Verla Howell in the Native Arts Artist in Residence Studio

Meet Native Arts Artist-in-Residence Verla Howell

Verla Howell will have open studio hours in the Powwow Regalia Studio from 10 am–2 pm, July 28–31.

When I work on someone’s outfit, I have good thoughts for them. I won’t work on traditional pieces if I’m not in a good mood.

– Verla Howell

Cassidy Schultz: What genre of dance is your piece connected to and what’s your relationship/history to it?

Verla Howell: I’m making men’s fancy dance bustles in the style from Oklahoma. I’m Pawnee and Flandreau Santee Sioux, but I prefer the visual appeal of the Oklahoma style as opposed to northern style.

Feather bustle created by Verla Howell
A feather bustle created by Verla Howell. Photo courtesy of the artist. 

CS: What role does your piece play in the type of dance it’s for/connected with?

VH: The bustle is central to the dance. It’s one of the things that makes fancy dance what it is.

CS: Can you share a little history of how this art form came about?

VH: In the 1800s the non-Natives put on “wild west shows,” of which natives were part. But the crowd wanted a more spectacular dance so the Natives adapted their style. They kept the traditional beat, but made it faster, the steps changed, and there was more whole-body movement. Even now fancy dance is constantly evolving.

CS: What drew you to this form of art?

VH: I work in all types of media, though I’m primarily a painter. Dance with my family has always been a high priority and we make dancewear for each other. Each of us contributes different parts of the dance sets for one another.

CS: What can visitors expect during your time at the DAM?

VH: I’m open to questions and I look forward to talking with people. I’ve put out the layers of the bustle I’m creating so that people can see the progression of my piece.

Cassidy: What’s one thing you’d like to tell people about your art?

VH: I do it for myself, to make something beautiful or to make someone else happy.

CS: Is there something special in your creative process?

VH: When I work on someone’s outfit I have good thoughts for them. I won’t work on traditional pieces if I’m not in a good mood.

CS: What inspires/motivates you?

VH: I want my family to look nice and have fresh pieces. I also like keeping up with what’s current, though sometimes things just jump out at me and eventually find their way into my work.

CS: Do you ever get stuck while working? If so, how do you get unstuck?

VH: Yes, I do sometimes. A change of pace or taking a walk can help. I start with a vague idea of what I want a piece to be, but the design comes out of the process, changing as I work. Remembering that helps if I get stuck.

CS: How did you learn to create this kind of art? Was it passed down or did you learn on your own?

VH: I had a friend as a teenager who was a fancy dancer and his dogs ruined the bustles on his dance set once. He asked me to help him repair the bustles, which is how I got introduced. From there it was experimentation and practice and paying attention to what was current.

CS: Is there anything else you’d like to tell people?

VH: People need to play with their talents, to enjoy themselves, and have fun.

Cassidy Schultz is an intern in the studio and artists program at the Denver Art Museum. Cassidy has been at the DAM since 2016 and her favorite artwork on view here is American Grasslands: Crop, Lawn, Pasture, and Prairie (1996-98) by Karen E. Kitchel.