Art shows hope amid dark history

Dave Kanietakeron Fadden points to a piece of his artwork displayed at BluSeed Studios in Saranac Lake on Friday. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Marbone)

SARANAC LAKE — Dave Kanietakeron Fadden stood next to the favorite of his paintings in the gallery at BluSeed Studios on Friday, speaking to a crowd gathered in a semi-circle around him about the history of residential schools.

Behind him were hundreds of sullen faces in black and white. He spoke about how these schools in the U.S. and Canada — which were largely established by Christian missionaries and operated by Christian churches with government funding — stripped Indigenous people of their culture for over a century, taking off their traditional clothes and putting them in military uniforms, cutting their hair and severely punishing them if they spoke their native language.

It is a painful part of his history, one which nearly destroyed that language, he explained.

“But this is where we are now,” Fadden said, sweeping his arm across the image. At the right-most edge of the canvas, there’s an explosion of vibrant color, braided hair and laughter.

“We’re coming out of that dark period,” he said. “We’re able to practice our culture. We’re able to wear our traditional outfits, go to our ceremonies. We have self-determination of our own future.”

Dave Kanietakeron Fadden speaks to a group of people about his artwork at BluSeed Studios in Saranac Lake on Friday. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Marbone)


Fadden grew up with artists and creators all around.

His father was an art teacher. His mother, a wood carver and potter. His grandfather, who founded the Six Nations Iroquois Cultural Center in Onchiota — which his family still runs — was a prolific bead worker. On the other side of his family, his grandmother was a basket maker and his grandfather made lacrosse sticks.

“Everyone did something,” Fadden said.

He got his start in the visual arts by drawing on the walls of his parents’ living room in a corner hidden away by the curve of a sectional sofa.

“Caveman art,” he called it.

Inevitably, his mother found his sketchings. But rather than scolding him, he said she bought him a desk and materials. He is thankful for her encouragement.

What were those earliest works, crafted in secrecy and hidden away from sight?

“Who knows?” Fadden said.

He just kept drawing and realized he had a gift. The struggle was to make a living off it. He got his first book illustration job at age 19. He estimates he’s produced more than 400 books by now.

It pays the bills, but his passion is painting portraits. His subjects are Indigenous people and people he knows. Fadden said he has always wanted to show the whole range of emotions in their faces.

“There are lots of misconceptions in popular culture about Indigenous people that we are all stoic,” Fadden said.

There are some grim-faced subjects in his work, but more often there are faces of joy, sadness, excitement and peace.

On the wall opposite the painting of the children is a portrait of a single face, a sub-chief in the Turtle Clan of the Mohawk nation, and Fadden’s cousin. His laughter can almost be heard from the painting.

“Stoic? Not this guy,” Fadden said. He was always telling them dirty jokes.


Scattered around the gallery is a series of mosaic-style paintings — portraits made from intricate networks of smaller tiles depicting native patterns, cultural touchstones and pieces of Fadden’s life in a mix of pointillism and collage.

These images are striking from a distance. But moving closer, close enough to smell the paint, they reward close inspection with hidden treasures, like a “Where’s Waldo” book. Some premeditated, some just representations of what was on his mind at the time he drew it.

He pointed out a couple: “There’s the coronavirus. … There’s Black Lives Matter. … There’s Yoda.”

Many of his paintings have Star Wars references hidden in them, a tribute to his friend Joe Barnes. Fadden remembers the day he visited Barnes and saw his historic Star Wars memorabilia collection — thousands of pieces.

Barnes died in 2018, so now Fadden paints his memory into every piece he can. On the right side of the painting of the children is a young Barnes, grinning and wearing a pendant with the emblem of the Jedi Order.

Fadden said he was inspired by Chuck Close, a New York City painter whose photorealistic works printed in magazines captivated him as a kid, whose large canvases intrigued him as a young adult and whose creativity in mosaic portraits made him want to expand as an artist. In 1988, Fadden said, Close suffered a collapsed spinal artery, which paralyzed him. He could move his arms, but he couldn’t hold a brush. So he would tie a brush to one hand and use the other to guide it.

“I was like, ‘I’ve got everything here. What’s my excuse?'” Fadden said.

This is Fadden’s second solo showing. The first was in 2020, right at the onset of coronavirus pandemic-related lockdowns. But he’s been a part of many group shows, including one at BluSeed last year focused on water. After that show, BluSeed Executive Director Marissa Hernandez asked him to do a solo exhibit.

Fadden’s medium is visual, but he said it speaks to the importance of language in his culture.

His grandmother was in one of these residential schools, and he said she lost the ability to speak Mohawk. If she did, the nuns hit her. She told him about another girl, 6 years of age, who did not speak a word of English. When she spoke Mohawk, the adults would lock her in a windowless closet all night.

She didn’t know why because the nuns didn’t communicate with her, but she realized it happened when she spoke, so she stayed silent for two years, Fadden said.

“We’re at a critical stage in our existence,” he said.

Language is especially important for Native Americans because they did not have a written language. Traditions, history and politics were all passed on verbally. These schools did a lot of damage, he said. They taught shame as children were told they were going to burn in hell for their spiritualism if they didn’t assimilate into Christianity. Residential schools opened after the Civil War and the last school only closed in 1997.

The reference for Fadden’s painting of the children is a class photo from Carlisle, Pennsylvania, which had a class of around 1,000. The man who founded this school is infamous for his motto, “Kill the Indian, save the man.”

But Fadden’s painting is titled “Kill the Indian. Save the man, fail.” These schools failed in killing the Indian, and the evidence is all around at BluSeed.

The free exhibit, sponsored by the Adirondack Diversity Initiative, is open to the public on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays from 2 to 6 p.m. Fadden will be back for the exhibit closing and an artist conversation on June 25 from 5 to 7 p.m.


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