Kaila Farrell-Smith wants to decolonize her mind, and yours. She wants to repair the damage of the brutal concept from her father’s childhood: “Kill the Indian. Save the Man.” The Portland-based painter is exploring “split-headedness,” which she says “comes from being raised within an indigenous/tribal paradigm as well as having education in linear, Western concepts and society,” through her oil portraits and landscapes.
Her textured landscapes will go on display, along with the work of 11 other artists, as part of Portland State Univeristy’s MFA Exhibition Exchange Project at Springfield’s Ditch Projects gallery on March 8. Each year, PSU participates in the exchange project, in which MFA students share and show their work at different schools (and affiliated galleries); last year, they were paired with University of Montana Missoula and the San Francisco Art Institute; this year they are joining forces with the UO. The 2013 exhibit, Sometimes Between Notions, which will also feature photography, time-based media and installations, pays homage to Ken Kesey because, as Farrell-Smith puts it, he “embodied exploring ideas.”
Farrell-Smith, who moved to Portland from Eugene when she was 18 to pursue painting, wants to explore her heritage. “I’m Klamath Indian,” she says. “It took me a while to understand that there’s this need to return and start looking at my indigenous identity, looking at how painting explores what that means in a contemporary society — how indigenous people identify with displacement from their ancestral homelands.”
She is the daughter of Al Smith — perhaps best known to the greater public as the defendant in Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith — who was fired from his job for ingesting peyote during a religious ritual. She describes how, as a child, her father was taken away from his home and placed in a Catholic boarding school for assimilation, which, along with her own ambivalence toward her roots, has brought her to the idea of split-headedness.
“It’s really emotional,” she says. “How much do you share?” Farrell-Smith has visited the Klamath lands of Southern Oregon and says she feels “kind of like a traveler” there, but that “having that connection to a landscape” is important to her. This connection can be seen in paintings like “Lavafield Stronghold,” a somewhat abstracted landscape of organic lines, slate blues and pops of burnt orange and lemon yellow. The piece’s serene and beautiful rusty, earthy quality looks like it was executed with crushed minerals rather than oil paints.
“I was thinking of the lava beds in Northern California and Southern Oregon where my tribe is from,” she says.
The art world has taken notice of the poignant explorations of her heritage — in 2012, the Portland Art Museum purchased “After Boarding School: In Mourning,” a portrait that depicts a Klamath girl whose hair has been chopped off, a common practice at boarding schools. Farrell-Smith points out that in her culture, “cutting hair is really only when someone dies. It’s mourning.”
Sometimes Between Notions runs March 8-11 at Ditch Projects, Springfield, 303 S. 5th St. #165. Opening reception runs 6 to 9 pm Friday, March 8.