A Guide to Touring: The North Star Changes – Works by Brenda Mallory

by Dewayne Matthews

These notes reflect my own ideas and understandings and not those of the Heard Museum or Heard Guild. Please let me know immediately of any errors or misconceptions you see, plus any corrections, suggestions, additional information or insights you can share. 


  1. Brenda Mallory is an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation, one of three federally-recognized Cherokee groups in the US. She lives in Portland, Oregon. In her 40s, she began pursuing art full-time, and this exhibition is a retrospective of her 20-plus year career.
  1. Much of her work is made from reclaimed and repurposed materials, which in part reflects the fact that she grew up on a farm in rural Oklahoma where the focus was on “making do” – using whatever was available to make or fix things as needed.
  1. Her work is often about taking things apart and putting them back together in a different form. She says this reflects disruption and adaptation, including that experienced by the Cherokee through allotments and removals. As she said in her talk at the opening of the exhibit, her work is about “bringing the pieces back together, including pieces of ourselves.”

Kitchell Gallery

At the entrance under the sign is the piece North Star (To Lead). Constructed of discarded paper packing sheet, it’s a good introduction to the exhibit. Mallory explained that the name of the exhibit refers to the fact that even the North Star—the symbol of permanence and absolutes—changes over time. Today, the North Star is Polaris, but it shifts over time through different stars over a 26,000 year cycle. To Mallory, nothing is permanent and everything changes.  The name of the exhibit is also written in the Cherokee language, which is a syllabary in which each character (there are 85 in all) represents a syllable rather than a letter. The Cherokee syllabary was created around 1820 by Sequoyah and is entirely original and unique—it is not based on transliteration or Roman characters. It made Cherokee one of the first indigenous written languages in North America.


On the wall to the left is biophilia: Cradle, made of waxed cloth and welded steel to resemble a Cherokee cradleboard.  It is from a series called biophilia, which explores themes related to biology.


On both sides of the wall behind the entrance is the piece biophilia: Emergent Properties. In biology, the concept of emergent properties is that complex systems emerge from their constituent parts but are not defined by them—in other words, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” This piece illustrates several ideas and themes that run through Mallory’s work. It is made of waxed cloth on a honeycomb frame, which both relate to Mallory’s beekeeper grandfather. The piece is assembled with nuts and bolts and wire, which relate to Mallory’s father’s life as a farmer in northeastern Oklahoma where “making do” with what was available and at hand was a necessity.

Across from Emergent Properties is the piece biophilia: Goods and Services. It consists of multiple shapes of waxed cloth sorted by color and arranged on tables made to suggest a laboratory or industrial setting. But in nature and life nothing can be controlled completely, as shown by the pieces that have “escaped” and are on the floor.

To the left is Demeter Does the Math (and Cries), a piece from early in Mallory’s career which is made from waxed cloth and shell casings. Demeter is the Greek goddess of agriculture and fertility, which is a recurring theme in Mallory’s work. In her talk to Las Guias, she mentioned having thought during her work on the piece about Monsanto’s development and sale of sterile seeds. The work consists of thirteen vertical pieces, each with 28 holes, which represents the lunar year as well as the menstrual cycle. The shell casings, like the hog rings Mallory uses in several pieces, interjects a disquieting suggestion of violence.

Crossroads Gallery

 The large installation to the right is called Recurring Chapters in the Book of Inevitable Outcomes and is one of the few pieces in the exhibit that can be interpreted as directly addressing Cherokee history. The black columns may represent houses and forests burned during the forced removal in 1838-39 of the Cherokee from their ancestral lands in what is now the southeastern United States (the Trail of Tears). But in keeping with Mallory’s theme of regeneration even in the face of destruction, seeds have been released which spread and start new life in new places (including the top of the stairs!).

I would suggest next moving to the two pieces behind the wall in the center of the room. The one to the right is called Drivebelt Experiment #2 and is made from discarded rubber drivebelts she found at the Portland, Oregon, city dump. After she cut, reassembled, and painted them, the piece looks as if it could be made from carved wood.

To the left is Further Function #2. This work is made of handmade paper that she pressed into a mold made of the rubber drivebelts. The pieces of paper are “sewn” together using nuts and bolts rather than thread.

On the other side of the wall is another work made of cast paper called North Star (Guiding Light). This red piece is in the form of a traditional cross image, which along with the circle and star are recurring motifs with significance in Cherokee culture. The white circle across the way is called Procession. Mallory explained that the Cherokee were traditionally organized in two societies—the Red, which took precedence in times of war, and the White, which took precedence in time of peace. To the Cherokee, therefore, Red and White represent the duality of action and contemplation, which all of us must seek to balance.

To the right is another ceramic piece called Common Connections, made of red fused glass. The piece suggests shards of glass that are held together by connecting pieces reminiscent of the baling wire used by Mallory’s father.

In the opposite corner of the gallery to the left of the large installation is Consensual Attachments: Across Time and Space, the piece that appears on the cover of the exhibit essay by Joseph Pierce. This piece is made of waxed cloth and hog rings, which are metal rings originally used to control pigs but which are now used as connectors in a range of settings. The piece has 28 columns and 13 rows representing the lunar cycle.

To the left past the doorway is To Carry an Ember, made from discarded spools of industrial thread which Mallory cut in half (destroying their original function) and reassembled with loops cut from the cores of the spools. The pattern is derived from Cherokee basketry, as is the title which refers to the Cherokee story of the Water Spider, who made a basket from her web to bring an ember back to the people so they could have fire.

Next to the piece is Reformed Packings #24, made from honeycomb packing sheet of the type used by Ikea.


In the display case in the hallway are several pieces made of reclaimed and repurposed materials. To the left is Relic, made of plaster cast in a bicycle inner tube, and next to it is Reformed Packings #21, made from honeycomb packing sheet. There are three pieces made of discarded firehoses Mallory found at the Portland dump: Firehose Experiment #15, Firehose Experiment #16 (Now We Reap), and Zen Scrubber #2. In these works, firehoses are cut up and unraveled, and then recombined and transformed into new forms.  In the last piece to the right, the black circle is a discarded disk from a floor polisher.

Last Thought

Mallory’s work seems to be less about “meaning” than about materials, form, color, and texture. This is not to say that it does not draw from and reflect her Cherokee heritage. As she said to Las Guias, “Every piece I make should have multiple interpretations.” She welcomes people to make their own connections to the work.