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American Indian Gothic

Tulsa Artist Fellow Nathan Young on sound and ritual



Tulsa Artist Fellow and Tahlequah native Nathan Young with his sound sculpture

Melissa Lukenbaugh

A sparse octagonal structure made of two-by-fours stands in the middle of Tulsa Artist Fellow Nathan Young’s Cameron Street studio. It has no walls, ceiling, or roof—just the bones of a small roundhouse building, similar to those built by members of the Native American Church for peyote ceremonies. 

“I call my practice American Indian Gothic,” says Young. “I’m trying to express being an Oklahoma Indian. People want to think of us as being on reservations. We don’t have those here. Oklahoma’s so different.”

The Tahlequah native has lived many artistic lives as an animator, documentary filmmaker, collaborator in the indigenous arts collective Post Commodity, and an MFA student at (and then, graduate of) Bard College, among others. In Tulsa, he’s working in many mediums, including sound art, noise music, photography, and painting. 

“Here, I’m focusing on my individual practice. I spent ten years working collaboratively. But we never worked in Oklahoma, and I’m from here. I grew up in the Native American Church. So, my work now is biographical. Some call it ‘identity work,’ but I’m using contemporary vernacular.” 

Young tells me the small building in his studio is a sound sculpture. 

“I’m interested in sound as a material,” he says. “This will be activated as a sound piece.” 

To make sound art, Young plays and manipulates electronic tones through a synthesizer, or with his voice or guitar. Sometimes he will play two or four tones in a room, creating disruptions in the air. 

“All sound is air. The two tones will create an eddy in the room. They’re finding a way to be there with each other. You can feel it. And that’s why I do it—to make sound physical.”

Hanging in a row on the wall nearby are three single-color sculptural paintings, each of raised crescent moons. One is white, another navy blue, and the third, lemon yellow. 

“This is a scene from the peyote rituals. The fire is set inside the curve of the moon, the moon and teepee open to the east, and the Road Man sits directly across from the opening. In my work, I’m also interested in ritual and ceremony.”

Young walks me over to another table in his studio, on top of which lie photographs he’s made. He pulls one from the stack—a fictionalized still life of sorts. A traditional peyote box and its contents are against a white surface and background. There are family photos with black boxes over the individuals’ eyes, beaded items, feathers, and a Derringer gun, which he says would never be in a peyote box. It’s in his photo as a nod to a family story, oral tradition, and to play a bit with profanity.

“People want to think about Indians as spiritualists, and I’m a spiritual person, but there’s also a dark side to that world… The noble savage isn’t an interest of mine. I’m more of a realist.”

“I grew up with heavy metal, skateboarders, and descendants of outlaws,” he continues.  “Those black bars are classic punk rock. Oftentimes you’ll see them in gang documentaries. It’s a reference to the darker side of people’s lives and the reasons why they go to the [peyote] meetings.”

Young says people often go to the meetings to pray for someone who is sick, dying, heading off to war, or getting out of a prison. In other words, a crisis situation.

“They’re in there praying for the community.  It’s so community-based,” he explains.

Coming from that culture, and having learned about ceremonies his entire life, Young has also created event scores, or text-based works of art that create and describe how a musical score is to be performed. 

“Whenever I’m thinking about these, I’m thinking about the poetics of space and movement and how to create something new with community. I’d like for mine to be performed, but they don’t have to be—it already exists because it’s a poetic gesture.”

Check out Young’s sound sculpture at this month’s First Friday Art Crawl in the Brady Arts District.
Gary Kachadourian, who we profiled last issue, has organized a sculpture show on the fourth floor terrace of AHHA.
June 3, 6 p.m. to 9., 101 E. Archer St.