You have a bachelor's degree in Art Education from NYU Steinhardt. What drew you to Steinhardt to study this field? Was art always a passion for you?
Being an artist was always a passion. What drew me to Steinhardt was my scholarship. I was going to the HS of Music and Art. They suggested I go to NYU with my portfolio and I received an $1,800 scholarship toward tuition which was $2,000 at the time. I received $1,800. The $200 was hard for my mother. I worked my whole way through school.
I was always a natural educator. [As a child] my mother said I would take my dolls and say "Okay, school is in session!" Being an educator was a practical way to make a living.
Your website, www.nademaagard.com, mentions your work as visual artist, curator, consultant, poet, and writer. Tell us more about your work and inspirations.
I taught in a classroom for 15 years, starting out in a Junior High School Art program. I taught other subjects on the side but art was always my point of reference. I could always go back to teaching. I went out to do different things but teaching was my security blanket. Being in the art world is not a secure career so that's why I went into teaching. Although my license was for high school education, I taught at the middle and elementary level.
I became very adept at cultural art projects that taught both art and diversity and multiculturalism. To this day I do workshops on multiculturalism and art as a vehicle for that multiculturalism. As a Native American, I made an effort to teach my students art from other traditions. We are taught to respect all the four colors equally (referring to the Native American flag colors - 4 of which represents the four colors of humanity). All the art projects I developed out of my own imagination. I wanted my students to be familiar with all of the different ways of expressing oneself, not just the traditional Western culture of teaching and expressing art. Art is the most intimate way to communicate with people, and I was able to use it to convey the most intimate way to share about different cultures.
Native Americans don't have a word for art. My work can be a visual pun and reflect two ideas at the same time, which is a very indigenous tradition in art. For example, we make carvings that can be like a face and a fish.
Of course all the work that I've done in all the different fields contributed to the whole person that I am. If I was a pie, all the different pieces would be represented by art, education, writing, lecturing, story-telling, art workshops, and cultural workshops. Art is the glue that connects me to all of those things. If I'm not making art I'm doing art workshops.
Tell us more about your involvement in Native American art initiatives.
For seven years I ran the Native American Education program at the Museum of the American Indian so my life was immersed into Native American Art.
One day when I was a student at NYU, I was sitting at Loeb Student Center (now Kimmel) and someone asked me if I was Puerto Rican. I said no, I'm American Indian, and he said, "I know someone else at NYU who is American Indian." He then introduced me to Charmaine, his other American Indian friend. It was right then and there that Charmaine and I started the first American Indian club at NYU.
Your career has followed a very extensive path and has taken you to many places, both locally and internationally. Where are some of the places you've traveled and how did those experiences influence your work?
I've been to most of Europe, Alaska, the Pacific Islands, the continental US, Mexico, and the Caribbean. I studied art, language and architecture in Rome and Greece. I travelled to Paris, and Madrid and went to the great art museums there. I've even been to Scandinavia.
One particular trip influenced me 40 years later based on something I had seen outside of Rome. It was a garden with fountains, and there was an image of the Goddess Diana with many breasts - the classic goddess of fertility. And I did a lot of work being connected to fertility and goddesses and travel based around that. My trip to New Mexico was like mecca. It was as if the art and environment were in my DNA, and I really made a connection when I saw other artists in the same color palette. When I was going to art school my teachers told me my colors were too intense and that I had to tone them down. But my DNA was saying, "No, you're attracted to those colors." I make art from a traditional Native perspective but I use contemporary techniques and styles.
Do you have any new projects or initiatives coming up in the near future?
I just did a piece for the Staten Island Museum for the quadricentennial of the arrival of Henry Hudson. It was important to me to have an Algonquian Native perspective because they were the first people to welcome him.
There was a call to be in a show next year by a Native American curator and I'm working on a piece that I proposed to do for that show. It's influenced by the colors of the Buddhist prayer flags which are a lot like the Lakota (Western Sioux) prayer flags. They're almost the same as our nation except they have five colors and we have six.
Your interests in art, education, and Native American culture have all seemed to culminate throughout your career. What advice would you give to college students that, like you, have such unique interests and passions?
Whatever your passion is do it well and try not to be a jack of all trades. If you're going to do something zone in on it. If you have integrity in your work it will come across. Whatever you do, do your best at it. Don't do it halfway.