Artist Melanie Tallmadge Sainz, whose family for decades ran a Ho-Chunk museum in Wisconsin Dells, has returned to the area to help revive a market for authentic Native American arts.
Sainz, a Ho-Chunk tribal member who retired after spending 30 years in Arizona as an educator and visual performing artist, will open a fine arts gallery in her hometown on June 11 called Native Presence. The grand opening will take place from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at the gallery, located on the second floor of the Chalet Building, 412 ½ Broadway in Wisconsin Dells.
“Native American arts have always been an economic engine in southwest Wisconsin,” said Sainz, who founded Little Eagle Arts Foundation. “This takes us back to our roots.”
For the last three years, her foundation, known as LEAF, has been helping downtown Wisconsin Dells transition from its reputation as the Water Park Capital of the World to the Dells River Arts District.
“We want to begin a renaissance,” said Sainz, whose parents—the late Roger and Bernadine Tallmadge—owned and operated the Winnebago Indian Museum on Highway 16 during what was a heyday for authentic Native American art and commerce in the Dells. “We used to be a vital part of the economy and the time is right to return the area to the real and authentic.”
LEAF has focused on offering multi-generational workshops and programs to Native Americans and non-natives. Its members have developed programs with local organizations from the Aldo Leopold Nature Center in Monona to the Kilbourn Public Library, the Friends of H.H. Bennett Studio and the Stewards of the Dells in Wisconsin Dells.
“Our goal has always been to create the teachable moment when the language of art bridges culture to culture,” she said.
Sainz plans to use part of the gallery for displays lasting two to 30 days. Other areas will be designated for workshops, including such topics as her specialty, porcupine quill embroidery.
She also expects to showcase traditional art, some of which uses beads and natural elements that are significant in Ho-Chunk culture. At Saturday’s opening, Native Presence will feature the artwork of Ho-Chunk artist Christopher Sweet, who specializes in acrylic on canvas and mixed media pieces.
“We want to bring up new and emerging artists and be role models for those Native American and non-Indians who want to express themselves. We want to set a big art table,” she said.
Ultimately, she said, the gallery will be divided among demonstration art, consignment art and the show gallery. Sainz said she knows she will be successful because she has the support of her tribe and Wisconsin Dells civic leadership, including Mayor Brian Landers.
Sainz said her Ho-Chunk people’s name means people of the big voice.
“Our voice can be perfume or poison,” she said. “With this gallery, you know which we choose.”
Madison residents have a chance to experience a tour of the Wisconsin River narrated by Sainz on Oct. 13. Sainz will be part of a program on Wisconsin Dells history and Native American lore, sponsored by The Madison Club. The day of events includes a chartered bus ride, catered lunch and a hike at Louis Bluff in Juneau County. Registration is limited to 25 people and more information is available on The Madison Club’s website or by calling Karl Gutknecht at 608-244-2432.