Internship gives platform to Native Voices

Bergloff enjoys a laugh with her fellow interns and volunteers at the Walkers Point Center for the Arts. Photo courtesy of Cyndi Bergloff.

When the Walker’s Point Center for the Arts applied for a grant to help them put on a Native Voices art exhibit, the first organization they approached turned them down. What was the point, the awarding committee wondered, of putting on a show that would feature the same Native American beadwork and ceremonial regalia you can find in museums, and why choose to do such a show in Milwaukee of all places?

Those misguided questions are exactly why a Native Voices art exhibit is needed, Cyndi Bergloff argues.

“The preconceived notion of native art is that it’s only regalia and beadwork, but we’re looking at how these artists are using them in a non-traditional sense,” she said. “This exhibit is meant to be an education piece for other museums to see the right way to do a native exhibit. … This exhibit is a teaching tool.”

Bergloff, an American Indian Studies major with a minor in Linguistics, is in the process of helping to design the Native Voices exhibit as part of her internship with the WPCA, an art gallery in Milwaukee that also provides youth art education programming.

She’s uniquely qualified for the job; Bergloff is both an artist and part of the Anishinaabe community from the Grand Traverse Band and Grand River Band of Ottawa Indians. She chose to attend UWM specifically for the university’s strong language programs, and was delighted when she discovered that UWM offers Ojibwe lessons, the language Bergloff’s family speaks.

On campus, she works as a researcher in the Electa Quinney Institute, a UWM organization promoting American Indian education and connecting American Indian students on campus. Bergloff connected with the WPCA through her position at the Institute; she let her mentors know she was looking for opportunities that would allow her to do research that connected with both her major and working with youth. The WPCA internship was the perfect fit.

American Indian Studies major Cyndi Bergloff helps a young patron complete a craft at the Milwaukee Art Museum as part of her internship with the Walkers Point Center for the Arts. Photo courtesy of Cyndi Bergloff.

As part of her job duties, Bergloff is reaching out to local American Indian communities to ask about what kind of art they would like to see included in the installation. She’s coordinating with different artists to procure their pieces for the line-up and sitting in on organizational and planning meetings – all of the behind-the-scenes work that must take place before the show goes live.

In addition, she works with children enrolled in WPCA’s summer art and after school programs, teaching them to create art in different mediums. Last week, the group created crocheted covers for worry stones, small rocks they can keep in their pockets and touch whenever they need a reminder to calm down or manage their emotions.

“Our big goal has been about making art accessible to everyone,” Bergloff said. “So much of culture is engrained in art and language.”

That’s one of the reasons she’s so excited to develop the Native Voices exhibit. Bergloff is hoping to feature a variety of artists, from the well-known Ojibwe painter Jim Denomie to the 13-year-old boy she found carving soapstone at a local art show.

“A lot of people don’t understand what it is to have a community-based art exhibit,” Bergloff said. “Language and art can re-enfranchise disenfranchised communities. … I’m working on this with folks who understand issues of colonization in different communities from Chicanx to Hmong. It’s been really special.”

Bergloff herself might be one of the artists in her exhibit; she plans to graduate in 2018 and part of her graduation requirements state that she must complete a capstone project. She’s toying with the idea of creating an art piece that touches on her educational and internship experiences. Her supervisors at WPCA are eager to have her in the show.

“They told me, ‘This is about you as an artist too,’” Bergloff said.

The Native Voices exhibit will run from mid-February through April in 2018 at the Walker’s Point Center for the Arts.

– By Sarah Vickery, College of Letters & Science