For a long time, one Irish artist wanted to show his gratitude to the Choctaw culture, so he let his hands and his creative vision do some talking.
Alex Pentek created the Kindred Spirits sculpture, a large art piece that features nine 20-foot eagle feathers that form a perfect circle. Located in Midleton, County Cork, in Ireland, the sculpture is a type of thank you to the Choctaw people's support of the Irish, he said.
"The idea behind this artwork was that the feathers represent an empty bowl, symbolizing the Great Irish Famine when more than one million people died of starvation, and a further one million people emigrated due to lack of food," said the 43-year-old Pentek, an artist who specializes in large-scale sculpture, gallery art and sound performance at the National Sculpture Factory in Midleton. "The nine eagle feathers represent the Choctaw Nation.
"The Choctaw Indians hear about the famine in Ireland and pooled together a donation, which they sent to the Irish Famine Fund, and this was used to assist the millions of people who were dying of malnutrition," he added. "Their support was demonstrated through the fact that they donated this money at a time when they had little to spare themselves — they had not long survived the Trail of Tears."
Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton said he feels moved by Pentek's artwork and by the giving nature of his ancestors.
"This sculpture reminds me of who we are as Choctaw people — we are humanitarians, and we have always looked out for the betterment of people," Batton said. "After we came across the Trail of Tears, our tribe, our people, literally pulled together money. After going through the struggles of losing our people and loved ones, then our people turned around and thought about the greater good — the people over in Ireland. That is just a huge heart."
The Choctaw's donation was $585, which, back in or around 1830, was a "significant amount" of money, he said.
"We as people were willing to sacrifice and give something after we went through our own trials and tribulations," Batton said. "I'm proud that the donation displayed our values as a nation."
Pentek was commissioned to create Kindred Spirits by the Cork County Council after winning a competition. The competition asked participants to make an artistic response to the Choctaw donation.
"I was happy to be able to give a visual representation to a story from history I remember learning about when I was in school," Pentek said.
Each of the sculpture's feathers weighs more than 1,600 pounds, while the bowl area is 20 feet in diameter. Made of marine-grade stainless steel and LED lighting, the sculpture is large enough that it allows people to walk through and interact with the work, said Pentek, who spent a year working on the sculpture.
"Though I had created a 3D computer model of the work, it was only after the work was in place that I could see the entire work together for the first time, and whether it was a success or not," he said. "This was a special day for me, and I felt very pleased with how it looked.
"This bond has never been forgotten by Ireland, though I believe Kindred Spirits is the first sculpture commemorating this history," Pentek added.
A dedication ceremony for the sculpture will take place at the sculpture's site June 18, said Batton, who will join other Choctaw Nation officials and representatives to attend the event. Traditional attire and dancing from both cultures will be a highlight of the dedication, he said.
"It might be called a homecoming of friends," Batton said. "It will be a celebration to continue to share our rich cultures.
"The Irish people had their struggles and trials, and so did we," he added. "Both of us have come full circle to where we both are strong, thriving nations. We both hold our culture and our history close to us because they have shaped us to who we are today."
Pentek also holds similar opinions about the Irish and Choctaw cultures.
"It is my hope to visually connect with people, this uplifting image that symbolizes generosity, strength and humanity rising up over times of adversity and unimaginable suffering," he said. "For me, this shows art as a universal language that can connect with people, regardless of age, culture or geography, and can help to dissolve traditionally perceived boundaries."