SANTA FE, N.M. — “Santo Schwarzenegger” takes silent aim in his shades from the nicho in Ehren Kee Natay’s Santa Fe casita.
The “Terminator II: Judgment Day” action figure guards a living room stacked with paintings combining cartoon imagery with native iconography such as stairsteps, cloud symbols and Mimbres designs.
“I always played with action figures,” the 28-year-old Kewa Pueblo/Diné artist said. “I really think that helped my art.”
Natay designed four T-shirts for the 2013 Santa Fe Indian Market, slated for Aug. 17-18. The shirts are the first-ever artist-designed collection commissioned by its umbrella organization, the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts. They sell for $22.
Natay joins the ranks of the prestigious poster artists of previous markets. The switch from paper to fabric is an effort to bring a fresh approach and a younger crowd to the 92-year-old event, according to Tailinh Agoya, SWAIA’s public relations and marketing director.
Poster sales had declined over the years to the point that market volunteers were giving them away, she said. They usually sold for $20-$30.
“People just weren’t buying them,” Agoyo explained. “The images of the past were more museum quality. It was, ‘Here’s a pot on a black background.’ I want to get across the beauty and the vibrancy and the energy of all the people represented. T-shirts really have a youthful vibe and a colorful energy, and everybody wants them. We’re taking pre-orders now.”
Natay’s stairsteps-meet-street-art approach fuses Mimbres abstraction and graffiti techniques, tablitas and Japanese anime. It’s a hybrid of traditional motifs infused with the vibrant colors and minimalist forms of cartoons and comic books. Think Pac-Man meets pueblo.
His “Kiva Head” design combines an Angry Birds scowl with the traditional tablita headdress used in ceremonial dances.
“It’s actually the symbol for clouds in pueblo culture,” Natay explained. “It’s also the steps of the kiva.”
“You see so much Native American cartoon imagery that’s so stereotypical,” he continued. “I wanted to get away from that. I wanted to create cartoon characters.”
A more conservative design – feathers extending from either side of a square medallion – could be a silver brooch or a buckle. His “Mimbres Monster” features the black and white lines of Mimbres pottery enclosing a jagged set of teeth. The fourth design is a rainbow Yei figure of a woman striped in red, white and blue. Beneath each design, graffiti-angled text reads: “SFE-NDN-MKT-2013.”
Natay says it all started when he was one of four artists chosen to design a room at Albuquerque’s Nativo Lodge. He was also selected for a 2012 SWAIA/Nativo Lodge Rising Artist Fellowship.
“It was phenomenal,” Agoyo said. “His color on one wall was a buffalo dancer in the same earth tones” as the room.
On another wall, Natay spray painted an avanyu-or-water serpent-meets-Japanese-tattoo in blue hues, she said. It’s a street art version of the Tewa symbol.
“The detail is so fine,” Agoyo said. “To stay in that room, you could see something new all day.”
Natay took a similar approach with his T-shirts.
“We’re looking to create a fresh, more modern look,” Agoyo said. “It’s edgier and more fun and vibrant.”
In June, Agoyo and SWAIA chief operating officer John Torres-Nez presented actor Johnny Depp with Natay’s Mimbres T-shirt at a Bishop’s Lodge press junket for “The Lone Ranger.”
“He was very gracious,” Agoyo said.
The artist, who grew up in Santa Fe, juggles multiple formats – Natay is a drummer, songwriter, dancer and actor, as well as a visual artist. He’s been drawing and painting for as long as he can remember.
“It was just natural for me,” he said. “It was fun; it was play.”
Music is his first love. He began private drum lessons when he was 14 and studied music at the University of New Mexico for two years.
“I dropped out, moved to Las Vegas, Nev., and joined a punk band,” he said. The group toured throughout the West Coast and the Southwest for four years.
“Then I came back to Santa Fe,” Natay said. “My dad was taking jewelry classes at the Poeh Cultural Center” at Pojoaque Pueblo.
He figured if his father could do it, so could he.
“The Poeh Arts Center is really big into entrepreneurship, into building a career,” Natay explained.
Center staff members also helped him prepare and apply for his first Indian Market in 2010. He brought silver jewelry and paintings and nearly sold out.
He credits his multidisciplinary approach to a fiery creative spirit. “Whatever it is inside me drives me to create,” he said. “It’s been very close to my spirit.”
Natay ducked inside his bedroom and emerged with a leather and silver cuff wrapped in tissue paper.
A meticulously fabricated and stamped space gun crowns the black leather, ready to aim. Natay modeled it after traditional native bow guards (ket’ohs).
The gleaming object reeks of B-movie ray gun bluster.
Natay created the faux weapon using a wax mold of an action figure from his childhood. He cast the base, then added stampwork, with red coral buttons and an orbiting miniature globe carved from Cripple Creek, Colo., turquoise.
He often tries to slip some humor into his artwork.
“It’s that Flash Gordon, Star Trek-y thing,” he said with a laugh.