Breaking the Mold

Virginia Mattern's collection of Native American art is at the DAM.

Mattern obviously had equal parts enthusiasm and money, and for years she attended various Indian markets and acquired the finest pieces available. She was avid in her pursuit, sometimes getting in line at 2 a.m. since sales were on a first-come, first-served basis. Mattern went even further, tracking down prize-winning pieces from the past. Many of her acquisitions are displayed in the "Prizewinners" section, including Lucy Martin Lewis's cream-colored jar decorated with tiny bear paws, from 1962, and Garnet Pavatea's 1974 red, black and white jar that is covered with geometric decorations.

In 1925, the DAM became the first art museum in the country to collect American Indian art, and the booty today numbers some 16,000 objects. With the Mattern horde, it surveys not only the history of the region's indigenous people, but their current artistic life as well -- and that's something we can all give thanks for.

Riffing off the dark side of Thanksgiving -- the mistreatment of the Indians -- is never far out of mind when the topic is Native Americans. And at 7 p.m. on Friday, November 24, there will be a candlelight vigil commemorating the victims and survivors of the Sand Creek Massacre, which occurred on November 29, 1864. That day, Colonel John Chivington and a band of 1,000 volunteers from Denver slaughtered 150 men, women and children who had been living peacefully in Chief Black Kettle's Southern Cheyenne village situated along the Big Sandy Creek, just east of town. The somber remembrance will take place at the DAM's most noticeable example of contemporary American Indian art: "Wheel," a 48-foot-in-diameter installation by Hachivi Edgar Heap of Birds that is made of steel and red enamel panels and resides on the lawn of the Gio Ponti/James Sudler building (now known as the North Building).

With the Cheyenne being essential to the story, it's also relevant to check out Cheyenne Visions II, installed in the main American Indian galleries in the Ponti/Sudler building. Curated by Gordon Yellowman Sr. and Native Arts department head Blomberg, the show is an educational outing that includes photos by the DAM's Bill O'Connor depicting Cheyenne objects from the permanent collection, along with statements from the tribe's elders. After closing on December 31, the show will travel to various Cheyenne communities.

If you're one of those who, like so many of us, have out-of-town guests hankering for something to do this weekend, I recommend these uniquely Denver experiences at the DAM. A trip to the museum sure beats battling the crowds at the malls, and admiring the works of American Indian artists is more in keeping with the story of the first Thanksgiving.

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