See an artist’s journey back to her heritage at this Chapel Hill church

Detail of "Deer Star" by Durham artist Alyssa Hinton is on view at Community Church of Chapel Hill Unitarian Universalist.Courtesy of Alyssa Hinton

“Earth Consciousness & Cultural Revelations” by Durham artist Alyssa Hinton is more than just a collection of artwork. Each piece, whether it’s made of found wood or fiber, represents her journey to learn more about her Native American heritage that she was out of touch with for much of her life.

You can see the show from now until April 29 in the sanctuary of Community Church of Chapel Hill Unitarian Universalist, and there’s an opening reception on March 11 at 1 p.m.

“Earth Consciousness & Cultural Revelation” features three series (2D art, 3D found wood carvings and fiber art) by Hinton, who teaches digital art in Durham Public Schools. The art spans two decades, during which she familiarized herself with Native American customs, imagery and lore.

“The work is really about the whole idea of ‘earth consciousness’ by default, through the act of me exploring my indigenous heritage,” Hinton said. “It was a journey from the Northeast where I grew up back to North Carolina to find out where my mom’s folks came from.”

Where did her “mom’s folks” come from? Eastern North Carolina, because of their roots in the Tuscarora tribe. Hinton is also descended from members of the Osage tribe, which is now concentrated in Kansas and Missouri.

Hinton’s dad was English, and she grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania. She was aware of, but not particularly educated about, her Native American ancestry.

“It’s a painful part of the family history,” Hinton said. “We sort of tucked it away. Sometimes, we artists like to dig stuff up and reexamine.”

So that’s what she did, even if it meant traveling to the Johnston County Courthouse in Smithfield (about 40 minutes southeast of Raleigh) to find her ancestors’ names in dusty record books. The results of that trip were bittersweet: she discovered that some of her indigenous ancestors had been enslaved on plantations, but she also discovered she had long-lost relatives who were the descendants of Native Americans and African-American slaves.

“The work is really about the whole idea of ‘earth consciousness’ by default, through the act of me exploring my indigenous heritage.” — Alyssa Hinton

Hinton also attended powwows and ceremonies to soak in Native American culture. Soon its philosophy began to permeate her art.

“In discovering indigenous culture, I automatically rediscovered an earth-centered philosophy that has to do with the relatedness of all things,” Hinton said. “It’s about thinking seven generations in advance, like, ‘If we do this now, how will that affect the air and the water for our descendants?'”

Her work is filled with many symbols. There’s the deer, which represents new life and springtime. Then there’s the panther, which is the gatekeeper of the spirit world in many Native American legends. Mounds, which many indigenous cultures created for burial and spiritual purposes, are also featured in her work.

One of Hinton’s works that has resonated most with viewers is “Deer Star.” In this piece, which is more than 2-feet-by-2-feet, geometric antlers emerge from a deer head adorned with leafy and primary color patterns. But what really draws people in is the eyes, which have a human-like quality, Hinton said.

“We connect with eyes we see in anything,” she said. “The deer eyes are positioned like human eyes. It took months to get the eyes right!”

Opening Reception for “Earth Consciousness & Cultural Revelations” by artist Alyssa Hinton

Where: Community Church of Chapel Hill Unitarian Universalist, 106 Purefoy Rd, Chapel Hill
When: Sunday, March 11, from 1 to 3 p.m. (exhibit is on display from March 4 to April 29)
Cost: Free

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