Maud Oakes Biography

Maud Oakes

American

1903-1990

Biography

Painter, printmaker, writer, and ethnologist Maud Van Cortlandt Oakes was born in Seattle, Washington, on May 25, 1903. She was raised in a prosperous Manhattan household by her mother Mary and father Walter, Alaska Steamship Company co-founder and president of the Roslyn Fuel Company. This afforded her the opportunity to travel, and, after spending some time in Puget Sound learning about the tribes of the Pacfic Northwest, she decided to pursue ethnology, focusing on the indigenous tribes of the Americas. Little is known about her art education, though it can be surmised that this came with her grade school education. 

In 1942 she received a grant from the Old Dominion Foundation to study the ceremonies of the Dine (Navajo) people. While living on the reservation she was introduced to Jeff King -- known also by his traditional name Hashkeh-yilth-e-yah -- a hataalii or medicaine man for the Navajo tribe. Oakes came to know him as he prepared a war ceremony for the young Navajo men about to ship out to World War II. The ritual, called "Where the Two Came to Their Father," involved battle songs and elaborate "sand painting" that also included pollen, corn meal, and dried flowers. The imagery Oakes created, eighteen images first executed in gouache on tanned deerhide and later replicated in serigraphs, were records of King's sand paintings used with his permission to illustrate her book on the ritual, the first of its kind and still referenced today due to its thorough study. The serigraphs were published in elephant portoflios accompanying the text.

Oakes later recorded the pre-Colombian art and spiritual practices of the Mam tribe located in the remote highlands of Guatemala. Her publications on the lives of these tribes were published by Princeton University in the 1940s and '50s and republished as a collection in the 1990s.

Oakes later became a student of Carl Jung and devotee of his philosophy, publishing her final book, The Stone Speaks, as a personal philosophy formed in response to a carved stone found in the garden at Bollingen Tower, Jung's home in Switzerland. She eventually relocated from New York to Carmel, California, where she lived until her death in 1990.