I started the Painted Desert Project in 2012 uncertain how long it would go. A friend at the time warned me to watch out. “Once street artists hear about this project you’ll start getting requests from all over and it’ll get out of control,” he said. Fortunately, this hasn’t happened. However, one such random request came early in 2013. I’d invited the Argentinian artist Ever to come paint. He really wanted his friend Alexis Diaz to join him for the two weeks he’d be here. Alexis contacted me and I told him I work on a shoe string budget and didn’t have the funds to get him out in 2013 and that I’d work to get him out in 2014. He responded saying he really wanted to come and was willing to pay his own way from San Juan, Puerto Rico. I couldn’t argue with that.
I knew of Alexis’ work with the surrealist Puerto Rican duo La Pandilla and though I dug their work, I was concerned that his animal/human hybrid forms would be considered anathema in the traditional and Christian conservative setting of the reservation. For example, I was told last summer by an older man from the community of Bitter Springs that the buffalo/bear power piece (so named because the buffalo and bear are power symbols within the culture and have examples of manmade power sources on their backs – power lines, a windmill and the smoke stacks of the Navajo Generating Station), was considered evil. “It’s seen as unnatural, like homosexuality.” I’d already been ruminating on what it means to attempt to introduce an art form not common to the traditional community of the reservation and how best to do this. I wasn’t following the model of public art community of holding community meetings to explain the project or the work and to get their consent although I was getting the approval of wall owners to create art in that space. I figured I’d have this conversation with Alexis once he arrived.
Alexis came in May of 2013. His time here coincided with Ever, Brian Barneclo and Ann Van Hulle, art historian and Roa’s business partner. When I think of Alexis I think of a cuddly teddy bear (although Ever teases him relentlessly about looking like a monkey, especially when he sleeps). He possesses the most affable and personable spirit I know. Being around him is to laugh constantly. I talked with him about the philosophy of jazz and the act of creating in the moment inspired by one’s surroundings. I actually told him this before he came and asked that he not come with a preconceived idea of what he was going to paint. He said this was the first time he’d been asked to approach painting this way. A year later when I spent 3 weeks with him in Perth, Australia at a street art festival in 2014 he thanked me for pushing him out of his comfort zone saying his practice now is to wait until he gets to a place before deciding what he’s going to paint.
The first week Alexis worked in Antelope Hills along Highway 89 about 20. His site had a lot of visibility as anyone traveling north from Flagstaff would pass his work. I wasn’t sure what he was going to paint. In truth, I don’t think he knew what he was going to paint until he spent some time hanging out at his vacant billboard. Ever was working on a wall in Gray Mountain, about 10 miles from Alexis’ site. They shared the ride and would leave from my house early in the morning. Alexis’ style involves working with a fine brush doing small cross strokes and he’d work until darkness descended often illuminating the billboard with my car headlights. The first day Ever and Alexis went out to paint they returned to my house at 11:30 p.m. Uncertain of the roads they’d missed a key turnoff to my house in the pitch blackness of the reservation night. Regardless, Ann stayed up and prepared a meal for them and heard stories of their adventures from the day. She did this for them each night. I was thankful for the small community of kindred spirits invading my house. It took Alexis 4 days working 10 hours a day to get the raven up. Worried that the Anglo proprietor of the trading post might have an issue with his hybrid figure I asked Alexis what she thought of the piece. He said she liked it. Once the piece was complete I stopped by and talked with the proprietor about the billboard. Her name is Chris. She became emotional talking about the painting because she felt Alexis had been guided by a spirit and the piece spoke directly to her in that she had a sculpture in the store someone had given to her of a raven. She identified the raven as her power animal.
The raven with the human hand became immediately iconic. For the past 2 and 1/2 years whenever I’d leave Flagstaff heading home I loved seeing this piece. Although I knew it was there, seeing it maintained a feeling of surprise. The raven owned the space like it belonged there.
I noticed a couple weeks ago that it had acquired a serious northward lean. Winds on the Colorado Plateau can get up to 70mph but I wasn’t worried. So it was with great surprise and sadness when I came over the pass from Flagstaff yesterday and looked for my familiar landmark only to realize it had succumbed to the wind. It’s time had come. I stopped at the trading post to ask Chris when this happened and whether she was going to replace the billboard. She confirmed that strong winds earlier in the week felled it and that the company who owns the trading post won’t be replacing it. “The roof leaks and needs to be replaced and all they keep telling me is to patch it up,” she said. With sadness she reminisced on all the people who’ve stopped over the years to photograph the piece. And so it goes…
Gracias por el amor hermano. You touched many souls.