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Artist, Mopope Descendant Visits NSU Seminary Hall Murals

Image of Vanessa Jennings.Vanessa Jennings standing next to the mural her grandfather, Stephen Mopope, painted in Seminary Hall on the NSU campus.

An heir to the legacy of Kiowa art her grandfather left behind, Vanessa Jennings connected with her family, history and the Northeastern State University campus during her tour on April 15.

On campus for the 39th Annual Symposium on the American Indian, Jennings toured the murals inside Seminary Hall, NSU’s oldest structure. Her grandfather, Stephen Mopope, one of the "Kiowa Five" artists who earned international fame in the early 20th Century, painted one of the murals.

"Really, I have never seen the murals before," Jennings said. "I visited here when I was 4 or 5 years old, but at that age, you're not paying attention. It is heartbreakingly touching, especially to see that they are so well-preserved and not defaced. It is such a show of respect, and for me it is profound."

For Jennings, carefully maintained traditional art on prominent display carries particular significance. Working to preserve the customs and practices of the Kiowa, Jennings has preserved her family history and cultural knowledge in photographs, documents, songs, oral traditions and artwork. Her efforts are documented in the video Kiowa Cradleboard Maker and in an OETA Stateline documentary, The People.

From her home near Fort Cobb, and with the vigorous support of her husband, Carl, she constructs cradleboards, traditional clothing and art, and educates on Kiowa practices and language.

"What some people may not understand about my perspective of the murals is that Mopope has recorded a culture that has mostly disappeared," Jennings said. "There are very few fluent speakers of Kiowa, so we're losing our language. There was a time when all Kiowa women made cradleboards, now I'm the only one. Out of 10,000 enrolled Kiowas, I am the only woman who dresses traditionally every day."

She visited the symposium to speak about Mopope and his connection to the traditions of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma.

"Stephen was very funny," Jennings said. "He never met a stranger and visited with everyone. He was incredibly humble and never thought of himself as an internationally renowned artist. He was very compassionate and caring, and what you saw was what you got."

Jennings' familiarity with her grandfather goes beyond kinship. As her parents' first-born, she was reared by Stephen and his wife Jeanette, following Kiowa custom. Eldest children lived with grandparents to learn and preserve tribal conventions.

"My grandmother spoke four languages," Jennings said. "She was fluent in Kiowa and spoke Comanche, which was a trade language. She was very proud of being able to speak English, and she spoke Apache when she didn't want Grandpa to know what was being talked about. She had a very dynamic personality. If I'm anything, it is because of what my grandparents gave me."

The "Kiowa Five" were a group of artists who, after their works were exhibited in the Denver Art Museum, gained international notoriety in 1928 when their watercolors were entered in the First International Art Exhibition in Prague, Czechoslovakia. The pieces, which represented facets of Kiowa life and culture, were entered by mentor Oscar Jacobson, director of art at the University of Oklahoma.

"It is very kind of NSU to invite me to the symposiums,” Jennings said. “It's special to be able to come here and see my grandfather's work. I wanted it to be informal. I wanted it to be about Stephen Mopope."

Published: 4/29/2011 10:29:11 AM

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