Today, December 11, 2016, is the two-hundredth birthday of the great State of Indiana. In observance of the Indiana Bicentennial, I would like to begin a series on firsts in Indiana art, a series to carry through to the end of the birth month and birth year of the Hoosier State. My sources will include those listed on a new page called "Bibliography," accessible by clicking on tabs on the right and at the top of this page. I invite additions, corrections, and speculations to and on this list of Firsts in Indiana Art.
The First Artist in What Is Now Indiana--No one knows who was the first artist in what is now the State of Indiana, for that person's name or identity is lost in prehistory. (From here on out, I'll shorten "What is now Indiana" to just "Indiana.") According to various sources, the first people in Indiana were of the Paleo-Indian Period (or Tradition) of 8000 to 6000 B.C. These are believed to have been wandering hunters in pursuit of big game. They left behind them expertly made fluted points of chert and chalcedony, artifacts of an obviously utilitarian purpose but of an equally obvious aesthetic quality. These were tools, however, and not specifically works of art.
The Paleo-Indian Period was followed by the Archaic or Meso-Indian Period (or Tradition) of 4000 to 2000, 1000, or 400 BC, depending on which source you consult. Indians of the Archaic Period are also supposed to have been wanderers. They made points of stone, too, but the artifacts most closely associated with them are shell mounds or middens, the castoff remains of freshwater mussels hunted or harvested for their meat. I should point out that the harvesting of mussels for mother-of-pearl buttons and other items, as well as for freshwater pearls, was a craze in Indiana during the early twentieth century. I think it extremely likely that American Indians of the Archaic Period would have recognized the potential for making decorative items from mussel shells and pearls, too. In fact, archaeologists have found shell (and copper) beads in graves dating from the Archaic Period in Indiana. Whether these were the earliest decorative or artistic rather than simply utilitarian artifacts in Indiana is, by my sources, an unanswered question.
The Woodland Indian Period (or Tradition), which ended with European contact, was marked by the development of agriculture and permanent and semi-permanent settlements, among other advances. In his booklet An Introduction to the Prehistory of Indiana (Indiana Historical Society, 1983), James H. Kellar was more explicit: "The Woodland Tradition is basically defined by the presence of pottery containers with surfaces distinguished by cord impressions or other decorations applied using a flat paddle-like tool." (p. 35) Note the word decorations. A roughened surface makes a pot or container easier to handle. (My supposition.) It's a short step from a roughened surface--a utilitarian development--to a decorated roughened surface--an aesthetic or artistic development. In any event, with pottery-making came a surface upon which decorations--art--could be made and which might survive into the historical period, including to the present day.
It's safe, then, to say by the archaeological record that the first artist in Indiana was probably from the Archaic Period, certainly by the time of pottery-making in the Woodland Indian Period, in which case that artist may very well have been a woman. Being an artist, I would go further than that. The people of the Paleo-Indian Period were people--they were human beings. One defining characteristic of us as human beings is our creativity, not just for solving problems in everyday life but also for expressing ourselves and for communicating what we apprehend about the world and about ourselves and our existence. With that in mind, I feel confident in saying that the first artist in Indiana was among the first people in Indiana, setting foot here 10,000 or more years ago.
Text copyright 2016 Terence E. Hanley