North American Art

Introduction

Summary

Summary of North American Art
large sculpture Northwest: wood sculpture (notably totem poles)
small sculpture Arctic: masks, figurines
Southwest: Kachina dolls
Eastern Woodlands: stone/clay figures, vessels, pipes; copperwork
painting Southwest: pottery decoration, sand painting
architecture Southwest: Pueblo complexes
Eastern Woodlands: mounds
quillwork Northeast and Plains: clothing, birchbark objects

Culture Areas

Pre-colonial North America can be divided into culture areas, each of which features a distinct traditional lifestyle (see History of Pre-colonial North America). Ten culture areas are typically identified, though this number varies. Notably, the Northeast and Southeast regions are often combined as the Eastern Woodlands culture area.

Indigenous Culture Areas of North America

The peoples within a given culture area may be collectively referred to as a single culture; one may speak, for instance, of the customs of Northwest Coast culture. Naturally, distinct sub-cultures are found within each culture area (just as distinct regional cultures are found throughout the modern United States, which is nonetheless broadly united by a common American culture). A key form of social organization among indigenous Americans is the tribe, a social group based largely on kinship; a single culture may encompass many tribes.

Most indigenous North American art dates from the medieval period onward; little survives from antiquity.H578 This is due partly to the sheer passage of time, and partly to the fact that the farming cultures of North America peaked in size during the medieval period (ca. 500-1500).41 Consequently, artistic production was especially strong during this period.

A number of traditional arts are commonly found among non-urban cultures throughout the world. Examples include weaving, leatherwork, basketry, headdress- and mask-making, and rock painting. Throughout North America, which remained a non-urban region up until colonial times, all of these art forms flourished.

Main Article

Sculpture

Pre-colonial North American sculptors worked primarily in wood, stone, and clay. Four culture areas have achieved exceptional fame in this field; one is known for large sculpture, the other three for small works.

The foremost large-scale sculptors of pre-colonial North America are the peoples of the Northwest Coast region, who worked primarily in wood. Northwest Coast sculpture includes masks, figures, canoe decoration, and (most famously) totem poles. These carvings are often painted, sometimes in brilliant polychrome, others in a reserved black/red/white colour scheme.

Totem Poles
Totem Poles
Grizzly Bear Post
Bear Figure
Bird Figure

As noted above, three culture areas are particularly famous for works of small sculpture.

The peoples of the Arctic culture area produce fantastic wooden masks and delicate figurines of stone and ivory. No less fascinating are the wooden Kachina dolls, fashioned by the Pueblo tribes of the Southwest culture area. "Kachina" are spirits in Pueblo religion; the dolls are used to educate children about these spirits.20

Finally, the Eastern Woodlands region produced a wide variety of sculptures in wood, stone, and clay. (The term "Eastern Woodlands" encompasses both the Northeast and Southeast culture areas; sculpture flourished especially in the Southeast.) Many of these works (namely figures, vessels, and smoking pipes) take the shape of animals or humans. Peoples of the Eastern Woodlands also fashioned relief sculptures from hammered copper sheets.

Arctic Mask
Arctic Mask
Arctic Mask
Arctic Figurine
Arctic Figurine
Arctic Figurine
Kachina Dolls
Southeast Woodlands Bowl
Northeast Woodlands Pipe
Southeast Woodlands Figure
Southeast Woodlands Copperwork
Northeast Woodlands Copperwork

Painting

The art of painting in pre-colonial North America was led by the Southwest culture area, where two major forms developed. One is pottery decoration, which often features a black/white or black/white/red colour scheme. The other is sand painting, in which pictures are created with dry, fine-particle materials (e.g. sand, charcoal, minerals, pollen) of various colours. The designs of Southwest painting are typically geometric; figures, if present, are rendered in a geometrically stylized fashion (see Realism vs. Stylization)

Southwest Bowl
Southwest Bowl
Southwest Sand Painting
Southwest Sand Painting

Architecture

Like all pre-modern cultures, North American peoples built their homes from suitable local materials. Famous examples include the teepee (skin tent), wigwam (a domed structure made of saplings, secured in the ground and lashed together at the top), igloo (a domed structure made from blocks of snow), and longhouse (a large hall built in a similar manner to a wigwam).

In the non-urban regions of the pre-modern world (including North America), large-scale architecture was uncommon. Nonetheless, monumental construction did flourish in two regions.

In the Southwest region, massive complexes of clay brick buildings were erected by the Pueblo tribes. These complexes, which featured both rectangular houses and circular kivas (rooms for religious ceremony), were often dozens of rooms long and three or four stories high.20

Throughout the Eastern Woodlands region, hundreds of large earthen mounds were raised during the ancient and medieval periods, including conical, flat-topped, line-shaped, and animal-shaped mounds.39 Some were built to mark burial sites, while others served as platforms for temples or great houses.40 The largest is Monks Mound, at Cahokia. (Cahokia, a medieval town in the Southeast culture area, was the largest settlement in pre-colonial North America.)

Pueblo Complex
Reconstruction of an Eastern Woodlands Town
Monks Mound

Quillwork

The art of quillwork merits special mention. Out of the entire world, quillwork is traditional only to the Eastern Woodlands and Plains regions of North America. Quillwork is produced by flattening and dyeing porcupine quills, which are then used to decorate clothing and birchbark containers.G398,20,37

Knife Sheath Quillwork
Birchbark Container Quillwork
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