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Catawba Artist Alex Osborn Pays Homage to Sally New River in Path of Portraits

Growing up on the Catawba Indian Nation reservation in York County, South Carolina, Alex Osborn led a life that was somewhat different from those outside the reservation, even if he didn’t realize it until he was older. 

For example, he recalls there being a Native American coordinator on staff at his elementary school, and much of his experiences with health care as a child came at Indian Health Service facilities. 

“Indian Health Service is usually run by military personnel and so there’s just a brand of bedside manner. It’s not quite the same,” he tells me. “Not only are they military, they’re also just not very gentle.” 

I’m speaking with Osborn in a conference room at the University of South Carolina Lancaster’s Native American Studies Center, where he works as an assistant curator. Our chat followed Osborn’s appearance with three other Catawba artists at which they discussed Native American representation in media following screenings of TV shows Rutherford Falls and Reservation Dogs, two recent shows that portray Native American issues in a way that is rare in American TV.

Osborn says he got a laugh out of a certain scene in Reservation Dogs that involved an Indian Health Services facility, as he could relate to the surreal environment such facilities cultivate. 

“[The military presence] is also combined with many people from the tribe that are employed there,” he explains. “So it’s this interesting mix of people who, I don’t want to say don’t care, but can’t relate as much, and then people who can very much relate, and it’s a comical mix sometimes.”

Osborn, a digital artist and painter, uses art to bridge the gap between reservation life and the outside world, as well as between generations. He’s aware that his penchant for digital art is a far reach from the pottery his people are most well-known for artistically, and that’s what makes it effective, he says.

Two men and two women artists sit in chairs during a panel discussion
Alex Osborn (second from left) with three other Catawba Artists at a recent panel discussion. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

“It’s fitting for me personally to make modern art, but also to kind of make a statement like, ‘I’m here now, and I’m Native American,’” Osborn tells me. “We’re not just in a textbook, we’re not just a historical moment, we are a living culture that exists through to today and we haven’t been around for 6,000 years to only be relegated to existence in a textbook.” 

Osborn has a chance to build on that connection with one of his recent works, “Sarii,” a portrait of Catawba Indian Nation icon Sally New River, who lived in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, that was unveiled in June as part of the Charlotte Museum of History’s Path of Portraits.

Osborn will join Catawba Nation archivist Ensley Guffey for a virtual panel discussion hosted by the museum on Nov. 22 to explore Sally New River’s legacy and the importance of women in Catawba history. 

An icon of the Catawba Nation

Sally New River was born in 1746 in what is now known as Nations Ford. Her grandfather was King Hagler, the leader of the Catawba from 1750 to his death in 1763. Not much is known about Sally’s early life, though it’s believed she was likely orphaned during the smallpox epidemic in 1759 and eventually settled in what was called New Town.

New River took a leadership role in the tribe following the death of her grandfather. In 1796, she was the only person named in a land deed claiming 500 out of 144,000 acres of Catawba land, helping to preserve it and keep it in the Catawba name, according to Brooke Bauer, Catawba Nation member and assistant professor of history at University of Tennesse Knoxville.

She’s also credited with helping to grow the Catawba Nation after it dwindled to just 100 souls following a century of disease and displacement brought on by European settlers.

Alex Osborn said he first learned of Sally New River in his teens, then became more aware of her importance as he got older.

There are no photos or artistic depictions of Sally New River from the time when she was alive, so Osborn had to use his imagination for the digital portrait. Using a collage style, Osborn used a photo of his great-great-grandmother as a child to portray New River’s eyes.

“The eyes belong to my great-great-grandmother, and the reason why I did that is to figuratively paint a portrait of Sally New River as a historical figure, but not only the historical figure in the sense of someone who lived long, long ago, but also to connect to these people that we are literally connected to,” he explains. 

Osborn used digital paintbrush tools that resemble watercolors to paint and design out from around the eyes. 

“It was neat to paint around that, and then other elements of the portrait kind of center around culture and protection, too,” Osborn says. “So, like finding your culture, she’s enshrouded in a blanket, so we don’t fully know her, but also we want to protect whatever we have. And I think that speaks to my perception of her, because when I think of Sally New River, I think of my great-great-grandmother. I think of, like, this leading figure.

A painted portrait of a Native American woman
‘Sarii,’ Alex Osborn’s depiction of Sally New River. (Artwork by Alex Osborn/Courtesy of Charlotte Museum of History)

“The blanket is to hide her because we don’t really know what she looked like,” he continued, “but it’s also like she took on this mantle of responsibility to lead our tribe more and literally to survive. I was trying to blend the literal and the figurative there.”

The piece is also an example of Osborn’s exploration of digital art, which he uses to connect the present with the past in a purposeful way. 

It’s a connection he learned while undergoing an artist residency at the Native American Studies Center that ended in August, when he was offered his job as assistant curator. 

“What I realized was that my art is uniquely for now; it’s influenced by my culture but it’s also meant to present things to people in a new way that I hope makes them interested in my culture, too,” he says. “And so featuring digital representations of markings and very old work, I’ve always loved that combination between old and new. And so people might see that and say, ‘Oh, what is that?’ And then learn more about my people.”

Art as therapy

Alex Osborn has been an artist since a young age, it’s just the mediums that have changed. Throughout his childhood, he has played music, had a passion for drawing, and eventually picked up photography, collage and digital design.

He remembers a Polaroid camera that printed photos that could peel off and be stickers in the 1990s as a tool that holds special significance for him as a budding creative. He attended the Special Talents in the Arts (ST-ARTS) summer camp at Winthrop University as a child, where he studied photography. 

He still practices in that medium; he’ll be shooting photos at the annual Yap Yè Iswà Festival, scheduled for the Catawba Cultural Center in Rock Hill on Nov. 19. 

Eventually Osborn’s love for photography merged with his love for technology, which is how he began creating digital art.

Osborn identifies as pansexual, meaning he does not limit himself in sexual choice with regard to biological sex, gender, or gender identity, and says that art has been a helpful in getting him to that space.

“My art has been a source of introspection for me,” he says. “I’ve always found some kind of art as a therapy — like I did music growing up, and I’ve always loved to draw, I’ve always loved to take pictures — and those methods just set my brain at ease and give me the space to think about, ‘Well, who am I? And also what does that represent?’ So that can mean Catawba, that can mean queer, that can mean he/him for me. It’s been a very cathartic space to be myself, and I want to represent that for everyone else.” 

While he has made subtle allusions to his queerness in his art, which can range from abstract illustrations to figurative depictions representing members of his tribe, he wants to explore how to be more intersectional with his art moving forward.

“I want to make more art that is more explicitly queer, but I haven’t found a way that I want to do that yet in a public setting,” he says. “It’s not like in the closet or hiding anything, I’ve alluded to some of it in some of my work in ways that aren’t very obvious, but it’s just that I want to bring those things together and I haven’t exactly figured it out yet.”  

Another goal of his involves being more represented in Charlotte’s art scene, both individually as an artist and collectively as a tribe. He says that he sees Charlotte as a second home now, as his partner currently lives in the city, and hopes his new work at Charlotte Museum of History can be a foot in the door. 

“I love Charlotte as a city. It’s beautiful. We’ve got our issues, but I think that generally we’re going in a really good direction,” he says. “I would like to see more representation for my people there, though, because we were there thousands of years ago. So I think showing that we are there now … we were there and we are there, and I think that it would be neat to show that. And then I also think there’s probably interest. I think that there are probably people that would want to see that, too.”

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