing to observe law. Our Shinnecock men were whalers up until the late 1800s when it was banned off the coast of Long Island, New York. And so I have begun to place myself in a conceptual role of woman as whaler, as recorder, and as a logger of time and presence while creating this visual dialogue.
BB: What does Native fashion mean to you?
CL: Design at its core is indigenous. It is a natural plan. A human response. The best design extends from truly knowing our body. What is fashion without function? If fashion is currently defined in the English language as a “popular trend” or “a manner of doing something”, then as indigenous designers we continue to make some of the most intriguing and inspirational forms that function. And, Remain In Style.
BB: Who are your favorite Native designers?
CL: Shaaxanni and Mercedes at Indigenous Princess, The Tsosie-Gaussoin Family, Cheyenne Harris, Leah Shenandoah, Isaac Dial, Louie Gong, Adrienne Whitewood...
BB: What is something that a lot of people don’t know, but should know, about the Shinnecock Nation?
CL: Shinnecock in our language translates to “people of the level land” or “people of the shore”. The Hamptons border our reservation. And it is in fashion that during the summer season Tory Burch, Betsey Johnson, Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, Reed Krakoff, Ralph Lauren, Nicole Miller, Elie Tahari, and Vera Wang are just a few of our neighbors. Once Labor Day comes they head to the Hampton Classic and we have one of our largest socials. Come Tuesday their lights turn off in each wing, a few stay on for the help, and on our side of the bay...we remain.
Click here to shop her collection.