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A Tribute to a Shinnecock Elder

Thu, 06/01/2023 - 10:26

Native American artist visits Hayground School to honor Elizabeth Haile

Students from the Hayground School learned pyrography, the art of “writing with fire” on wood, with help from Jaxie Rodriguez, a Native American artist who made a memorial bench for Elizabeth (Chee Chee) Thunderbird Haile, a late Shinnecock elder and a founder of the school.
Hayground School

In honor of the late Elizabeth Thunderbird Haile, a Shinnecock Indian Nation elder who was one of the “founding grandmothers” of the Hayground School in Bridgehampton, a bench was dedicated last week at the school. Known as Chee Chee, she died in 2015 at the age of 85 after having had an immeasurable impact on Hayground since its early days.

But it wasn’t just any memorial bench. This one incorporates Haile’s likeness using the wood-burning art of pyrography. It was expertly carried out by a Native American artist who visited Hayground in April to work with the students, who also adorned a bench of their own design.

The artist, Jaxie Rodriguez, is a member of the Kanesatake Mohawk Nation and a friend of Tohanash Tarrant, a Hayground School teacher who happens to be a granddaughter of Ms. Haile. Two great-grandchildren, Suki Tarrant and Lily Tarrant, are current students and another great-grandchild, Kodiak Tarrant, graduated in 2022.

It was a fitting tribute to Ms. Haile, said Tinka Topping, Hayground’s other founding grandmother. She always spoke softly but impactfully as everyone around her listened, Ms. Topping recalled.

“This was a tangible way to always remember what Chee Chee gave us and is still giving us,” she said by phone yesterday. “It’s just beautiful, and it will be there forever. Every time I go to the school, I will take time to sit on Chee Chee’s bench and look at the children’s bench.”

“She was there in spirit, there was no question about it,” Ms. Topping said of the dedication ceremony on May 24. “I felt very moved and joined to her spiritually.”

In teaching pyrography to the students, Ms. Rodriguez, who has taught in schools in New York City and elsewhere, and who is also a tattoo artist, said she was impressed by the way they picked up the art. She offered the students prompts based on the four seasons to inspire their designs for the second bench.

It allowed all 85 students “to get hands-on and have something to call their own,” Ms. Rodriguez said. “It was freeform — it was wonderful. Even with the small children, we found ways, tracing their fingers and using parts of nature to include. It was really lovely.”

She herself learned from her father, a carpenter and “artist of many disciplines,” she said. “As a little girl I was at his knee wanting to learn every aspect of the things he was doing.”

In 2012, she was looking for a reprieve from the work she had been doing as a visual merchandiser for retail stores in New York City. “I needed something for myself and my soul,” Ms. Rodriguez recalled. “I had been wanting to do memorial pieces . . . and I’ve always loved doing portraiture. That’s why Tohanash thought I was the right fit” to visit Hayground for the memorial bench project.

As she worked with the students, an aromatic scent reminiscent of a campfire filled the spacious Hayground art room. The smoke from the heated tip of the tools was never overwhelming — “it was just as much as a small incense burner,” Ms. Rodriguez said.

The students closely examined the pine planks before picking up the tools to engrave the wood. “They’d say, ‘That knot in the wood looks like the eye of a lizard,’ so they’d draw a lizard.”

The pyrography project incorporated multiple academic subjects, such as science, history, and art — an approach that lines up with the interdisciplinary nature of Hayground’s curriculum. “The kids really enjoyed it. It was an art form that we haven’t had here before,” said Marcelle Langendal, the faculty chairwoman.

Ms. Rodriguez said she felt honored to be able to create the bench honoring Ms. Haile, and said she was very taken by the experience of being at Hayground.

“I wish that I went to the same type of school when I was a child,” she said. “It felt like home. . . . What they’re doing is creating community. When they graduate from that school, they will be ready.”


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