Alum Athena LaTocha’s Earth-Inspired Works Go Big—and Hit Home.

Alum Athena LaTocha’s Earth-Inspired Works Go Big—and Hit Home.

Alum Athena LaTocha’s Earth-Inspired Works Go Big—and Hit Home.

Alum Athena LaTocha’s Earth-Inspired Works Go Big—and Hit Home

Athena LaTocha, Murderers Creek (detail), 2018–19, ink and earth on paper, steel, lead, wood, 84 by 84 by 39 inches. Photo courtesy of Kyle Knodell. Image courtesy of the artist

Athena LaTocha, Murderers Creek (detail), 2018–19, ink and earth on paper, steel, lead, wood, 84 by 84 by 39 inches. Photo courtesy of Kyle Knodell. Image courtesy of the artist

by Joe Giovannetti

Athena LaTocha’s colossal works on paper have officially outgrown her New York studio. With multiple pieces that measure upwards of 50 feet long—and tackle big questions about our relationship to the environment—it’s safe to say that she’s never been afraid of scale.

For School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) alum LaTocha (BFA 1992), massive ideas necessitate massive work, so it’s no wonder her artwork is so large. Incorporating materials like lead, earth, and wood, her works on paper explore humanity’s collective role as custodians of the earth.

Athena LaTocha, Burning, Sulphuric, Violent, 2020, shellac ink, World Trade Center building sand on paper, 132 by 204 inches. Photo courtesy of Jason Mandella. Image courtesy of the artist

Athena LaTocha, Burning, Sulphuric, Violent, 2020, shellac ink, World Trade Center building sand on paper, 132 by 204 inches. Photo courtesy of Jason Mandella. Image courtesy of the artist

Though the intersection of art and the environment has always intrigued LaTocha, she didn’t initially set out to explore it in her artwork: “I never said, I want to go out and work with environmental things,” she shared. “It was more compulsive ... just being drawn to the things that I was fascinated by, having that sense of curiosity. We look at our pollution, and we look at our population density increasing, and we look at the loss of these incredibly fragile ecosystems. We look at how we as humans are shaping everything around us. It really makes me wonder about our future.”

This compulsion led to the development of a unique process. You won’t find many brushes or easels in LaTocha’s studio; instead, she works directly on the floor, in the middle of her artwork, throwing down ink and dragging tools such as tire shreds or scrap metal though the ink washes in an almost improvisatory manner. “When you’re working with things that are bigger than you, that are greater than you,” she explained, “there’s a sense of humility when you get lost in something, where you let go of this idea of ego and control.”

LaTocha uses a tire tread to paint with sumi ink on paper. Photo courtesy of Julius Constantine Motal

LaTocha uses a tire tread to paint with sumi ink on paper. Photo courtesy of Julius Constantine Motal

Image courtesy of the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts

Image courtesy of the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts

LaTocha’s spontaneity is balanced by meticulous organization. Her pieces are often too big to lay flat in her studio, so while she works on one segment, the rest is carefully rolled up, propped against the wall on either side. Once one section has dried, she climbs up a ladder, snaps and prints a photo, then scrolls to the next section, collaging the photographs to preserve a memory of the sections she’s already worked through.

All in all, it’s an arduous process, but LaTocha believes that it promotes a total immersion in her art that mirrors our connection with the earth. “I honestly believe that we are intricately connected to everything around us and things beyond us,” she shared.


“When you’re working with things that are bigger than you ... there’s a sense of humility when you get lost in something, where you let go of this idea of ego and control.”


In her adolescence, New York–based LaTocha dreamed of moving far away from her birthplace of Anchorage, Alaska, but lately, she’s been contemplating how her youth—influenced by the land’s rugged terrain and a notable prevalence of mining and construction operations—may have influenced her relationship with nature, proportion, and human industry: “I wonder quite often, does my having grown up being born in Alaska … have anything to do with the way that I feel about the environment? Does the vastness of the wilderness have anything to do with the way I experience scale? There might be some aspects that are ingrained in my own propensities.”

Athena LaTocha, Bulbancha (Green Silence), 2019, shellac ink, Mississippi River mud, Spanish moss on paper, 132 by 204 inches. Image courtesy of the artist

Athena LaTocha, Bulbancha (Green Silence), 2019, shellac ink, Mississippi River mud, Spanish moss on paper, 132 by 204 inches. Image courtesy of the artist

To experience the influence of the wilderness in LaTocha’s work, one wouldn’t have to look further than Ozark (Shelter in Place). In this piece, LaTocha formed lead sheets against the rock face of an Arkansas national park—once connected to the Trail of Tears and the Civil War—and attached the molded sheets to the ink and earth. In another titled Bulbancha (Green Silence), LaTocha was inspired by the Louisiana landscape; get a close look, and you’ll see moss and mud from the Mississippi river incorporated in the final work.  

Athena LaTocha, Ozark (Shelter in Place), 2018, ink and earth on paper, lead, 120 by 288 by 12 inches. Photo courtesy of Edward C. Robison III. Image courtesy of the artist

Athena LaTocha, Ozark (Shelter in Place), 2018, ink and earth on paper, lead, 120 by 288 by 12 inches. Photo courtesy of Edward C. Robison III. Image courtesy of the artist

As her practice evolved, LaTocha embraced her unique perspective—and now, her work is getting noticed. Earlier this year, LaTocha was one of five Native American/First Nations artists chosen for the Eiteljorg Contemporary Art Fellowship. Along with granting LaTocha a $25,000 unrestricted grant and the opportunity to participate in a public group exhibition, the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis expects to acquire some of her artwork, adding to a collection that Cherokee Phoenix calls “one of the best such collections in this world.”

“It’s very, very humbling and gratifying,” said LaTocha. “It was really surprising because a lot of my work doesn’t fall within the expected narrative of what mainstream audiences might think of as Native American art. I hope it opens up people’s minds about … what an artist makes based upon their own cultural background, and that there truly can be paradigm shifts within that. Having been awarded this fellowship—it just seems to be a testament to the changing, understanding, and perspectives that are out there with our human experiences.” ■


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