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Arts Watch: Vision 2020 Interviews Ka'ila


Vision 2020: Ka’ila Farrell-Smith

The Southern Oregon artist, mentor, and anti-fracking activist creates visual art “rooted in Indigenous aesthetics and abstract formalism”


On her website, Ka’ila Farrell-Smith, a Klamath Modoc visual artist, describes her artistic practice as “channeling research through a creative flow of experimentation and artistic playfulness rooted in Indigenous aesthetics and abstract formalism.” Through painting, traditional Indigenous art practices, and self-curated installations, Farrell-Smith explores the “space in-between the Indigenous and western paradigms.”


Farrell-Smith, who lives in Modoc Point in Southern Oregon, received a BFA in painting from Pacific Northwest College of Art and an MFA in contemporary art practices studio from Portland State University. Her work has been exhibited around the Pacific Northwest and is in the permanent collections of the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art on the University of Oregon campus and the Portland Art Museum. As a co-director of the Signal Fire residency program, she helps connect artists to wild places.

Recently, Farrell-Smith was selected to attend artist residencies at Djerassi, UCROSS, Institute of American Indian Arts, and Crow’s Shadow. In 2020, she will have work on display in the Nine Gallery in Portland and Ditch Projects in Springfield. Her comments have been edited for length and clarity.

What should Oregonians know about the Modoc? What is the story we need to hear?

I am not a scholar or expert on Modoc history, and I’m hesitant tackling such an important narrative that has been systematically erased from the psyches of Oregonians. The entire nature of this question is problematic; it should never land on the Indigenous descendants of genocide and an imperial war machine to educate the occupation on settler-colonizers’ bloody tactics to steal and murder for myths like Manifest Destiny. This story needs to be remembered collectively as tribal members and descendants honor their S’aaMaq’s (relation, in Klamath) who witnessed or experienced the Modoc War.

I’m actively working to learn my family’s lineage and tell my own story through my creative arts praxis focused in performing Fugitive Indigeneity — I’m analyzing how Modoc and Klamath ancestors used refusal and flight as modes of decolonial freedom. Specifically, the band of Modocs who refused colonization onto the Klamath reservation; in refusal, flight, and fight, they returned to their sacred ancestral homelands in the Lava Beds.

Growing up, I remember listening to my father talk about the Modoc War and our ancestors who were 1864 Klamath Treaty signers. He told us stories about his grandma, Emma Ball, who was brought to Fort Klamath when she was 9 years old and forced to watch the U.S. government hang four of the Modoc War leaders. Within my research and analysis of these traumatic events on our familial psyches, I came across a very disturbing connection between the legal citation of the hanging of the Modoc War leaders and the U.S. approving torture of prisoners of war at Guantanamo Bay after 9/11 during the Bush Administration.

In the book An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz outlines the creation of the U.S. military industrial complex as an Indian killer campaign, a framework used to create U.S. foreign scorched earth policies, endless regime-change wars, genocide, and violent resource extraction. She writes:

Drawing a legal analogy between the Modoc prisoners and the Guantanamo detainees, Assistant US Attorney General Yoo employed the legal category of homo sacer: in Roman law, a person banned from society, excluded from its legal protections but still subject to the sovereign’s power. Anyone may kill a homo sacer without it being considered murder. As Jodi Byrd notes, “One begins to understand why John C. Yoo’s infamous March 14, 2003, torture memos cited the 1865 Military Commissions and the 1873 Modoc Indian Prisoners legal opinions in order to articulate executive power in declaring the state of exception, particularly when the Modoc Indian Prisoners opinion explicitly marks the Indian combatant as homo sacer to the United States.” To buttress his claim, Yoo quoted from the 1873 Modoc Indian Prisoners opinion:

“It cannot be pretended that a United States soldier is guilty of murder if he kills a public enemy in battle, which would be the case if the municipal law were in force and applicable to an act committed under such circumstances. All the laws and customs of civilized warfare may not be applicable to an armed conflict with the Indian tribes upon our western frontier; but the circumstances attending the assignation of Canby [Army General] and Thomas [U.S. peace commissioner] are such as to make their murder as much a violation of the laws of savage as of civilized warfare, and the Indians concerned in it fully understood the baseness and treachery of their act.”

Byrd points out that, according to this line of thinking, anyone who could be defined as “Indian” could thus be killed legally, and they also could be held responsible for crimes they committed against any US soldier: “As a result, citizens of American Indian nations become in this moment the origin of the stateless terrorist combatant within U.S. enunciations of sovereignty.”

The Modoc are a resilient, fierce, passionate people whose warrior ancestors inspire us in our current fight against the fossil-fuel industry and Canadian corporation Pembina and their fracked gas pipeline threatening Modoc, Klamath, Paiute, Coos, Coquille, Hanis, Yurok, Karuk ancestral homelands and waterways. I hope readers will be inspired to do their research about the Modoc War and the descendants who carry on their legacy and memory through creative agency and decolonial ruptural art forms.

On the subject of your work, tell us about Signal Fire. What does this group do, and how does that work align with your own?

Signal Fire is an artist and activist residency program that takes creative agitators into the backcountry, connecting them with realities of land use: wilderness, tribal lands, private property, resource extraction industries, and ecological concerns. We are a unique, nonprofit artist-residency organization, in that we don’t own any land, and a part of our mission is to decolonize land-ownership narratives, revitalize cultural connections to place, and support creative advocacy for land and human-rights advocacy campaigns. I come from a background of fine art and environmental advocacy and grass-roots organizing.

My fundraising and organizing background led me to be the organization’s first co-director hire outside of the two founders. I’ve been on staff and in a leadership role within the organization since my original hire in 2015. My passion for backpacking, hiking, connecting with my ancestral homelands has been nurtured at Signal Fire and has led to my moving home and developing Signal Fire programming in Southern Oregon. My work aligns with the organization and I’ve spent a lot of time in the equity, diversity, and inclusion committee, which is dedicated to dismantling white supremacy and patriarchy in our organization and in the field of artist-residency programs.

How would you describe the general state of artistic and cultural life in your area, either by any objective criteria or anecdotal evidence of your choosing? Basically, what do you see happening? There are some cool creative projects happening in downtown Klamath Falls; there are painted pianos outside in communal areas for people to play. I don’t think there is a contemporary art center or gallery in the Klamath Falls area. The Two Rivers gallery in Chiloquin offers a great community art-making space that I use to work with Klamath Tribes Youth Council, and they showcase local artists’ work. This year I was a part of the High Desert Museum’s award-winning exhibition Desert Reflections: Water Shapes the West in Bend, and I’ve been offered a solo show at the At Liberty gallery in downtown Bend in 2020. Across the mountains to the east is the PLAYA artist residency on Summer Lake, and they offer excellent contemporary artist workshops, residencies, and events for the Paisley and Oregon Outback community. My goal as a 2020-21 Fields Artist Fellow is to offer art classes to Chiloquin and Klamath youth and work on bridging the opportunity gap in Southern Oregon through creative classes and mentoring opportunities.

What, more than anything, has had the single biggest impact on the arts, either in your own area, or just in Oregon in general in the past few years?

For me personally it has been being offered a Crow’s Shadow residency. I had the unique opportunity to work with master printer Judith Baumann and create three different printmaking series that are for sale through the Crow’s Shadow gallery and website. The second biggest impact on my art career is being selected as one of four finalists for the Oregon Humanities and Oregon Community Foundation inaugural Fields Artist Fellowship. With these funds, I’m building out a painting studio, art storage, and wood shop in my barn at Modoc Point Studio. I’m mentoring youth in Chiloquin and work closely with the Klamath Tribes Youth Council on leadership and environmental advocacy campaigns to stop the LNG fracked gas Jordan Cove pipeline and export terminal threatening Southern Oregon communities. This campaign work has brought together an incredible partnership of artists, activists, tribes, and joined the Power Past Fracked Gas coalition in the Pacific Northwest. Partnerships have been built through Signal Fire, Rogue Climate, Southern Oregon Rising Tide, Vesper Meadow, S’aaMaq’s Studio, and Justseeds printmaking collective.

What would you advise a young person interested in an artistic career? What would you like them to know? You have to learn how to be a good writer. Keeping up with artist statements, grant applications, and website updates is a lot of work. The business side of being a professional artist is the trickiest to balance with all the fun and freedom of creative expression in the studio.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced promoting the arts? What are the opportunities or goals you expect to work on in the coming year?

The greatest challenge I’ve faced in promoting the arts in my community is related to social media monitoring and suppression due to my active protest of the Canadian fracked gas corporation Pembina, which owns the Jordan Cove pipeline and export terminal projects being proposed through Southern Oregon. This corporation has spent up to $10 million a month on propaganda and suppressing pipeline activists. This internet monitoring has impacted my sharing of art projects that are related to stopping Jordan Cove and some of my personal art exhibitions as well.

In the coming year, I will continue to use my art platform to protest the pipeline threat in my community. As a Fields Artist Fellow, I will be building my painting studio, wood shop, and art storage facility in my barn at Modoc Point Studio and continue to mentor the Klamath Youth Council on professional development opportunities, creative classes, hiking and kayaking opportunities in the region.

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