» Heid Erdrich
How did you become an artist?
My mother, Rita Gourneau Erdrich, painted and was very creative so she set an example. Both of my parents valued art and writing of all kinds. They never scoffed at us when we said we wanted to be artists. And I always wanted to be an artist, a painter or singer or actress. I wrote plays and worked in productions and even as a child I took art very seriously, as a craft and something I might do for a living one day. I wrote poetry and plays throughout my school years and studied studio art with wonderful teachers for five years. In college I turned away from visual arts toward writing. My poetry developed while I taught college, but now that I’ve moved away from academia, I’ve become more involved in collaborative work that involves visual art, dance, and making drama. That’s where my heart is now, in collaborative art projects where I can lend my words to something with layers of other art forms and the synergy of multiple artists.
What inspires you?
Funny people and old writing. Visual art. Visual artists. The history and presence of American Indians, especially told from our own points of view. The great humming world around us—what they call the natural world—but it is all natural. The living world—it is all alive. Naps. Everything is so much more creative-y once I take a nap. Words in my dreams take on solid qualities, dimension, so my dream poem-making is like sculpture. Some times I think my dreams read back to me all the books and articles I dip into during the day. When I sleep, the words shake loose so I can make something of them. I’ll read anything, but I’m especially drawn to weird science and the nineteenth-century. Oh, and funny people. Laughing revs me up creatively.
How can art be a tool for speaking out, for creating change in the world?
We all live like winged things—creatures who transform—dragon flies, vulnerable at various stages with our wings wet and unformed, quiet. Art holds our ideas, our ideals, safe until they lift us into the world to hover above the everyday yet a part of it. You know how dragonflies follow humans around feasting on the gnats overhead? That’s what art does, it lingers, hangs upon the beat of human activity, cleans up the air and gobbles up stinging things. And then it dips down and shows itself, beautiful and complex, transient and hungry. Sometimes it speaks, sometimes it feeds, but it is made from what is in the air and so, sometimes it stings.
My art works, I hope, in subtle ways and through irony or wit, but it points to more serious issues like the sovereignty of Native nations, the power and peril of being female, artistic freedom, the rise of Science as religion, land tenure and indigenous presence today, dire conditions of indigenous plants and stewardship of beauty. Seriously, we are responsible to keep a sense of beauty alive in the terrible world. To keep people seeing beauty through everything. The poet Roberta Hill was my mentor and she taught me that we are here to praise it. All of it.
How has Intermedia Arts been a part of your story?
Long time ago, when I was young and ravishingly talented, but underemployed, the Center for Arts Criticism was housed in Intermedia’s building and I was on its board. I was new to town and Intermedia Arts and the Loft were the only artist gathering areas I’d ever had access to anywhereand I was impressed. I’ve felt drawn to the space ever since, both as a writer and as a curator. In 2010 my play Curiosities was produced by Pangea World Theater and presented at Intermedia Arts as part of the Catalyst Series, so I really got to know the space and feel at home.
“You know how dragonflies follow humans around feasting on the gnats overhead? That’s what art does, it lingers, hangs upon the beat of human activity, cleans up the air and gobbles up stinging things.”
- Heid Erdrich
What is one of your favorite experiences with Intermedia Arts?
While we were producing Curiosities, I was able to collaborate with the curator of the visual arts exhibition Dimensions of Indigenousto include visual arts works created by the indigenous cast members. The result was wonderful, a rich collaboration that gave the audience the kind of layered experience I wanted to convey.
How has art changed you?
Art makes community, right? Art has made my community or communities for me for sure. But I am not sure I can say where art stops and community begins. One day my sister, who is a doctor working in the Native community in Minneapolis, said “Native American artists ARE culture,” and that really struck me. Native American artists create everything that signals culture, every bit of dance regalia, every motif or logo for every tribe or tribal enterprise. Artists create the images non-profits rely upon to tell their story and get support. Individuals wear jewelry created by Native artists to keep their culture close to them and to represent in the world that would like to keep us invisible. My whole life I’ve been in the community of artists because I am Ojibwe, because I grew up in a world in which everyone creates: quilts, beadwork, baskets and that is all art. So in a sense, art has not changed me, rather I’ve changed the way I see art.
Being an artist does give me a sense of permission: art allows me to reach out, to mentor, and to share in my diverse, some might say divergent, communities. I’m at home in the urban Indian world, in academia, with established mainstream writers, and, increasingly, with indigenous people from around the globe. Because we have art, we have a starting place, something to talk about. In working with artists, in working as an artist, my goal is to go beyond myself and create a conversation. Doesn’t that define community, the common conversation?
What do you see as Intermedia Arts' role in the community?
The life of the artist can feel like an orbit, sometimes. We orbit around trying to get permission to land somewhere and present our art. The gates are often closed, all the landings scheduled a decade out and the air-traffic controllers not at all concerned about your how long you’ve been up in the air. Intermedia Arts’ wants to land artists, that’s clear. That willingness to take on new work, or work that pushes the edge, makes Intermedia more than a venue, that makes it a vital focal point for an arts community that mirrors the world outside its doors. Being vital means being current, being present, being witness to now and inviting others to witness as well.
Winner of a Minnesota Book Award for National Monuments, HEID E. ERDRICH authored four books of poetry and co-edited Sister Nations: Native American Women Writers on Community.Heid grew up in Wahpeton, North Dakota and is Ojibwe enrolled at Turtle Mountain. She attended Dartmouth College and Johns Hopkins University. Heid taught college writing for two decades, including many years as a tenured professor. Since 2007, Heid has served as a visiting author and scholar for dozens of colleges, universities, libraries and organizations. In addition, she’s an arts curator and publisher. Her new book is Cell Traffic: New and Selected Poems.