Summer School at Red Cloud: A Time to Create

July 21, 2017


Audrey Jacobs, The Heritage Center’s Museum Educator, is passionate about bringing the collection into the classroom and inspiring students to create their own art. This summer she organized a range of activities for Red Cloud’s summer school students—drawing on everything from pottery design to ledger art—to spark creative thinking and discovery. Through each activity, students not only learned to express themselves—but also about the essential role art has played in their community, their history, and their culture.  

Here, Audrey reflects on what she and her students took away from these creative projects—and what she’s looking forward to exploring next.



"As a museum educator, my practice centers on making connections between people and art. It can be intimidating trying to understand that piece of art hanging on a crisp, white wall, with its label and its fancy accession number. Sometimes this means having a conversation about the artwork, but sometimes I get to help people, especially our school’s students, discover their way into an artwork through making their own.

And when summer’s on, it’s time to make.

For summer school classes, I often bring our collection–the artwork itself or images–to the classroom. This summer, I brought in several types of different media and an artist from our community. We wondered what each artist was thinking about and how the artist made their artwork. We explored, through making our own art, the same ideas brought up in our discussions.

We had fun exploring Gordon M. CoonsMakwa bear mask, made of found objects from the kitchen. Students readily talked about the weird materials they noticed and identified the shapes these materials made. Then we thought about the basic shapes we need to make our favorite animals. Students found out that they can see the same shapes that artists see to make figures in their art.

Sometimes we ran into new ideas in the middle of our project. After learning about Ella Irving, a potter from right here on the Pine Ridge Reservation, we made pottery designs of our own with just red, black, and white paint. Many of the students discovered that it’s hard to think in just a few colors, to switch from emphasizing colors to emphasizing patterns. Suddenly, we all realized it’s hard to step into potters’ shoes and limit our palette to just a few colors.

We also practiced making ledger art, an art form of drawings and paintings on ledger paper, newspaper, and other found paper. This artistic tradition grew out of an older hide painting tradition. Like most people all over the world, the people of the Great Plains always had a strong visual storytelling tradition and many of their stories were documented on buffalo robes.

At the same time that hide became hard to find (due to over-hunting by settlers and confinement of Native people to reservations), shopkeepers and government agents had ledger books and other kinds of paper like newspapers or old letters. These pieces of paper were given or sold to the Native artists to draw their stories on.

My students did not love drawing over the ledger paper’s writing and lines. It challenged their ability to compose their image while ignoring the crazy visual stimuli in the background. They just wanted a nice blank surface to create their visual stories. Using the ledger paper was an exercise in empathy and understanding for many of their ancestors who used found paper out of material necessity rather than pure aesthetic choice. 

Ledger art is only one of many living traditions where artists today continue the practice and develop new styles. I have the extreme good fortune to teach in a community with so many artists working in diverse media, new and old. At our school, we usually find Sam Locke helping us keep the classrooms clean, but he has a talent for working with leather and parfleche as well. This summer, he helped students learn about these art forms. He developed a necklace project for some of our younger students, using real rawhide, and a leather bag project for the older students. Sam helped the classes create their own art  and to  understand that artists can be found all throughout their own community.



For these leather and rawhide projects, we talked about storytelling through pictures, and even abstract designs. Many of our young artists decided to draw meaningful symbols and pictures, some even worked written messages into their designs. One student wrote, “My family might be a little crazy, but all the best peeps are,” on the bag that she was so proud to begin wearing as she finished it. I admired that she brought something deeply personal, warts and all, into her art and made it beautiful. The thoughtfulness and willingness of these young artists to bring their own inner selves to their projects showed me the guileless courage and level of maturity that they possess.

We had some ups and downs, wrestled with limitations, learned new information, and explored new techniques. We responded to artwork from The Heritage Center and opened ourselves up to making our own. In the process, the students learned how to use new vocabulary and materials, they learned about their own community’s art history, and they also learned that they too are connected to this artistic community. I can’t wait to keep reinforcing these realizations with our students when school starts up again.”

Photos © Red Cloud Indian School 


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