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A Sense of Consequence

by Rebecca M. Alvin

Top Image: Detail of Duane Slick’s ‘Coyote’s Return’

A coyote and its more prominent black shadow stand atop two sea turtles as a third one swims up from the ocean below. Plants that seem rough around the edges, yet delicate, jut out from the bottom and the sides. All is depicted in a simple black, white, and blue palette, evoking both our wildlife on land and the supremacy of the ocean world surrounding us out here in Provincetown. This image, Coyote’s Return, created by Duane Slick, is this year’s Swim for Life artwork. The charity event uses images from a different artist associated with the town every year, connecting Provincetown’s artistic legacy and environmental majesty. The original work is one of several featured in Slick’s exhibition, currently on view at Albert Merola Gallery. Notably, it features turtles and the coyote, two animals rich in symbolic meaning, particularly among Native American tribes. This year, the 400th anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims, it’s particularly meaningful to use such an image here, in the place where they first landed in 1620 before moving on to Plymouth. That Slick is a member of the Meskwaki Nation and also of Ho Chunk ancestry, adds another layer of acknowledgement of the side of the Pilgrim story we rarely engage with: that of the people who already inhabited this beautiful, wild land.

Changing Precession #1

Slick’s work incorporates his cultural symbolism in various ways, however, it is the coyote that is most prominent. It began, he says, on a different anniversary in 1992, the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the so-called New World. At the time, Slick was in his second year of a fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center.

“All over the United States people were doing counter-Columbus exhibitions. And they were scouring the nation for contemporary Native artists,” Slick recalls. A group of his Native American friends curated their own show, funding it with indigenous money. “It was called the Submuloc show, which is Columbus spelled backwards. And they were asking specifically for work that was overtly political,” he says.

“At the time I was making abstract paintings—well, not quite abstract, but landscape-based abstract paintings in oil. And so the two-year fellowship was really just trying to figure out how to become ‘overtly political.’ So what I did was I was speaking more with my parents and elders, talking to them about different kinds of stories and family history, tribal history. And I became interested in poetry. (I was at the right place to become interested in poetry.) And then the other part was the trickster stories [about coyotes] began to surface, and so I decided the idea would be to let the coyote make the work, because the coyote wasn’t afraid to be overtly political.”

The work now is not overtly political; it works on a variety of levels, political being only one. In many of the images in the upcoming show, the coyote’s face is pictured, a disembodied coyote head, staring intently, seriously, perhaps even menacingly, such as in A Coyote’s Arrival. In others, it seems a coyote skull is used, an artifact of cultural meaning not quite alive. Each painting is almost drawing-like. The colors are characteristically limited to two or three.

“Years ago I decided I was not a colorist. And things seemed to be more based in values,” Slick explains. “It’s all about value, about trying to show the kind of deep space. But the color symbology maybe references—my father is from the Meskwaki Nation and my mother is Ho Chunk from Nebraska, and those tribes are woodland tribes. And they have what’s called a traditional dancer for different events and pow wows. And I’ve always gravitated toward watching or photographing or looking at the traditional dancers because of the color, which is basically a subtle off-white, brownish black, red, Earth green. There’s really a lot of work that kind of falls into those color keys.”

Coyote’s Return

Slick, who lives in Rhode Island and teaches at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) is thoughtful about our current state of affairs. The pandemic impacted Rhode Island just as it did here, forcing Slick to switch from studio teaching at RISD to online instruction, and he is concerned about what may happen next as both Rhode Island and Massachusetts progress through the phases of re-opening their economies. Perhaps even more provocative is the national dialogue around race, which is revealing a wider spectrum of views than many of us understood still existed here. Slick is somewhat optimistic, although he laughs, admitting he wanted to be cynical, originally.

“We’re certainly in one of the more heated periods of the Black Lives Matter kind of protests,” he says, adding that he is troubled by “these strange opportunists” who have been using the cover of the protests to loot and cause destruction. “I guess at one point I was kind of getting discouraged, thinking that we’re witnessing the breakdown. But then, watching more, I realized you know, I don’t know if we’re actually watching the breakdown—or a bad breakdown, because it’s this crazy, crazed one percent maybe doing this other kind of damage. But what’s really interesting was this—whatever it is, I don’t know the percentage—say like 45 percent, which is greater than one percent, organizing themselves to try to change this kind of structure. And I thought that was probably more of an affirmation of what we’re capable of. So in that sense, I think what’s happening is positive. Change is uncomfortable but it can be a positive.”

Artist Duane Slick

The show’s operatic reference—it’s titled Arias for a Coyote Opera—comes from Slick’s appreciation of the Robert Wilson/Philip Glass collaboration Einstein on the Beach, a five-hour opera that has been performed all over the world since its premiere in 1976 and connects with coyote symbology in its subtle indications. Political perhaps, but not overtly. The coyote trickster makes us realize all is not what it seems. Sometimes the coyote behaves rashly, not seeing the entire picture; it is human-like in that sense. Slick says he finds the opera “mesmerizing” because of the “sense of consequence… not spelling it out, but really just indicating some level of consequence.”

Arias for a Coyote Opera, an exhibition of Duane Slick’s work is on view at Albert Merola Gallery, 424 Commercial St., Provincetown, through July 15. The gallery is currently open by appointment only, Wednesday through Sunday, 12 – 5 p.m. For more information call 508.487.4424 or visit

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Ginger Mountain

Ginger Mountain (MS Communications Media, BA Fine Arts/Teaching Certification K-12) has been part of the graphic design team at Provincetown Magazine since 2008. Ginger has worked as a creative director, individual contractor, and freelance designer with clients representing many areas —business software, consumer products, professional services, entertainment, and network hardware to name just a few — providing creative layout and development of a wide range of print media content. Her clients ranged from small local businesses to large corporations and Fortune 500 companies, from New Hampshire to Georgia

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