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Castellani Exhibit Highlights Native American Children's Book Illustrators

By Joyce Kryszak

Lewiston, NY – Many winters ago, Native Americans preserved their culture with the oral tradition of storytelling. Today, authors and illustrators have created a visual tradition, recreating those legends and stories in books. A new exhibit at the Castellani Art Museum - entitled "Many Winter Ago" - highlights the artwork of some of the most acclaimed Native American children's book illustrators. And the exhibit is helping to reconnect Native American children with their heritage.

As a young Native American child, Erwin Printup spent hours drawing pictures on the reams of paper his aunt brought him from the office supply store where she worked. He tried to recreate the legends and symbols he learned mainly from books.

Today, the Lewiston resident is a famous children's book illustrator himself. The book, Giving Thanks, is widely sold all over the world and was featured on PBS's Reading Rainbow.

Some of Printup's paintings from the book are included in the exhibit. Printup points out and describes his painting, the Four Winds. But you can't really describe Printup's paintings with mere words, nor the work of the other six artists featured in the exhibit. Even the eye is incapable of completely capturing the bold colors, sweeping lines, and dynamic rhythms that seem to vibrate from the walls.

The paintings bring to life the Haudenoshonee, Apache and other Native American legends passed down through generations. It's hard to believe from looking at his work, but Printup said these were not the stories he heard growing up.

Printup said he learned the real Native American traditions when he was about ten years-old, while attending classes offered by the late Duffy Wilson, a Tuscarora sculptor. Printup said the artist inspired him. But so did Wilson's stockpile of books.

Many of those symbols and stories can be found in the sixty pieces of artwork from seven different Native American traditions. The exhibit gives children and adults a chance to discover Native American stories depicted in a variety of media - from paint and watercolor, to print, collage and illustrated marker.

Michael Beam is Museum Curator. Beam said the artwork gives the museum a tangible way to bring a child's favorite stories to life.

Having such a visual representations is a treasure for Joanne Weinholtz. She is a culture teacher at the tuscarora school. Printup often comes by to work on a mural at the school and talk to the children about their art.

Like Printup, Weinholtz said her childhood was largely devoid of even the oral traditions that were once such a central part of Native American life. Now, she says the paintings offer another way to reconnect her students with their past - and hopefully their future.

At the exhibit, children can sit around the imitation long house and story fire, retelling their favorite stories. There are other hands on activities too, such as puppet making and a puppet theatre. There is even a night sky projector where children can sit and ponder the origins of their ancestors and the stories they passed down through the ages.

And for the exhibit opening this Sunday there will be live Native American music and dancing from. Some of the artists will also be on hand to sign their books. The free community reception is at the Castellani Art Museum in Lewiston from 2:00PM until 5:00PM.

Click the "listen" icon above to hear Joyce Kryszak's story now or use your podcasting software to download it to your computer or iPod.