As Wendy Red Star began to articulate her closing remarks, the video abruptly cut out in the middle of a sentence. The startling blankness of the empty screen was a reminder of our extraordinary times. The past hour was not spent in the galleries of the Wellin Museum, but on my phone, thousands of miles away in my childhood home.
On March 14th, 2020, the artist Wendy Red Star joined the Wellin’s Assistant Curator of Exhibitions and Academic Outreach, Alexander Jarman, for a live conversation on the Wellin’s Instagram account. Though originally scheduled to coincide with Red Star’s participation in the exhibition SUM Artists, the Wellin’s temporary closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic moved the conversation remotely to an online platform.
Throughout the hour-long conversation, Red Star answered questions regarding her varied use of mixed media, her relationship with her Native American culture, and the effects of quarantine on her artistic practice. A highlight of the interview came after Jarman asked a question regarding Red Star’s work in progress. From her workspace Red Star illustrated her genealogy by lifting up xeroxed cutouts of family members collected from personal archives and published photo journals. This simple demonstration in many ways acted as a metaphor for her artistic practice as it revealed her research methods, and the intimate act of physically holding her ancestors explored the active process of relating to her cultural history.
Though moving the conversation to an online platform was never the intended method, the Instagram Live platform provided many unexpected benefits. This remote conversation opened the geographical possibilities, allowing for the aforementioned exploration of Red Star’s studio and works in progress in Oregon, as well as expanding participation in the program to viewers all over the world. The virtual platform and its commenting feature also allowed the audience to react and ask questions in real-time without interrupting the flow of the conversation. This global audience identified with Red Star’s experience of learning about her heritage through brief textbook passages and public display cases, and one audience member inquired about research regarding their Crow Tribe ancestor. This online platform opened the conversation to individuals outside of the geographic borders of the Wellin Museum, and these perspectives truly enriched my experience as an audience member.
At the core of the Wellin Museum’s mission and Red Star’s artistic practice is a shared goal to educate the public through engagement with visual art. The richness of this online discussion proved that these goals can persist despite any closure of physical spaces and minor inconveniences of technical difficulties.