Prestigious museum and airport commissions propel career of Lawrence Indigenous artist

photo by: Mike Yoder

Lawrence artist Mona Cliff, pictured Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021, was recently given commissions to create artwork for the Kansas City Museum and the new international airport in Kansas City. Her large-scale works, incorporating seed beads and wood, explore contemporary Native American identity and culture.

Mona Cliff says she was “kind of blown out of the water” when she heard her art was selected to adorn a wall of the new $1.5 billion Kansas City airport, not just because the competition was so stiff — fewer than 2% of the 1,900 artists who applied were chosen — but also because the announcement “propelled” the already great year she was having professionally.

Earlier this year she was selected to create a site-specific installation for the newly renovated Kansas City Museum, 3218 Gladstone Blvd., in Kansas City, Mo.

“I think that was a really pivotal point in my practice. And doing something that large really helped me solidify my application for the airport,” she said.

The massive new international airport, begun in March 2019, is about halfway finished. The project — touted as the largest single infrastructure project in Kansas City history — has a $5.6 million budget for public art that represents the area’s history or nature.

photo by: Contributed

The images above, part of Mona Cliff’s art proposal for the Kansas City airport, give a glimpse of what her 15-foot beaded work will look like in the airport concourse.

Cliff is a Native American artist — a member of the Gros Ventre tribe — who has worked in a variety of media but who has become well-known nationally for her beadwork. Her piece at the Kansas City Museum and her proposed piece for the airport both feature tens of thousands of tiny glass beads, known as seed beads, affixed to wood with beeswax and other natural adhesives.

The airport piece will be a 15-foot “organic abstraction” inspired by the prairie.

Cliff, originally from the Pacific Northwest, has spent the last 17 years living in Lawrence and has developed an appreciation for the area’s understated landscape.

“It’s a lot more subtle and delicate when you don’t have these huge mountains or anything,” she said. “Something I’m very inspired by and that I love about Kansas is you get all of these beautiful scenes of clouds.”

Though Cliff has a degree in fine arts from Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, it was her Native American grandmother who taught her beadwork. As a kid, Cliff wasn’t terribly interested in the craft, which was mainly devoted to decorative clothing, but when she moved away to college she started feeling “disconnected” from her culture.

“It was the first time I was away from my family,” she said, and that’s when “I asked her to teach me.”

Her grandmother not only taught her, but, seeing how Cliff took to beading, eventually bestowed her entire bead collection on her.

“She’d been collecting over 40 years,” Cliff said.

After Cliff graduated from college, she began a kind of nomadic existence.

“I traveled. I went to powwows and traveled all over the country. I lived, actually, in a tent and I was just roaming around the country basically,” she said.

And while she was roaming she was beading. She began to understand that the Native American craft filled a huge gap in her fine arts education. She had acquired a lot of skills, theories and perspectives in art school, but “I didn’t feel connected to my own history and culture.”

photo by: Contributed

A detail of Mona Cliff’s artwork showing seed beads on wood.

Eventually Cliff’s travels brought her to Lawrence, where she had relatives attending Haskell Indian Nations University. She too enrolled in Haskell, met her future husband, had three kids and decided to stay in Kansas.

For many of those years she would have described her profession as full-time parent, even though she continued to bead, primarily making traditional Native American regalia, and teaching various art classes.

“Basically I was just being a stay-at-home mom and focusing on traditional arts, and then around 2018 is when I decided to make that jump over to pursuing fine arts and contemporary art,” she said.

Now, with multiple pieces being shown around the country and with her two recent Kansas City commissions, it’s clear she has landed that jump.

Cliff’s installation at the Kansas City Museum will be available for viewing on Oct. 21. Her airport piece will go on display in spring 2023, when the airport is scheduled to open.

Lawrence artist Hong Zhang was also among the select few who won airport commissions, as the Journal-World previously reported.

photo by: Contributed

Mona Cliff’s seed bead and wood installation at the Kansas City Museum.


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