Jessica Osceola – Root of All Creation

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Ssunlight crawls over the thick grass of Campo de Velasco, turning the blades into shards of glowing metal. Jessica Osceola – the Seminole artist who created this 10-acre farm with her husband, Benjamin Velasco, in 2018 – has already been awake for a few hours, feeding their two sons and preparing them for the day before she leaves to teach him ceramics class at Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU).

“Everything I do is about cycles,” she says. “And the cycles continue to grow.” This is reflected in almost every facet of her busy life: the family she raises, the artwork she creates and teaches, the sustainable lifestyle she has established. Although she is only in her late thirties, she already knows the ancient Seminole traditions and their origins, their identities, their new adaptations and the wonders of life and, more deeply, how to move forward after the end.

Osceola, whose father is Seminole and whose mother is Irish-American, spent most of her childhood in her great-grandmother’s village along the Tamiami Trail. Houses were small and modest, and most domestic activities took place under free-range chickens. She was first exposed to art in the village, where she recalls her father making gifts from turtle shells and twisted willow saplings. The elderly women in her family also made a lasting impression with their brightly patterned patchwork textiles fashioned into skirts, aprons and cloth dolls.

After graduating from the FGCU in 2008, Osceola took a job at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she worked and lived among other Native American artists for a year. When she returned home, her sister Karie, the “much more still and patient” child who learned from her elders, began teaching quilting at Osceola Seminole. In 2010, Jessica Osceola began working full-time as a traditional arts specialist for the Seminole tribe, developing programs and teaching other tribesmen how to sew, weave sweetgrass baskets and beadwork. She returned to graduate school, completing most of her classes at the San Francisco Academy of Art remotely, and in 2016 earned a master’s degree in sculpture.

JAlthough textiles play a prominent role in her artistic practice – Osceola’s 2021 solo exhibition at the Marco Island Historical Society, aptly titled Create a home, focused on her sewn works – the beating heart of her creative work is sculpture. As an artist, she weaves together the different aspects of her training: formal diplomas; his broader and structured study of Native American art; and Seminole arts and crafts passed down from generation to generation. She mainly creates ceramic self-portraits in the form of bas-reliefs – sculptures compacted on a single shallow panel rather than a three-dimensional piece.

Bas-relief can be found in almost every civilization as long as humans had tools for carving stone. Sandstone carvings depict Hindu stories on the door lintels of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temple, and scenes of deities have been carved into the rock of ancient Egyptian tombs. And although the Seminole, whose ancestry dates back to the first inhabitants of the southeastern United States nearly 12,000 years ago, are not known for creating bas-reliefs, Osceola carvings add the imagery of his tribe to the artistic tradition.

Her process shifted from standalone 3D sculptures once she delved deeper into her thesis work, which revolved around photography, figures, and sculptures. “Bas-reliefs are somewhere between sculpture and two-dimensional works of art,” she says. The pieces begin with Osceola photographing her own face and body. She translates these self-portraits into clay, using mud to explore the “hard versus soft forms” of the human body and its emotions, her main subject of interest.

Ceramics leave much of their clay exposed, its earthy hues and tactility perfect for depicting skin. “I always try to work with two colors, especially redder clay,” she says. “I know it’s stereotypical to refer to Native Americans as ‘red’, but the Seminole describe themselves as red in their own language.” The faces have expressions of startling frankness: they look attentively, more alert and posed than suspicious. The bas-reliefs coincided with the birth of her first son in 2013. “A lot of my self-portraits were about discovery and self-reflection about motherhood,” she says. “I was thinking about how our child is a product of different circumstances – Seminole heritage from my dad, my mom from Ohio, Ben being from Chile. Anyway, if you take away the different exterior colors, it’s still the same clay underneath.

SSince Osceola’s works revolve around ideas of identity, multiculturalism and motherhood, it is fitting that she uses clay, often associated with vases and earth, as a medium. It also makes sense that she would be driven to cultivate the land on her farm. Osceola and Velasco, a personal trainer and retired firefighter, founded Campo de Velasco as a rustic respite, where bees buzz around wildflowers, tidy fences weave through pastures, and kids can run and tumble over a loose soil rather than sprinkler heads.

The family lived on 2.5 acres in Golden Gate Estates, but they dreamed of a more sustainable rural lifestyle. Velasco grew up spending summers on cattle ranches in his native Chile and wanted his own cows. Osceola did not flinch from his wishes, having grown up watching his father hunt and fish. They also worried about their long-term environmental footprint and, most importantly, the immediate effects of processed foods on the health of their growing family.

Their farm supplies everything from protein to produce, and Osceola and Velasco complete the long list of daily chores themselves. In addition to tending an orchard with fruit trees, the couple grow low-maintenance produce (kale, turnips, tomatoes) that grow naturally in Southwest Florida without pesticides or chemical fertilizers. Roaming chickens peck the ground on the range for insects, while gentler ducks provide pest control in the 60-by-60-foot garden. The family carefully raises miniature cows, called zebus, which are native to Africa and India and love the hot, humid weather. “Ben is their breeder, I’m their doctor and our son Joaquin is my medical assistant,” she says.

The couple describe Campo de Velasco as a sustainable micro-farm, meaning they only farm on a large enough scale to support their family of four. Their livestock graze and eat hay while the poultry receive organic feed. And instead of chemical fertilizers, they vigorously use two separate composting systems and manure provided by livestock to enrich their soil. The small size of the farm also helps conserve energy and water, with a pond on the property supplementing their small irrigation system. “Everything is interconnected,” says Osceola. “Animals eat clean food which they excrete on the ground. Then their waste goes into the ground or even into runoff water. This is taken up by plants, which produce the vegetables we eat. Then we compost those products, they go back into the soil that the animals graze on and it all starts again.

OWhen the couple started Campo de Velasco four years ago, they weren’t romanticized on a whim. They had their hands full: Jessica Osceola had just finished a graduate program with a toddler in tow and was teaching ceramics as an adjunct professor at FGCU, while Velasco worked long hours as a firefighter and EMT at Immokalee.

The frequency of its art exhibitions, including an ambitious two-year traveling exhibition of Southeast Native American artists, Return from exile– sat in the back as she concentrated on building the farm.

During this time his interest in sculpture also declined for personal reasons. In 2018, Jessica Osceola suffered an early stillbirth just over 20 weeks into her second pregnancy. “We were so depressed,” she says. In a Herculean effort to protect her then 4-year-old son Joaquin from the worst of their heartache, she hid in the shower to cry. “I wanted to wash away the feeling of death,” she says. “We had to ‘fake it’ until we made it”, for Joaquin, you know? But he knew. I would tell him that I am sad, that sadness is normal, that it comes and goes.

The tactility of clay lost its appeal – the material and the forms she made of it were too closely tied to motherhood. Anything resembling skin and flesh was repulsive. “I just let go of the material and the work that was so tied to who I am,” she says. It was then that they decided to realize their desire to have a real farm, where they would have room to heal. Using hard work to distract themselves with a new purpose, they cultivated a fresh start.

In 2020, Jessica Osceola discovered that she was pregnant again. A few years had passed, but their grief was still raw. “I was so scared again,” she admits. “I had the fear of death constantly lurking over my shoulder.” Nine months later, in the spring of 2021, she gave birth to a baby boy they named McCoy. Now just over a year old with sandy-colored hair, he is healthy, strong and curious. “I want other women to know there is life,” she said slowly and softly, “after a stillbirth.”

For better or for worse, Jessica Osceola intimately understands the cycles of life. “The farm taught me that nature goes its own way,” she says. In the same way that she supports Campo de Velasco so her sons can feast on her land for years to come, she preserves her Native American traditions for her sons to pass on to future generations.

Joaquin, now 8, is busy learning Seminole arts from his mother, who continues to sew, bead, weave and carve. “If I stop, it stops with my children,” she says. “It’s important that they see me practicing and creating the Seminole way. My Seminole heritage is an undercurrent for much of what I do and how I make decisions. It’s like that’s what I grew up in. I want my sons to remember their roots.

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