Seminole artist brings authentic textiles and ceramics to Sarasota museum

5 – minute read

The first experiences Jessica Osceola (’08, liberal arts) had with the creative arts came from the women who taught her to weave and bead. “I feel like I’m a preservationist in that sense. If I’m not continuing to do these things, they stop with me,” she says.


The Naples native grew up in a Seminole village with fond memories of learning traditional arts, like basket-making, beadwork and textiles. Osceola teaches those arts for the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Since 2017, she also teaches ceramics at FGCU’s Bower School of Music and the Arts.


Her textile work and ceramic creations are on display through Sept. 4 in “Reclaiming Home: Contemporary Seminole Art” at The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota.

FGCU graduate and Seminole artist Jessica Osceola
FGCU grad and instructor Jessica Osceola's work is featured in “Reclaiming Home: Contemporary Seminole Art” at The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota.

Ola Wlusek, the Ringling’s Keith D. Monda Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, and who curated “Reclaiming Home,” calls the exhibition “a celebration of Seminole and Native American culture and imagination.” She says the 12 featured artists hail from the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida, the Seminole Tribe of Florida and the Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma).


“Their skills and techniques are grounded in ancestral knowledge systems,” says Wlusek. “I hope the exhibition inspires viewers to dig deeper into the issues explored in the artworks on view and to learn more about the Indigenous history of this area.”

The idea for the exhibition emerged a few years ago after Wlusek visited two local museums – the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum on the Big Cypress Indian Reservation and the Marco Island Historical Museum – and with several Native artists. The first Seminole artist she met was Osceola, who helped her connect with other Native artists.


“If you don’t keep doing as your grandmothers did or your fathers, it lets out,” Osceola says. “The museum world can be utilitarian. So for this show, I wanted to bring these pieces up to a level where they were in a museum and where they’re seen as art by Seminole.”


She says Native craft design is often heavy with symbolism, observations of the environment, color and patterns. Through her formal training, she learned about color psychology and how to evoke feelings. She feels her work blends Native art techniques and the contemporary styles she learned at FGCU and her master’s program.

Jessica Osceola-designed skirt
A large band of blue in the skirt symbolizes water and a row of cream with blue and green fabric symbolizes waves while referencing Osceola’s alma mater.
FGCU graduate and artist Jessica Osceola
Osceola with ceramic self-portraits featured in the show.

One of Osceola’s pieces in the exhibit is a ribbon skirt paired with an FGCU T-shirt. A large band of blue symbolizes water and a row of cream with blue and green fabric symbolizes waves while referencing Osceola’s alma mater. She describes the garment as a collaboration with The Water School at FGCU.


Greg Tolley, marine science professor and executive director of The Water School, and Osceola have discussed the need for greater collaboration between the Indigenous community and the university. “There’s a real deficit at FGCU, even though there’s a community all-around that’s Indigenous,” Osceola says. She credits Tolley for “being at the front of allowing a safe space for this conversation” to address the hurdles that often prevent Indigenous students from building or finding community in college.

The FGCU-inspired skirt is a modernized take on traditional ribbon skirts worn by Native Americans for over a century.


“The allure of kaleidoscopic Native textile patterns and designs has led to appropriation and theft by some of the major fashion houses in the U.S. and Europe,” says Wlusek. “Osceola has taken an activist role in protecting the traditional knowledge of working in patchwork by speaking out publicly against copying and selling Seminole textile designs without permission.”


Osceola sees the work she does as preservation of Indigenous ways.

In her village, women wore clothing with functional lengths, layers and ruffles to keep ticks and other bugs at bay. She imagines the FGCU skirt as something a current student might wear, much like the lightweight ribbon skirt she wears during an interview at the exhibit, which her grandmother made and wore in the 1980s.


She contrasts the comfort and versatility of ribbon skirts to the elaborate ballgown she made especially for the exhibit that celebrates the circus roots of the museum’s founders, John and Mable Ringling. A hoop skirt under the gown holds the floor-length skirt away from the legs, creating a dramatic silhouette.


“Goodness knows what would have crawled up underneath a skirt popped out like that in the village,” says Osceola.


According to her, the gown’s rows of red blocks on a white background are symbolic of the telephone poles along Tamiami Trail that replaced pristine sections of the Everglades but brought a means of communication. Thin strips of bias tape and rickrack trim convey the idea of communication lines. Those lines also symbolize The Ringling, as Osceola pictured the high wires traversed by circus trapeze artists.


She notes that her Everglades village would have been too harsh an environment for such a long dress. “We would never have worn a ballroom gown in the swamp,” she says.


For Osceola, exhibitions like this are important for Indigenous communities and the art world. “Maybe these look like ‘just’ textiles to somebody, which in the art world isn’t often viewed as important, so I’m grateful to FGCU and The Ringling for finding value in this.”


“It’s how we keep going forward with it,” she adds.

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