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Beans and Squash Lament… “What Have They Done to Our Sister?”, 2000

Richard Zane Smith

Look closely at this work from MAD’s collection that uses traditional Indigenous ceramic processes to convey a message of protest against oppression and injustice. Identify an issue important to you and create a way to express yourself in this object lesson for grades 8 and up.


Ceramic artist Richard Zane Smith combines ancient Puebloan pottery building techniques and the basketry styles of his Wyandot ancestry to create distinct earthenware vessels and sculptures. Look closely at Beans and Squash Lament… “What Have They Done to Our Sister?”, a figurative and symbolic work that departs from his typical pottery style.

  • How would you describe the materials Smith used to create this work? Are there any details that attract your attention?
  • What seems to be the relationship between the interior objects and exterior imagery?
  • Upon first glance, what is your response to this work? Why?


Smith was inspired to create this sculpture after learning about research conducted by some corporate seed companies aimed at sterilizing seeds. The modified seeds would force farmers to purchase new seed every year, instead of saving seed from the previous year’s crops as they have done for generations. This manipulation of a natural process and an Indigenous crop (corn is one of the Three Sisters of Indigenous wisdom, along with beans and squash) for financial gain infuriated Smith. The genetically modified seeds also reminded him of the US government’s forced sterilization of thousands of Indigenous women during the 1970s, a little known aspect of US-Native history.

  • How does this insight into the artist’s thinking affect the way you see his sculpture?
  • How does the work’s title inform its meaning?
  • How does Smith’s use of traditional and industrial materials convey his feelings towards oppressive forces and practices?
  • What might Smith, an Indigenous artist of Wyandot ancestry, want to achieve through this sculpture?

Most of Smith’s oeuvre consists of ceramics crafted using Ancestral Puebloan corrugated coil-building processes to create delicate vessels that resemble traditional Wyandot baskets. The artist uses the same materials and processes in this representative sculpture.

  • Compare this work to one of Smith’s more traditional vessels. What similarities can you find?
  • How does Smith’s translation of traditional Indigenous techniques, materials, and styles inform our understanding of the sculpture?


A lament is a passionate expression of grief or sorrow. In an oral history interview for the Archives of American Art, Smith discussed his motivation for creating what he calls “social commentary art.” The artist said, “it's almost like something just comes on you and it's so important that you just can't put it aside, and you just feel like you have to say something, and so I'll use my art to say something.”

  • Are there injustices or causes that you feel passionate about? Share one with a friend or family member, and explain how you feel about it.
  • What are other ways you can speak out against injustice?
  • What can we hope to achieve by making art that protests an injustice?


Smith intends his sculpture to be both beautiful and impactful, saying “...even when…I’m talking [through an artwork] about an uncomfortable subject or something that I feel like people need to face, even though we don’t want to face, I still try to create something beautiful out of it… It’s something that pulls you in and then you get the message…” How can you create a message that is at once beautiful and speaks out against an injustice?

  • Identify an issue that you feel passionate about. Make a list of words and images related to the issue that come to mind.
  • Consider: how can I combine some of these images to share my feelings about this issue?
  • Create a drawing or collage that illustrates one or more of the images from your list. How can you create a powerful message against an injustice with beauty?

Richard Zane Smith (United States, b. 1955)
Beans and Squash Lament ... "What Have They Done to Our Sister?", 2000
6 1/4 x 14 x 13 1/2 in. (15.9 x 35.6 x 34.3 cm)
Polychromed earthenware, plastic tubing, colored plastic coated wire
Museum of Arts and Design, New York, purchase with funds provided by Giorgio and Nancy Olnick Spanu, 2001

This object lesson was written by MAD artist educator Olivia Kalin.

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