Art on the BeltLine: 10-foot, Caddo Tribe-inspired sculpture installed by Ponce City Market
By Hannah E. Jones
Along the Atlanta BeltLine’s Eastside Trail stands its latest public art piece — a larger-than-life iron bear, gazing out at the bustle of Atlanta’s people. “Naw’-tsiʔ: Bear Effigy Vessel” is an oversized sculpture inspired by the effigy pottery traditionally created by the Caddo Tribe, and the items that were used for ceremony and ritual.
The public art piece was created by artist Chase Kahwinhut Earles, a member of the Caddo Nation. The tribe was originally from what’s now Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas.
Standing 10 feet tall and six feet wide by Ponce City Market, the sculpture cannot be missed. The bear stands on its back feet, holding a fish under one paw. Bear effigies are common in the Caddo culture, Earles explained, symbolizing a guardian and medicine keeper, with the fish the bear is holding representing “food for knowledge.”
“Our culture is matrilineal so I like thinking of the mother as a Mother Bear,” Earles said. “It will always represent southeastern Mississippian culture, sharing knowledge and declaring that we’ve been here forever. But also saying, we’re open to sharing our knowledge and culture.”
Caddo tribal pottery was a well-established tradition in North America from 800 AD to the 1700s and was generally used as a burial offering. The indigenous art form was nearly lost due to colonialism when the last Caddo potter stopped practicing around 1908.
Because this tradition was nearly lost to history, Earles had to do his own research when embarking on his traditional pottery journey. Earles wanted to closely follow the processes that his ancestors once used, so he met with tribal elders, archeologists and anthropologists to learn more about the process. He also studied closely alongside Jereldine Redcorn, the only living Caddo pottery revivalist.
Following the traditional process, Earles hand-digs clay from homeland areas along the river. From there, he gathers the mussel shells from the riverbed that are worked into the clay, builds the pottery design and places the item into an open-ground, wood-burning fire. Earles alternates this traditional crafting method with a more contemporary process, which includes purchasing clay and using a kiln.
“We wouldn’t have always dug our clay if we could’ve gone to the store and bought the clay,” Earles explained. “I think it’s important that I do both. My traditional work is probably in more museums because it’s appreciated as culturally and historically significant. At the same time, in the modern native art world, we want to create pieces that talk about our culture and what we’re dealing with in this modern age.”
To create “Naw’-tsiʔ: Bear Effigy Vessel” for the BeltLine, Earles had to dip his toe into a different medium — large-scale iron sculpting. To start, Earles carved huge styrofoam blocks into their intended shape and coated them with a plaster material. The materials were then sent to Birmingham to cast each iron piece before getting assembled in Atlanta. From start to finish, the process took over a year.
Now that the sculpture is completed and installed on the BeltLine, Earles feels a great sense of accomplishment and hopes the piece will spark more conversations and education about the Caddo Nation. One way he did that is by including “Naw’-tsiʔ” in the title, which means “bear” in Caddo.
“When I was growing up, there was absolutely nothing around me that had anything to do with the Caddos,” Earles said. “So I was like, ‘Why don’t we put our words on this? [We should] create an environment that is immersive in our culture so we’re always aware it’s there.’ That goes a long way in making you feel like you’re a part of [the culture].”
He continued: “It’s huge for me to use pottery, ceramics and art to teach people about our Caddo people and our culture — showing the regional significance and that we have a huge art legacy. It’s about education, sharing and bringing awareness to people. Ceramics — being one of the oldest art forms — it’s something that can last a long time, and it will be here long after I’m gone.”
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