Artist Brenda Kingery has captured a great deal in her complex paintings through the years, drawing upon worldwide travels and her Oklahoma heritage to create works of vivid color and emotion.
Twenty-three of her works are currently on display in Nona Jean Hulsey Gallery inside Norick Art Center (NW 26th Street and Blackwelder Avenue) on the Oklahoma City University campus.
The exhibition, Brenda Kingery: A Retrospective, spans decades of Kingery’s life, from 1981 to 2018.
A native Oklahoman and member of the Chickasaw Nation, Kingery was born in Oklahoma City in 1939, where she grew up riding a cutting horse and absorbing the colors and textures of her Oklahoma home, especially the weather.
“There’s a certain color,” Kingery said via phone, discussing how she perceives Oklahoma. “There’s the wheat; [it] was a big influence. The warm summers, the winds, and then my Native American background was a portion of it.”
She began her art career when she was still a toddler. Just after starting school, a teacher spotted her talents.
“The kindergarten teacher called my mother and said, ‘You have a baby artist,’” Kingery said.
The teacher suggested simply supplying Kingery with art tools but no formal training. In this way, she was able to develop a style and feel for her own work. Kingery said she would give the same advice to any other developing artist.
“As children, a lot of positive encouragement would be the thing, I would say,” she said. “A lot of encouragement. And let them play.”
Kingery went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from University of Oklahoma (OU) in 1961.
While at OU, she married Tom Kingery. The U.S. Air Force deployed their family to Okinawa, Japan, in 1968. There, she continued her graduate studies at University of the Ryukyus.
Living in Japan and immersing herself in another culture was formative for Kingery. In Okinawa, she learned the ink wash, or sumi-e, method of painting, which she still utilizes today along with multiple layers of acrylic washes.
But this point in her life was also the first of many phases of travel reflected in her work. Whenever she went somewhere new, it became important for Kingery to learn from and absorb her surroundings. Textiles, in particular, have served as one key inspiration.
She interprets the memories and images of her experiences as patterns and colors on the canvas in almost dreamlike ways. Her style has such an otherworldly quality that it has come to be known as “narrative symbolism” within art circles.
Preservation of culture is another key thematic element of her work. After Okinawa, Kingery returned to the United States and earned her master’s degree in fine arts from OU. Later, the family moved to Texas, but she maintained connections to Oklahoma, and in 1994, she decided to attend her first Red Earth Festival and powwow. The costumes and dance served as instant inspiration.
“When we saw Red Earth, I nearly fell over, it was so fantastic,” Kingery said. “It just turned me around. It started a whole new series of paintings that I’m still working on to this day.”
Kingery believes artists have to grow and change or they risk becoming stagnant. She sees the evolution of her style as different series and genre shifts marked by life changes, like moving between countries and connecting with her heritage.
“It’s interesting that all of those compound to work on each other,” Kingery said. “And eventually you come to something that’s yours.”
Heather Lunsford is director of Oklahoma City University’s School of Visual Arts and met Kingery while living in Texas. She said they have been planning this exhibition for about 14 months. Lunsford selected works for the exhibition with the assistance of anthropologist Emily Santhanam, a curator at Chickasaw Cultural Center in Sulphur. She said the volume of Kingery’s work was impressive.
“We went to this big storage unit in San Antonio,” Lunsford said. “And Emily and I laid [the paintings] out all around us.”
Although Kingery’s art has been exhibited around the world and locally in a few galleries, including JRB Art at the Elms, 2810 N. Walker Ave., Lunsford said a main goal of the exhibition is to showcase Kingery’s work to more Oklahomans.
“Brenda’s coming to the show,” Lunsford said. “Come and meet her. She is one of the warmest, kindest people you can meet. She loves to talk about her work. She loves to engage about her work.”
Walking through the exhibition and pausing in front of one energetic piece titled “Match at Jabbok,” Lunsford remarked on Kingery’s ability to absorb and reflect her experiences.
“It’s such an amazing evolution,” Lunsford said. “And that’s what I love about it.”
As well as being an influential artist and teacher, Kingery has been honored multiple times as a member of the Chickasaw Nation. She was inducted into Chickasaw Nation Hall of Fame this year. In 2007, she was appointed to the board of trustees of the Institute of American Indian and Alaska Native Culture and Arts Development (IAIA).
The latter is a presidential appointment, and Kingery said she was surprised when she got the call from the White House.
“Actually, I had a mop in my hand, and I was cleaning the floors of my studio,” Kingery said with a laugh.
Kingery said her experiences on the IAIA board have only helped her continue to learn more about other cultures.
“I see different tribal affiliations, different kinds of artists, different kinds of culture, languages,” she said. “And it’s probably the finest appointment on the planet. My goodness, am I grateful for that.”
Kingery also continues to work with Threads of Blessing, a group she co-founded that teaches textile art to women in Haiti, Honduras and Uganda.
Kingery said she is now working on a series inspired by her Chickasaw heritage. She recently visited Tupelo, Mississippi, to view the Chickasaw burial mounds with a group.
“We got to go back to where our ancestors were buried,” Kingery said. “We were so inspired by that, we’re hoping to do a whole exhibit around the inspiration from Tupelo and the mounds.”
Kingery said she is looking forward to the exhibition and hopes to meet many of the guests.
“I’m coming home in a lot of ways,” Kingery said.
Brenda Kingery: A Retrospective runs through Sept. 6.