A painting by a Mi’kmaw artist from Newfoundland and Labrador has made it into the permanent collection of one of the United States’ premier institutions, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.
“It’s very flattering,” said Nelson White, who has had to keep his accomplishment under wraps since its sale in February as the pandemic threw a few wrenches into the final Smithsonian paperwork.
“I’ve sort of been sitting on it, and the artwork has been sitting in my basement in a crate the last six months, knowing it was going to Washington, just waiting for those details.”
The details have since been ironed out, and White’s portrait Veteran Elder is destined for its new American home, already en route in a wooden crate to Washington, D.C.
The oil painting depicts Ellsworth Oakley, a Mi’kmaw elder and American veteran of the Korean War — who joined up at the age of just 17 — saluting with a stoic gaze.
Oakley, originally from Massachusetts, now calls Eskasoni, N.S., home. White is friends with his daughter, and had crossed paths with him at powwows before inspiration struck.
“He just had a great face. His face just called out to be painted,” White told CBC Radio’s Newfoundland Morning.
“Once I knew his story, and knew that he served, he was just the perfect subject, both because of his look and because of his background and where he came from.”
Recognizing Indigenous veterans
White always felt Veteran Elder was a special work, and as he called around trying to find a special home for it, a gallery in North Carolina recommended he give the Smithsonian a ring.
“To my amazement, they knew who I was and were interested in the artwork. So I made a formal application to their acquisitions committee,” said White.
The committee, he said, had their eye out for artwork from east coast Indigenous artists, as well as work involving Indigenous military experience. White — a member of the Flat Bay Band who lives in St. John’s — and Veteran Elder fit the bill.
When you get a yes, and when you get a big yes, it’s very exciting.– Nelson White
“I actually ticked a lot of boxes that they were looking for, at the time,” said White.
White felt it was a particular honour for the piece to go to the National Museum of the American Indian.
“A lot of my work centres around Indigenous identity, and to be part of that collection is very symbolic for me. It recognizes my work and it also recognizes Elder Oakley and all those thousands and thousands of Indigenous people who served in the military,” he said.
A career highlight
White has had wide-ranging success as an artist, from becoming The Rooms’ first Indigenous artist-in-residence to taking part in numerous shows, such as the one last spring in St. John’s where Veteran Elder was shown at Eastern Edge Gallery.
And while any career in the arts has its ups and downs, White said this sale stands out as a highlight.
“It’s very flattering that an institution of that magnitude accepts my work, because sometimes as an artist, anyone out there who works in the arts understands rejection, understands you’re going to get a lot of noes,” he said.
“When you get a yes, and when you get a big yes, it’s very exciting.”
The museum has two branches, in Washington and New York City, and White isn’t sure where his painting will be shown or when, but said curators have said they will update him when it goes public.