Laura Youngbird Knows We Need Art

Laura Youngbird’s art isn’t pretty, and she doesn’t want it to be. Her striking pieces convey the reality of many Native people in America in all its harshness. Laura draws inspiration from her Native background (she is an enrolled member of the Minnesota Chippewa, Grand Portage Band) as well as from lived experience and family. As a visual artist, she is well-versed in printmaking, drawing, and painting, and she brings these skills to her role as a Springboard Artist Career Consultant.

Hi Laura! Please share a little about your creative practice.
Well, it’s pretty intertwining with my life and experiences that I’ve had, and it’s often me reflecting on questions that I try to answer; I sometimes learn things as I’m creating. But I like to just start making, and I tend to work in series. Not always, but that seems to work the best for me. I do a lot of mixed-media monotypes, and I use stencils, make ghost prints – I have all these various backgrounds. I like using flash oil, but I can’t do it in my home or most places. But it makes beautiful washes. You can also use toner and alcohol to get some of those washes as well. And then I layer on: I use a lot of transparent paper, tissue paper, mostly, in a lot of dress patterns, and they start telling a story in the series. I like to just kind of let it go.

I’ve really slowed down [in the pandemic], but I try to make myself doodle here and there. I had a big studio – it was like a whole storefront – and…well, lots of things happened. My husband had a major stroke. I retired from my day job, which I really loved, because he needed a lot of care. So I moved my studio into my home, and it’s still a mess [laughs]. I got rid of a lot, but I still don’t know where to put things. So I’m not working like I would like to, but it’s getting there.

How did you start working with Springboard for the Arts?
I was a board member at the Lake Region Arts Council, and Springboard was started in that same building. We did some projects together. Like, with the Kirkbride (Fergus Falls Regional Treatment Center), we did a big public collage using images from the facility, which was really, really fun. They have it hanging up in their office.

I worked at the Plains Art Museum as the director of the Native American Arts program, so there were a lot of connections and partnering [with Springboard]. I took the Work of Art series and some other training programs, then trained the trainer. I also had a residency at the Kirkbride through Springboard. I’m amazed at all the things that Springboard is doing here in our little satellite office [in Fergus Falls]. Michele Anderson is a force.

What are projects that you have going right now or an idea in the making? What’s a project you’d like to see happen?
I sent a proposal into the SHIFT program (SHIFT – Transformative Change and Indigenous Arts program). It’s a large project, and it would be in partnership with the Plains Art Museum; I would be an artist and work with the Native community. I miss doing that work. I never really stopped, but with Covid it kind of changed. I still work with our MMIW and MMIP (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women/People) and Daughters of the Earth – I was actually one of the original daughters way back in the nineties – doing events and art projects related to MMIP. So that’s what I have on my mind, doing something larger that engages the public for social change.

We’ve done a march on February 14th for MMIW/MMIP (“people” rather than just “women” because there’s also young men, boys, girls, little children that this happens to) for the past few years, and we got T-shirts made up and had events and speakers and singers. We weren’t able to do that [this year], so we had a Zoom meeting. I interviewed Ruth Buffalo; she’s a legislator in North Dakota. I met her early on when she was still a graduate student at NDSU. She’s done a lot of work, along with [former North Dakota Senator] Heidi Heitkamp, to get this MMIP epidemic more recognized, to spread awareness. A lot of people don’t even understand or know that this is happening, and it’s been happening for hundreds of years, since first contact. Native people are apparently more disposable, and certain laws and the oil boom and the man camps [contribute to that idea]. On the reservations, if a white man did something [to a Native person], it would go to federal court, as the local people don’t have the jurisdiction, so a lot of bad behavior goes – not unnoticed, it’s just let go. I think it’s really important to teach the youth that we are all valuable. Our society is really chauvinistic and violent, and we’ve got to try to counterbalance that because the kids are being bombarded with these messages through social media. That’s what we’re trying to do: bring more awareness to people of all ages, but especially the young people.

[So] we were able to do that Zoom event, and it went really well. I talked to my niece Lissa Yellowbird-Chase; there was a book written about her. She formed an organization called the Sahnish Scouts, and she’s really been out there looking for and finding missing people. She says that even now there are people selling drugs to young women and getting them groomed while they’re still living with their parents, and people aren’t even aware. And this guy still hasn’t been prosecuted to my knowledge. There are so many things that feed this issue, even foster care. It wasn’t until the late eighties or nineties: they passed the Indian Child Welfare Act because so many children were being deliberately placed outside of Native homes in order to assimilate them. First it was the boarding schools. Then people were just like, “You’re leaving your kids with their grandparents? That’s so wrong,” or whatever, and I’m like, it’s better for them to be with a grandparent than just a babysitter, you know? They used that as an excuse to take kids away, and there’s so many people – and artists – I’ve known that were adopted and don’t know their background because they had records that were sealed and that sort of thing. It’s all a big knot.

There’s an artist there that’s doing something for [National MMIW Day in Minneapolis]; his name is Rory Wakemup. We were in a Zoom meeting for something, and he had these red cardboard dresses, which is a symbol for the MMIW, and he had just hundreds of them! And there was a guy painting them with a roller, and he was putting them on sticks so people could carry them. I’ll try to get down there to help if I can, or at least try to find some people – my sister lives down there, and she’s really active in that community.

I would like to keep working and growing. I don’t always know exactly how that’s going to happen. I usually kind of have an idea, but it doesn’t always turn out that way, and that’s a good thing because it usually turns out better than I thought. Of course, I do have disasters as well [laughs]. I want to see more art, more artists, more awareness, more art in the schools. Some people see art as a kind of fluffy thing or frilly thing, like we really don’t need it, but we do.

What’s something you wish others knew about you?
That I sell art! That I have a passion. There’s people that do paintings of flowers and landscapes, and those are beautiful and there’s nothing wrong with them, but my art isn’t pretty, so it doesn’t always [get recognized]. I can draw flowers, but it’s not what I’m going to do.

Springboard Resources
Artist Career Consultants, available for virtual consultations:
Workshops & Events Calendar:

Work of Art and Handbook for Artists Working in Community books:
Read more about Springboard’s rural work, based in Fergus Falls:

Editor’s note:
As the national platform for Springboard for the Arts, Creative Exchange has long been a platform to highlight the artists, resources, and efforts in our national network. In this pandemic, as Springboard for the Arts’ work is increasingly online and accessible nationally, we’ll be turning the spotlight on Springboard staff and our Artist Career Consultants, to share more about who we are and the work we do. Enjoy!