Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Owen Mike Yazzie has no problem assessing his painting “Leading Into the Future,” a watercolor in warm shades of yellow, orange, ocher and pale green. He sees it with a critical eye but with a deeper vision as well.
“I had not worked with watercolors before,” Yazzie said. “I felt if I had more experience I could have made it better, a bit more touched up.” But he has no misgivings about the message in the painting, which shows several figures marching uphill in a desert landscape, trooping past a Navajo hogan and two sheep as they make their way to a shimmering horizon.
“My message is we had chiefs in the past. They were the leaders in my tribe,” said Yazzie, an 18-year-old Navajo from Shiprock. “As we progress into the future, our leaders are the people who help us evolve.”
Yazzie, now a freshman at Arizona State University, made the painting last year when he was a senior at Navajo Preparatory School in Farmington.
“Leading Into the Future” is part of “On the Rise,” an exhibition of 36 pieces by young Navajo or part-Navajo artists from four high schools – Navajo Prep, Gallup, Kirtland Central and Window Rock – on or near the Navajo Nation in New Mexico and Arizona. The works are on display through Oct. 30 at Gallery With a Cause, inside the New Mexico Cancer Center, 4901 Lang NE.
In Yazzie’s painting the figure at the back of the line is wearing Navajo dress from the 19th century, but the one approaching the crest of the hill is in a lab coat.
“People who are educated can lead us into other fields,” said Yazzie, who plans to study computer science at ASU. “I am going back to the reservation and applying my knowledge to improve my people’s way of life. My understanding is we are moving away from nonrenewable energy to renewable energy, such as solar panels. I want to use computer science to help with that.”
The exhibition of works by the young artists is funded by a National Endowment for the Arts grant to Capacity Builders Inc., a Farmington nonprofit dedicated to supporting American Indian communities in the Four Corners area. Navajo artist Michael Billie, who organized the exhibition, decided to use the grant to get young Navajos involved in art.
“I did a lot of phone calls, went out to visit the schools, talked to the kids and told them what it was all about,” said Billie, a Farmington resident. “I told them that the art had to be family-friendly. I told them flowers were the best-sellers. They didn’t listen to me.”
Well, some did. Flowers are prominent in at least nine of the paintings. Two are titled “Sunflower.”
Cats were the focus of three works – “Owl,” “Daisy” and “Batman.”
Themes in the remaining paintings vary widely from planets: “Open Space”; to portraits: “In Memory of Stan Lee.”
Most of the paintings were done in acrylics and some by students very new to art.
“I was impressed,” Billie said. “There was some good technique. The exhibit gives them their first taste of exposure and might get some of them thinking they can make a living as artists.”
“I like drawing faces,” said Nakaya Deschiney, a 15-year-old sophomore at Gallup High School. “I have an uncle who inspired me to do art. He guides me in shading.”
Deschiney’s graphite drawing “Love Yourself” is part of the “On the Rise” exhibition. It is a portrait of Kim Tae-hyung, a member of the South Korean boy band BTS.
“He made this one song called ‘Singularity,’ ” Deschiney said. “It just says life is beautiful and you should love yourself. It’s a powerful message, not just for me, but for other people, too.”
Deschiney wants to study fine arts in college and roll her appreciation of fashion and love of photography into a career as a fashion photographer. Her drawing of Tae-hyung is based on a photograph of the musician, but she has introduced a kind of 3-D, tripling effect to the singer’s features.
“Nakaya flourished after our study of human faces,” said Katie Sajewski, Gallup High visual arts teacher. “She starts with the eyes and builds from there.”
Trinity Juan’s acrylic portrait of Stan Lee, the late creative genius behind Marvel Comics, is as splashy and colorful as Deschiney’s drawing is subtly shaded.
“I like all the (Marvel Comics) movies,” Juan, 15, a Gallup High sophomore, said in explaining her choice of Lee as a subject for her entry in “On the Rise.” “My favorite superhero is Black Panther.”
She recently removed her painting, titled “In Memory of Stan Lee,” from the exhibition because her family wanted it back home.
Juan is looking forward to college and a career in the medical field, probably as a radiologist. But you don’t need an X-ray machine to see she has genuine artistic talent.
“Her ability to mimic what she saw seemed to jump out of nowhere for me,” Sajewski said of Juan. “She has an accuracy only analytical minds have.”
Hannah James, 15, a sophomore at Window Rock High in Fort Defiance, Arizona, took Billie’s advice about flowers. Her painting is one of the two titled “Sunflower.”
“Sunflowers are my favorite flower, and they kind of symbolize Kansas (they are that state’s official flower), where my uncle lived,” she said. “Every summer we would go to Lawrence to visit him. Once I thought sunflowers, (the painting) just kind of came naturally.”
James wants to follow the lead of her older sister, a student at Columbia University, and attend an Ivy League school.
“I was kind of thinking of going into the medical field – more like a physical therapist,” she said. “But I will do art just for fun.”
Skye Foster’s painting “Owl,” a picture of her black-and-white cat sitting on a windowsill as snow falls outside, was her first attempt at art.
Foster, 15, a Window Rock sophomore, said she was surprised when her art teacher, Isabel White, told her the painting was going to be part of an exhibition.
“I was like, ‘Wow,’ ” she said.
She based her painting on a photo she took of the cat, named Owl. She painted its image against the window and the falling snow.
“Ms. White taught me about brushstrokes,” she said. “I wanted to try something new with all the techniques I had learned, so I decided to try the snow.”
She plans to go to college after high school.
“My younger brother was diagnosed with autism at a young age, so I want to study adolescent psychology,” she said. “But I am getting back into painting . I am painting my other cat.”
‘Love and support’
The students’ art, which went up at Gallery With a Cause on June 7, moves to the Gallup Cancer Center in November.
“It was an inspiration for (the young artists), a great educational tool,” said Regina Held, Gallery With a Cause curator. “It was a way for the students to see what it takes to be an artist – not only to create the art, but to mount it, photograph it, write about it and have it exhibited and seen.”
Gallery With a Cause is a project of the New Mexico Cancer Center Foundation, which raises money for the nonmedical needs of cancer patients, such as gasoline cards, grocery cards, cellphone bills, rents, mortgages, utility bills, internet charges and lodging for patients traveling from out of town.
“We want to ensure that patients can focus on getting better,” said Alexandria Hafler, NMCC Foundation director.
All works of art in Gallery With a Cause are for sale. The artist receives 60% of the sale price, and the foundation gets 40%, which is tax-deductible.
But Hafler said art sales do not make up a significant portion of the foundation’s funding.
“We rely heavily on individual donors and corporate sponsors,” she said. “The art fulfills our mission to create an environment that supports patients in emotional and psychological ways. A cancer center is not a place anyone wants to come. Art is one of the biggest ways we make that easier.”
That must have been what Kirtland Central student Rasheena Bedah was thinking while working on “The Cure,” a painting pink with flowers and ribbon and hope.
In the artist’s statement, Bedah wrote, “My work is dedicated to the cancer patients as an act of love and support.”