Stylized dragonflies soar across Mary Morez’s painting, combining echoes of the past with the edges of modernism.
The late Navajo painter, designer, curator and graphic designer captured everyday events of tribal lives.
Santa Fe’s Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian is showcasing her work in “The Mary Morez Style: Transformations in Tradition” through April 15.
Morez created book and record illustrations, textiles, drawings and paintings. She was also an art consultant to the Museum of Navajo Art, (now the Wheelwright Museum) and a curator at the Heard Museum in Phoenix.
“I think she was a pivotal person in terms of feminist discourse,” said Wheelwright curator Andrea Hanley. “She paints a lot of women; she captures a lot of what Indian women do.”
Born near Tuba City, Arizona, Morez suffered from both polio and rheumatic fever as a girl, and underwent numerous operations as a result. Raised by her grandparents, she studied at the Phoenix Indian School, where she was adopted by a non-Native couple and learned about a culture not of her own. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Arizona and received a scholarship to the Ray-Vogue Art School in Chicago.
In the early 1960s, Morez received another scholarship through the Southwestern Indian Art Project that would prove pivotal to her artistic life. Directed by the University of Arizona and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, the project also exerted a profound impact on the field, becoming critical to the founding of the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe.
Morez’s instructors included a virtual who’s who of Native American art history, including Lloyd Kiva New (Cherokee Nation) and Charles Loloma (Hopi). Morez, and other Native students, including Fritz Scholder (Luseño), Michael Kabotie (Hopi) and Helen Hardin (Santa Clara Pueblo) became central figures in their respective fields and forged a new movement merging traditional tribal art forms with contemporary aesthetics.
Morez’s drawing “Study of a Navajo Woman” reveals her delicate approach, conveying her subject’s face with just a few carefully chosen lines.
“It’s one of my favorite drawings ever,” Hanley said. “She’s got his graceful stylistic skill and emotional depth. Her studies of Navajo motifs are especially poignant.”
Morez’s work landed in the Heard Museum’s landmark exhibition “Shared Visions: Native American Painters and Sculptors in the 20th Century” in the early ’90s.
“In ‘Father Sky,’ she’s looking at the Navajo creation story,” Hanley added.
The triptych “Pow Wow Night” delves into more current events, weaving traditional aspects of Navajo culture with contemporary abstraction.
The artist’s childhood illnesses filled her with compassion for others who suffered, Hanley added. She volunteered at the Phoenix Indian Hospital.
Morez continued to suffer from complications as an adult, and ill health led to a 15-year period when she did very little painting. However, in the 1990s she again took up “the brush.”
“Everything I have learned over the years goes into my paintings: philosophy of the Navajo, the environment, religion … everything,” she said.
Morez lived in Phoenix for much of her career. She died in 2004.