From evocative Native American portraits to detailed depictions of flora and fauna, many of Linda Kukuk's artworks are defined less by what she adds than by what she takes away.
That's because the self-taught Oklahoma artist is best known for her scratchwork, a form of engraving in which images are created by carefully scratching away at the top coating of dark ink on a scratchboard to reveal the layer of white clay underneath.
"I thought it was just an interesting medium in that the way you put the scratches, what type of scratches, what tool you use, all determines what the result is. When I would look at my photo reference, it was fun to me to ... say, 'OK, I want to make skin. How do I make that?'" she said.
"When I'm at a show ... I sit and do the scratchwork, because, for me, it's a lot easier to explain it if you can show people."
Kukuk will get the chance to create, show and sell her scratchwork, watercolors and other art at the 36th annual Red Earth Festival, where she has been named the 2022 Red Earth Honored One, an award annually bestowed on a Native American master visual artist.
"I was very surprised and thrilled to be recognized. I do work hard on my art. Ever since I was a little kid, I've always drawn and painted ... but I never took any lessons. So, I've always worked to just develop it and experiment with it," said Kukuk, who is Choctaw and Cherokee.
"I know it's a gift from God, and I don't want to waste it. I don't want to throw that talent away. So, to be recgnized for your efforts is just amazing."
Long-running Red Earth Festival moves to new time frame and venue
The Red Earth Festival is moving to a new time frame and venue this year. The long-running intertribal celebration of Native American visual art, dance and culture is set for June 30-July 2 — which is July Fourth weekend — at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.
"We feel like we've finally found a home again ... so we're very excited," said Christy Alcox, Red Earth Inc. director of development and administration.
For the better part of three decades, the Red Earth Festival took place at the Cox Convention Center in downtown OKC. With the completion of the new Oklahoma City Convention Center, the Cox Convention Center was closed in 2020 and converted to Prairie Surf Studios, a film and television production hub.
During the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, the festival was organized at the Citizen Potawatomi Nation-owned Grand Casino Hotel & Resort in Shawnee, but the move to the National Cowboy Museum brings Red Earth back to OKC. (The festival's popular Red Earth Parade shifted last year to its new Red Earth FallFest, an Indigenous Peoples Day celebration in downtown OKC.)
What can people expect from this year's Red Earth Festival?
The festival will feature tribal dance showcases, Native American cultural demonstrations and hands-on arts and crafts at The Cowboy, where many of the activities will be staged outside in the immersive new family-friendly attraction Liichokoshkomo’, named for the Chickasaw phrase for “Let’s play."
Daily festival admission wristbands for July 1-2 are $15 per person, and children younger than 6 are admitted free with a paid adult. Festival admission includes entrance to the National Cowboy Museum and Red Earth activities.
"With the combined experience of the museum and this great festival, visitors will truly feel immersed in the histories and cultures of the American West,” said museum President and CEO Natalie Shirley in a statement. “Art from the 50th Prix de West, the museum’s premier Western art exhibition and sale, will also be on display during the festival, giving visitors added opportunities to see some of the finest modern Western art on the market today.”
The Red Earth Art Market will be set up in the museum's Sam Noble Special Events Center, where a special preview reception is set for 6:30 to 9 p.m. June 30.
"It's such a lovely venue for anything, but I think it'll show off our art. ... And if people want to make a huge day of it, they can get in and see the whole museum, too," said Kukuk, who has been showing her work at the festival since 2007.
Self-taught OKC artist embraces 'unforgiving' scratchwork technique
A lifelong OKC area resident, Kukuk, 76, has been participating in art shows since the 1960s.
She was first drawn to scratchwork at the old Shepherd Mall, where she spotted Native American portraits another artist had created using the technique.
"I said, 'What is that?' and she told me what she used — at that time, most people just used an X-Acto knife with the No. 11 blade — and I found some of the scratchboard and I started experimenting with it," said Kukuk, who was mostly doing acrylic paintings and pen-and-ink drawings at that time. "I was dreadful at first. My early pieces, I've ran across some of them that I even sold and I'm embarrassed now. But that's where I started."
She found more time to pursue her artistic ambitions after she retired in 2002 as chief of the commander’s protocol office at Tinker Air Force Base, where she worked for 38 years. She started experimenting with watercolors and began combining them with her scratchwork to bring bright colors to the otherwise black-and-white pieces.
Kukuk will show several of her new scratchwork and watercolor pieces in the upcoming group exhibit "Blue: Nature’s Rarest Color," which will be on view July 8-Aug. 21 in the Myriad Botanical Gardens' Crystal Bridge Art Gallery.
"It (scratchwork) has its own own personality. You kind of have to work with it to figure out whether it'll let you do something," she said, detailing the challenges of depicting a royal blue peacock for the show.
A signature member of the International Society of Scratchboard Artists, Kukuk said she still enjoys the challenge of scratchwork, especially since she takes on a wide range of subject matter, from homey still lifes to photorealistic wildlife portraits. She and her husband, Rick, a retired corporate pilot, have traveled extensively throughout Africa, Europe, Russia and the South Pacific, experiences that have provided her with ample artistic inspiration.
"I branched out in 2016 and started adding abstracts to my portfolio ... in watercolor," she said. "Abstracts for me are like a time to take a breather because scratchwork is so unforgiving, and delicate and up-close. ... If you get your scratches going the wrong direction, even if you put spray ink back in with an airbrush, that scratch is still gonna be there. Believe me, I've tried to correct mistakes, but I'm rarely pleased."
But she credited her 15 years of exhibiting at the Red Earth Festival with not only inspiring her Native American artwork but also with helping her connect to her heritage. She has works on view at the Choctaw Nation headquarters and Choctaw Nation Casino in Durant and illustrated Doreen Rappaport’s 2019 children's book “Wilma’s Way Home: The Life of Chief Wilma Mankiller," about the late trailblazing Cherokee chief.
"It is what jump-started my career. It really is, because what happened then is I learned about the things that I could get involved in ... And I did it not realizing how much it could do for me spiritually even just meeting so many Native American people," she said.
36th annual Red Earth Festival
When: June 30-July 2.
Where: National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, 1700 NE 63.
Festival hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. July 1-2.
Art preview and reception: 6:30 to 9 p.m. June 30. Tickets are $75.
Tickets: Daily general admission wristbands are $15; two-day passes are $25. Children younger than 6 admitted free with paid adult.
Tickets and information: https://www.redearth.org/redearth-festival.
'Blue: Nature’s Rarest Color'
When: July 8-Aug. 21.
Where: Myriad Botanical Gardens Crystal Bridge Art Gallery, 301 W Reno.
Opening reception: 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. July 8.
Artists: Linda Kukuk, Dennis Burian, Martha Burger, Amber Casper, JD Epperson, Kristen Gentry, Debby Kaspari, Kurt McDaniel, Jerry Piper, Krysta Quinn, Amanda Marie Reich, Kyndall Rainey, Connie Rish, Lauren Rucker, Adrienne Wright and Janice Yeary.
For more on Linda Kukuk: https://lindakukuk.com.
This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: OKC Native American artist scratches out style at Red Earth Festival