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Therapeutic techniques: Native artist wins prestigious honor

Shondinni Walters with a portrait of her 8-year-old daughter Maria. Walters is a Navajo artist who works in painting, jewelry, and sculpture. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

PONDEROSA — In the shadow of the green mesas of the Jemez stands a white plaster sculpture of the Navajo deity Changing Woman at a driveway crest.

The artist is Shondinii Walters, (Navajo) one of 25 female artists chosen by the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts to decorate rawhide hand drums honoring native women who have been murdered or disappeared. SWAIA is the umbrella organization for the Santa Fe Indian Market.

The market’s 98th sale will take place on the Santa Fe Plaza from Aug. 17-18. Organizers will auction the drums at the Indian Market Gala on Saturday, Aug. 17, at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center, 201 Marcy St. A portion of the money raised will go to the Albuquerque-based Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women.

Considered the most prestigious market of its kind, the Santa Fe Indian Market showcases the work of more than 1,100 artists from across the U.S. and Canada offering jewelry, painting, pottery, sculpture, textiles, carvings, beadwork, baskets and more.

Shondinni Walters’ untitled Italian alabaster sculpture. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Walters is a multi-disciplinary artist who works from the kitchen of a trailer straddling an acre of land. She paints vivid acrylic portraits, sculpts in plaster and stone and makes jewelry.

She graduated from Santa Fe’s Institute of American Indian Arts in 2016. She was born and raised on the Navajo Nation in Tuba City, Arizona, a member of the Water Flows Together Clan. Her name in Navajo means “sun rays.” A marble bust of Water Woman crowns the kitchen table.

For her, art is an act of healing and redemption.

“I had an experience out on the reservation that caused me to get away from a bad relationship,” she said, her eyes welling. “It was a time that was therapeutic.”

Although her father Roy is a contemporary sculptor, Walters never believed she could paint or draw until she was encouraged by her family and IAIA mentors.

“It’s the message behind art,” she said. “It’s a continually growing experience. Each person has a story to tell. This is the easiest way to express that.”

Clad in a white T-shirt blaring “Indigenous Goddess Gang,” her glossy black hair tied in a Navajo wrap, Walters works amid the squealing and chattering of her three daughters: Maria, age 9; Kiowa, 3 and Skye, 2.

“If they’re all busy reading or watching TV, I’ll try to sneak in something,” she said. “It’s hard because it can break your concentration.”

Mostly, she paints when the girls are asleep.

Partially used tubes of acrylic paint pile in the center of her red kitchen table. Finished canvases lean against the walls. A black and white portrait of Lady Gaga sits atop the wood stove.

She painted her still-unfinished hand drum with an image of herself holding the tiny hands of a daughter on each side.

“When I first came to IAIA I got really intrigued by my figure drawing class,” she said. “It was very challenging; that’s why I do it.”

When she started, her drawings were small, she said, folding her hands into a small square. As her confidence grew, so did her canvas.

“I was able to get out of my shell,” she said.

A vivid portrait shows her then-8-year-old daughter Maria sitting with a gold leaf geometric Navajo design in the background.

Shondinii Walters cuddles with her 3-year-old daughter Kiowa. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

A sketch shows Maria wearing a mask on a smoky day with the family dog Buddy. The smoke came from a nearby fire.

“I just wanted to raise awareness of climate change,” Walters said.

A third piece shows a man in a cowboy hat lifting his bandana-clad son. The background resembles a Navajo Chief’s blanket with slices of a cloud-strewn sky representing male energy.

At Indian Market, Walters will share a Lincoln Avenue booth with her partner, the sculptor Adrian Wall (Jemez Pueblo). This marks her third year at Santa Fe.

She hopes to return to school to earn a master’s degree in art therapy.

“I think I like to talk to people about their problems and help them solve their problems in a positive way,” she said, “especially in a one-on-one session. I feel like through art you’re able to channel those feelings into something you can see.”

Walters’ work also will hang in the Sovereign Contemporary Native American Arts Exhibition at the La Fonda on the Plaza from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, Aug. 15-16.

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