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Artist celebrates native folklore

Nevada City artist Judith Lowry says she wrestled over incorporating the mythical symbols of her family’s Native California tribes into her paintings.

“I didn’t want to exploit sacred images,” Lowry explains, sitting in the back room of the Lilly Vigil gallery in Nevada City where her work is for sale. “I had to find my own voice.”

Realizing the tradition of passing Native American culture verbally to future generations was disappearing, Lowry asked her father for permission to use his grandmother’s stories. He responded emphatically, “Do it.”



Since then Lowry has developed a modern folk mannerist style. It breaks a stereotype that Native American artists are mostly craft-oriented.

Lowry’s painting at the Vigil gallery, “Welgatim’s Song,” is a 6-foot-by-8-foot rendition of an epic story about Coyote, the mythological Native American trickster figure.




As Coyote stands next to the flooding river with his “frog-wife,” Mt. Tehama erupts in the background, setting the surrounding forests ablaze. A palette of vivid colors set against dark shadows lends the painting an Armegeddon-like feel.

Although Lowry’s resume includes solo exhibitions at top-notch museums such as the Smithsonian Institution and the Wheelwright in Santa Fe, last year she included her work at Vigil’s gallery for the first time.

The show, “Celebrating Native Folklore, Legend and Tradition,” was so successful, Vigil says, that Lowry was inundated with requests for prints of her work in the show.

Lowry’s paintings continue to travel around the country in exhibits, but the artist plans to keep working on smaller-scale paintings for Vigil’s gallery.

Both Lowry and Vigil hope to create a presence of California Native American art in Nevada City.

“We’re finally telling our story,” Lowry says, explaining that California natives are invisible to the mainstream national consciousness. “There’s no fixed ID for California Indians. Who knows the look of a native Californian?”

Top indigenous artist

Born in Washington, D.C., Lowry’s heritage includes Mountain Maidu, Hammawi Band Pit River, Washo and Scots-Irish on her father’s side and Euro-Australian on her mother’s side. Her father, retired Lt. Col. Leonard Lowry, was a decorated World War II hero.

From Susanville Lowry grew up as an army brat, spending time in Germany, Japan and Australia. As a child she listened to creation stories passed down from her father’s grandmother, as well as the “hard stories” about settlers routing families from their villages.

In 1998, Lowry found another outlet for her father’s stories when she illustrated a children’s book, “Home to Medicine Mountain.” Based on her father’s experience about hopping a freight train with his brother after they escaped from boarding school, the book won the American Book Award in 1999.

Lowry, 59, got a late start as an artist, attending art school in her 30s after starting a family. She finished her M.A. in painting and drawing at California State University, Chico, after studying photography at De Anza College in Cupertino.

Her career as a painter has been ascending since her first group exhibit in 1991. This spring, Lowry was one of 50 artists chosen for an exhibit at the D.C. Arts Center called “American Icons Through Indigenous Eyes.”

Suzan Shown Harjo, the show’s curator and founder of the Morning Star Institute, calls Lowry “one of our top Native American artists” whose work portrays native peoples “in all our complexities.”

“When Judith asserts images,” Harjo says, “she’s bringing all of us to life. She’s bringing us into the present tense, where we exist in the past tense in the American imagination.”

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To contact Staff Writer Jill Bauerle, e-mail jillb@theunion.com or call 477-4219.


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