The Topeka exhibit features art by Native American students

The world would be a brighter place if the visions illustrated by these tribal youth could help.

The upcoming Native Tomorrows art exhibition features works by Aubrey Bell (Cherokee Nation), Miranda Bradford (Citizen Band Potawatomi), Izabella Holstein (Prairie Band Potawatomi), Iris Cliff (Assiniboine), Noksi (Cherokee Nation), Tala Sterling (Choctaw Nation ) and Robert Hicks Jr. (Pyramid Lake Paiute).

The exhibition opens with a reception on April 1 from 5:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. as part of the First Friday Art Walk at 785 Arts, a Native American art gallery and studio located in the historic Columbian Building at 712 SW 6th Ave. There will be an awards ceremony at 18:00. An interactive mural will give local and non-local children the opportunity to create a piece together.

“Directions were given to create a work that exemplifies where the world would be in the future if Native Americans had influence over it,” said gallery owner Lisa LaRue-Baker, a Cherokee Nation citizen, composer, keyboardist and music producer.

The show runs through June 10 at 785 Arts and features mixed media, digital, photo, pen and bead work.

“We start them young”

Tala Sterling, 4, modeled this image on famed PBS landscape artist Bob Ross.

Some participants focused globally, others personally.

For these youngsters, the experience may be the beginning of an artistic – and also entrepreneurial – career. Some of the works are offered for sale.

Barry Sterling submitted a mixed media work on behalf of his 4-year-old daughter Tala, the youngest of the group.

According to LaRue-Baker, Tala asked her father to post the picture to his friends on Facebook along with digital copies, asking, “Can you tell the difference between the copies and the original?”

“It really made me laugh because I was wondering if she sold prints,” LaRue-Baker said.

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Sterling helps his daughter develop a business acumen.

“We start them young,” he said.

Her biggest challenge right now is keeping track of her money, which she tends to lose.

Sterling said he wants to make sure Tala has a thorough education.

“Communication, negotiation and creativity are just things that technology won’t replace,” he said.

“A Precious Soul”

Believing that education will be different in the future, Sterling helps his daughter build social skills, art, and other forms of human expression.

“Things she didn’t get in day school,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to build their self-esteem, it’s an opportunity to build their identity.”

By acknowledging her artistic abilities, he also works on bonding with her.

“She’s used to getting love that way,” he said.

Most of the time, Tala expresses herself in the abstract, but occasionally her father suggests ideas for her to draw.

“How does that feel, or can you draw that?” he said. “It captivates her and brings her out of herself. There is only one precious soul in this little body.”

Barry Sterling met this little soul after she was born two months premature. The hospital needed a middle name, and he and his wife hadn’t chosen one.

“Honey, we have a first name and a last name, but we don’t have a middle name,” he told his new daughter as she lay in the incubator. “Did your lord give you a middle name?

“When I heard how her voice sounds today. I was like, ‘It’s A’ and I said, ‘Is it Angela?’ ‘And she said, ‘No daddy. Fishing rod.'”

After finding out she wanted to be a painter, Sterling and his daughter studied other artists. Her mixed media post shows her holding a palette, painting a Bob Ross-style landscape. Sterling said the famous TV painter was one of the artists they saw.

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Hope for self, hope for indigenous people, and hope for the world are common themes for participants, although fear and anxiety about entering a world of chaos are also expressed.

“Typically, when you change your habits to be more like the world, you’ve left your people and left the reservation,” LaRue-Baker said. “It’s not really possible to go back (in a spiritual sense). People are very concerned about that.”

“Kill the hate, save the man”

Pyramid Lake Paiute citizen Robert Hicks Jr., a student at Kansas University, contributed an article expressing a solution to anxiety and fear. Although abstract painting is his preferred way of communicating through art, Hicks chose a piece inspired by events that took place in Lawrence after the assassination of George Floyd.

An occupation of Massachusetts Street took place after a picture of a lynching with the words “Obey” was nailed to a tree across from the local police station.

Hicks’ play is also inspired by the popular saying, “Save the man, kill the Indian,” which years ago referred to schools taking Native children off their reservations and their people. Hicks’ play urges viewers, “Kill the hate, save the man.”

Hicks has a passion for making the world a better place.

“It kind of comes down to community work. I like doing that,” he said. “Community work and art. And how art is influential in all sorts of communities.

“In many indigenous communities, art is a part of us. Our art creation has its own personality and ideas, and it has its own way of being, it has its own life. She’s really a part of us on its own importance and not just on aesthetics.”

In addition to being a student, artist, and musician, Hicks serves on the board of directors of the Lawrence Indigenous Center, which creates spaces for people to learn about Indigenous culture in a comfortable, non-judgmental environment.

“We won’t look you in the eye”

LaRue-Baker, also of French descent, explained at length the difference between Native Americans and other cultures. First, she looked at the situation regarding non-tribal Americans.

“People often think that indigenous people are shy. We label them shy or we label them untrustworthy,” she said.

Then she explained the native perspective.

“We won’t look you in the eye, and in the non-native world, that’s not a good trait,” she said. “But in the Indian world, that’s a good quality. Nobody looks anyone in the eye. It’s kind of confusing and sometimes it’s just a lack of education and learning about different cultures I think – both ways.”

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LaRue-Baker found a way to keep her spiritual feet in both worlds. Raised by her maternal grandparents in Topeka (her grandfather was Art LaRue, who was active in city, county and state politics for many years), she often spent Fridays at the home of the late Gov. Alf Landon and frequently dined with the late Sen. Bob Dole .

However, her traditional Cherokee citizenship also played an important role in her life, and she later became a liaison between the US government and her tribe.

“Indian in the Cupboard” star Litefoot served as a judge on the show

Another citizen of the Cherokee Nation, actor and rapper Litefoot, judged the show and chose the winner of the Best of Show category. Best known for his starring role as Little Bear in The Indian in the Cupboard, a film based on the popular children’s book of the same name, Litefoot is also known as Gary Paul Davis.

He is a successful rap artist, executive director of the Native American Financial Services Association, CEO of the Davis Strategy Group and a member of the Forbes Finance Council.

785 Arts open also open by appointment

The studio will also be open on April 2nd, then every Thursday and Friday from 1pm to 4pm for the duration of the exhibition. It will also be available by appointment.

“Inspiring our tribal youth is at the forefront of our mission, and this show is just the first of many that will give Aboriginal youth a chance to showcase their talents to Topeka,” said LaRue-Baker.

785 Arts LLC is an authentic Native American art gallery, studio, classroom and home for indigenous arts certified under the Indigenous Arts and Crafts Act. Works must be made by a tribal citizen to be considered authentic.

LaRue-Baker also teaches classes that non-natives take to create pieces that are made in the style of a particular tribe. These are not authentic and not marked as such.

The art gallery, studio and classroom can be viewed online on the Facebook page or at

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