The paintings of Emmi Whitehorse beckon with squiggles, lines and secret swirls evoking the long vistas in a spiritual and geographic language of Navajo culture.
With works hanging in the permanent collections of the Albuquerque Museum, the Denver Art Museum, the Heard Museum, the New Mexico Museum of Art, the Tucson Museum of Art, the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, as well as institutions in Germany, Japan and Uzbekistan, this artist has nothing left to prove.
Based in both Santa Fe and in Tucson, Arizona, Whitehorse keeps pushing the boundaries of her art, using her hands to smear, caress and layer the dry washes of ground chalk. The closer the viewer gazes across her microscopic compositions, the more they discover intimate marks, forms and scrawls suggestive of the sparse vegetation or shifting wildlife emerging across vast spaces.
Born in Crownpoint on the Navajo Nation, Whitehorse was forged in a traditional nomadic family of sheepherders.
“We’d just pitch a tent all summer long,” she said. “I grew up with a lot of solitude. Your neighbors are so far away, so you have to entertain yourself. I just started drawing.”
Her grandmother wove traditional Navajo blankets.
“They were very geometric,” Whitehorse said. “She would build these cubes on top of each other. It kind of gave you vertigo to look at it. I was inspired by how something flat gave you this kind of space.”
Color and artwork lured her away from her elementary school work. She decided to study art formally at the University of New Mexico.
In the early 1970s, all the professors were men.
“It was a very hard place for female artists and very hard for native women,” Whitehorse said. “Everyone tried to direct us into phys ed or teaching. The bias was against females being artists back then.”
She persisted, convinced a degree would make gallery owners take her seriously.
Whitehorse’s style developed from watching shadows and light play across the terrain signaling different times of day. At the time, many native artists were painting portraits of people in full headdress with buffaloes.
“My parents didn’t dress like that,” Whitehorse said. “We didn’t have buffalo around. I wanted something I grew up around. I grew up with solitude and nature.
“So the works are about the process of the day; the little details like twigs or a seed pod or the arm of a plant.”
She works almost solely on paper. The nubby crevasses and risings of canvas proved too textured for her delicate approach. Paper was cheaper, too.
Acrylic paint dried too quickly, so Whitehorse turned to chalk, grinding it with sandpaper before applying layers of subtle coloration with her fingers.
“I just sprinkle it over the paper and rub it with my hands and use different layers of color,” she said. “Going to school, I didn’t have a lot of money, so I had to find ways to make it look professional.”
Her invented iconography comprises everything she remembers.
“A lot of the things you see are skeletal remains of plants, like pine cones splayed apart,” she explained. “It’s up-close views of seed pods. They appear symbolistic of other things. It’s up-close in a microscope. There are little funky plants that I make up.”
The marks also reflect the Navajo philosophy of a harmonious balance of beauty, nature and humanity.
“Everything in nature is very mathematically arranged,” Whitehorse said. “We don’t notice it.
“We picked up that we are related to everything,” she continued. “Everything organic has a life force.”
The work is meditative, meant to be slowly absorbed.
“It is definitely done to slow you down, for your eye to keep discovering the work. You think something just moved over there; there are little activities going on.”
Whitehorse’s newest work is a mammoth, yellow, 9-feet-by-4-feet wood panel with a chalk bottom.
“The whole thing is layered with cut out mica pieces so it glitters,” she said. “It’s a piece about organic matter. It aligns with the Navajo sense that beauty is around you. It’s called ‘Pollen Path’.”
The work is the first of an unfolding project on the Navajo four directions.
She will create a trio of additional panels in white, black and blue.
“I kind of mulled it over in my head for a while first,” Whitehorse said.
The solitude of social distancing suits her.
“I’m working away,” Whitehorse said. “I’m used to solitude. I’m looking at all the strange life around Tucson; the cacti and all the life forms.”
_Deck”>EXCERPT: Born in Crownpoint on the Navajo Nation, Emmi Whitehorse was forged in a traditional nomadic family of sheepherders.