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CHILOQUIN — In her Chiloquin home, visual artist Natalie Ball is surrounded by boxes of her “school supplies” for the second year of her masters of fine arts program at Yale: animal pelts and bones, photographs of her relatives and other objects reflective of her indigenous and African-American heritages.

“I try to stick to sourcing it at home: My partner has hunted it, I’ve gathered it, it’s been given to me or I’ve had it for a while,” Ball said. “So it’s a way to be responsible about the materials that I’m using, something that’s used in a cultural practice that sustains us. At the same time, being able to use it in my art practice is pretty dope.”

The 37-year-old Ball is a member of the Klamath Tribes, and her family moved to Portland after the Klamath Termination Act of 1954, which ended all federal aid and supervision over Klamath lands. As a child, she regularly visited Southern Oregon, but said that growing up away from her ancestral homeland influenced her future artistic exploration. Her grandfather painted, and while art was always a part of her upbringing, she said that she never considered it as a career.

When she was 17, Ball became pregnant with her daughter Lofanitani Aisea, but knew that she wanted to continue her education. At 21, she began studying at the University of Oregon, taking her toddler to classes.

In an anthropology course, she learned about the Cuban-American artist Coco Fusco and her performance art piece “The Couple in a Cage: Two Amerindians Visit the West,” which explored the abuse of indigenous people in the Americas. Ball was inspired to switch her major to ethnic studies.

“I thought, ‘Man if I could have a visual to help me articulate how I’m feeling or what I’m saying,’” Ball said. “So I decided to couple my degree with art so I could further articulate myself.”

A family practice

Ball began painting and was inspired by her aunt Peggy Ball, a quilter who taught her the art form. As a mother, Ball said the frustrating part of her practice was having enough “time and space. But I always try to work through that with materiality: working through what I want to say, how I’m saying it through material.”

After graduating, she moved to Chiloquin to reconnect with her homeland and to allow her daughter to grow up learning traditional practices.

“It feels really good because I’m reinserting myself into these spaces and reclaiming these spaces, and a lot of times, they’re spaces of trauma,” Ball said. “So I’m just trying to introduce my kids to these spaces, reintroducing them on our own terms.”

An international education

When her daughter was in elementary school, Ball moved to New Zealand to study Maori visual arts at Massey University. While pursuing her master’s degree, Ball decided “to push it even further with textiles” and began painting on her quilts. Although they had different art practices, she said she connected with the Maori artists she lived and worked among, particularly the mothers whose identities played an important role in their work.

“I felt like their ideas around sovereignty and their history with resistance in identity politics in New Zealand were dope...,” Ball said. “It was something I could learn from and bring home.”

Lofanitani Aisea remembers spending late nights in the studio with her mom, helping her study and making her own drawings.

Through traveling with her mom, Aisea said, “I gained resiliency and ways to adapt to new circumstances and how to navigate the world through different kinds of experiences, lived experiences, and creating my own lens.”

Back in the United States, Ball returned to Chiloquin, where she reconnected with Vernon Miller, who she had met while in college when they jumped off the Chiloquin Bridge for fun. Ball, who was traveling the world, said she was drawn to Miller’s connection to where he grew up.

“He’s all about Chiloquin, all about the homelands,” she said. During this time, she had two more children and took a break from her art.

She said, “I needed that time away to have these other experiences, which led me back to the studio practice.”

Similar to other aspects of her life, Ball focused on decolonizing the idea of motherhood and being a parent on her own terms.

“I did that for six years: reconnected with homelands, with my language, with first foods and learning how to hunt and to gather,” she said.

A maternal inspiration

In 2014, an email from the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art asking her to commission a piece brought her back into the art world. For the Kansas museum, she created “Mapping Coyote Black,” her first large solo installation in the U.S. The fabric piece focused on her ancestry and the idea of maps as intersections.

“Coyote is famous,” she told the Herald and News in 2015. “Everyone knows that Coyote is a trickster: intelligent and powerful, and at times Coyote plays the fool. I offer Coyote to viewers as a woman, the avatar of myself as an artist.”

She said she does not know how to separate her identity as a mother from being an artist.

“Sometimes, you’ll get artists who won’t put their motherhood first,” Ball said. “As an artist, you get to choose how you want people to see you… And I still haven’t chosen to separate that.”

After this, Ball worked with Portland-based Modoc artist Kaila Farrell-Smith on the One Flaming Arrow: Inter-Tribal Art, Music, and Film Festival. The event highlighted Native American artists working across mediums to provide a different perspective on dominant perceptions of indigenous people. Farrell-Smith said she connects with Ball not only as a colleague, but as a sort of family member.

“What was really excited to me about Natalie’s work was that I really loved this accumulation of found objects and what she imbues into them through her family and through her research into studying how to collect or harvest our natural materials from the lake and the way that she is raising her kids. I find that extremely empowering and inspiring.”

Farrell-Smith said that they regularly talk about the struggle of not being defined by their identities as indigenous women.

“I think a lot of times, we as Native American artists can get pigeonholed into only certain kinds of shows, only certain kinds of conversations,” Ball said. “I wanted to be able to have larger conversations. Not that those conversations aren’t valid or they don’t mean anything to me, but I think there’s just so much more we can be talking about.”

Farrell-Smith added that many indigenous artists feel isolated, but have found strength in “just saying we exist.”

“The one thing that was interesting was that most of us were all going back in some way to these traditional art forms, whether it’s food harvest, basket weaving, carving or language…” said Farrell-Smith. “So I would say what Natalie does is she articulates that in such a beautiful way. Like through her War Hoop Flash Mob: bringing everybody together to literally reclaim space through cacophony, just letting lose and having a free spirit in a space where it’s been designed to erase us.”

The Flash Mob, which Ball performed at the Portland Art Museum and Oakland Museum of California, involved Native people participating in a traditional war hoop. Lofanitani Aisea, who was present for the event, said hearing a room full of people making noise “was the craziest thing I have ever heard.”

“It was one of my favorites because it showed how much people support her and support art,” said Aisea. “It was claiming space, claiming power, being loud, being free and connecting with other people collectively.”

Aisea said that her mom’s work “is very versatile. It’s very diverse. Every time I see it, it’s something different. She takes apart her old pieces and she’ll make it into new stuff.”

Continuing school

Out of her desire to continue growing as a creator, Ball decided to pursue a graduate degree at the Yale School of Art.

“I definitely wanted to develop my studio practice,” she said. “I wanted to be challenged to break out of what I was used to doing because I thought, ‘Alright people know me for doing textile work.’ I thought, ‘What if I don’t do that?’ I want another conversation. I want to use other materials, and I want the time to do it and the support.”

At Yale, she spends long days in a collective art space known as “the Pit.” She wakes up at 5 a.m. to begin her art “ahead of the game.” She works in a “beehive” of studios surrounded by the Pit, where students receive critiques and hear from visiting artists, such as her inspiration Coco Fusco.

“It’s helping me understand other ways of thinking about my work: what people are seeing, how they see me,” she said. “It’s a space to experiment at the same time. I like it. It’s tough. It’s no joke, and it takes some getting used to.”

She said that being a mother and having more life experiences has “toughened” her through critiques. While going to Yale has allowed her to put herself first as a form of self-care, she regularly travels home to visit family.

A shared experience

This fall, her daughter Lofanitani Aisea began studying at the University of Oregon. Aisea said that her and her mom joke about both being in college and living in dorms.

“I don’t think I had a normal childhood, but I think that’s a good thing,” said Aisea. “I learned at a young age that higher education is important. It’s vital to being able to navigate the world and to create your own identity.”

Going forward, Ball said she is interested in exploring evidence and ritual passed down from her ancestors and within her own life. Outside of her home, traditional wocus, or lilypad, dries. A red band is tied around her arm, almost covering one of her tattoos, an indigenous Crow’s Knees design.

Although she has carefully selected and packaged her materials, she said that it’s important she’s not too “precious” with them: being open to cutting, manipulating and even sometimes ruining an object. For Ball, nothing is off limits “because I’m still pretty raw right now where I’m at as an artist: what I’m saying, what I’m using to say it with and who I am as an artist.”

This openness goes along with her career. After graduating in May, she wants to continue creating and showing art, with a focus on opposing the proposed liquefied natural pipeline in Southern Oregon.

“Just being here, I don’t want to romanticize it or anything because it’s a huge struggle, and we’re still dealing with things,” Ball said. “But just to celebrate our existence — to be a mom and birthing children and their existence — is huge. I really respect that, and I wanted to honor that because our existence is resistance.”

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