Category: the painted desert project

Ruben Aguirre + Twyla Hunt’s food truck

On a hot day on the Colorado Plateau in early June Chicago based writer + street artist “Looks_1” (Ruben Aguirre) met with Twyla Hunt to paint her food truck.  Ruben, Twyla’s mom, Mary + Twyla discussed what he might paint while Twyla’s son swam in the sprinkler…

 

Kate Deciccio at Navajo Mountain

 

florence with her portrait of she + gloria

 

hosteen buck navajo with his portrait

 

portraits of florence + bahe ketchum

 

Washington, DC based artist, community organizer + activist Kate Deciccio recently completed a 2 week project with the Navajo Mountain Chapter House. Here’s what she said about her experience…

I arrived to Navajo Mountain, Naatsis’aan and met with Lorena Atene, Community Services Coordinator & Hank Stevens, Chapter President to talk about their vision for the project. “What is the purpose of the art? What stories are we trying to tell through this project?” I asked. Lorena & Hank shared several main objectives.
We want to engage our youth in something creative where they explore the mythology of the mountain & also have a chance to be expressive.
We want to honor the importance of the struggle to protect Bear Ears Monument for its significance as a place where healers collect medicine, hold ceremonies & hunt.
We want art for the Stronger & Healthier Navajo Nation & Eehaniih Celebrations in July & August. Specifically Eehaniih honors the people who were able to avoid internment by hiding in the canyons behind the mountain, our veterans, our elders & people who have left & returned to our community.

The next morning Lorena & I were off make house visits to elders who she & Hank felt embodied the spirit of Eehaniih. We knocked on Grandpa Buck Navajo’s hogan & he & his daughter invited us in for a visit filled with stories about his 84 years of healing. Grandpa Buck is animated but his speech is quiet & I don’t know Navajo. Thankfully his daughter Lena & Lorena were there to translate.
“I began studying ceremonies when I was 10. I’m 94 now, the oldest medicine man here, and when I was 18, people from this community began going to fight WWII,” Buck shared. He went on to talk about all that he’s seen and the responsibility of the medicine man to care for the community during, WWII, the Korean War, land partition, livestock reduction, the Vietnam War, Desert Storm & today. He was light & warm & pointed to boxes of fresh Navajo tea and the tobacco he was chopping on the floor. While talking about ceremonies that took him years to learn, the use of singing & baskets, he also made jokes & shared the Spanish words he learned from his Mexican co-workers when he worked on the railroad, “Nada Mamacita!”

I would have been happy staying all day listening to Grandpa’s Buck’s stories but I took his photograph and Lorena & I headed to meet Gloria & Florence. Gloria grew up in Navajo Mountain and left with her husband to live in Chicago for 44 years. She lives down the hill from Florence who has spent her entire life caring for herds of sheep and goats who graze in the giant open pastures between their houses tucked behind the mountain. Gloria was eager to sit down, drink pink lemonade & reminisce about her days riding horses & how she met her husband. I was curious to learn more about the corner of her living room dedicated to Elvis but she wanted to share about how her son married an Indian girl who she loves but that she always tell him, “You married the wrong kind of indian.”
Meanwhile Florence kept peeking her head out the door, looking up the hill, noting that it was hot & that the sheep & goats were in the coral. Despite that Florence who have been just fine avoiding photos all together, I followed Gloria’s lead & photographed them together both inside & in front of the hogan.

Lastly we reached out to the family of Bahe Ketchum, one of the Navajo Code Talkers who was from Navajo Mountain & died just a few years ago. His son Arthur shared photos and new articles about his dad’s experience in WWII.

For the next few days I split my time between rendering the portraits to make stencils of the elders & painting a mural in the meeting house that features the native plants used most often in Navajo plant medicine.Thanks to Nizhóní, I had great help and input making it possible to finish the wall in just 4 days.

The following week I met the 7 student workers assigned to the art project. Lorena was like, “If you can please paint, 8 palettes for the park, 6 picnic tables that match, 2 5×12′ canvases & if you finish…. I have a list of other spots where we’d love art.” No big deal.
The youth were like, “We’re not sure what to expect but if we can spray paint, we’re on board!”
We looked at some Navajo textiles & pottery designs, talked about pattern structures & symmetry & began painting. By the end of day 1, the kids had painted all 8 palettes with beautiful layered patterns and were each beginning to experiment with fading and color transitions. As the week unfolded, we researched the connections between the land features & Navajo deities. The students talked to their parents & grandparents about the stories they had learned about the land and we quickly realized that depending on each clan, the significance of each place really varied. Some people thought Rainbow Bridge was very sacred, other people said, “That place doesn’t mean much to us, I’ve walked under there.” Some people believed the Twins, the children of the Sun resided in the mountain, other people believed they lived in a mountain near Window Rock. Here I was attempting to support the kids to discover “The Story,” but we learned together that actually there were many stories & a diversity of connection & offense to each perspective. The students collectively agreed that to them, being from Navajo Mountain means feeling deeply connected to the beauty and vastness of the land. They shared about how grateful they feel for living in a place where there is very little commercial development & we made big lists of all of the animals & plants that to them capture the essence of their community. Together we worked out a mural composition integrating patterns from rugs, petroglyphs, animals, & text about how the land makes the kids feel.

Each day we talked about the strengths and struggles of Navajo Mountain to support youth. The kids agreed that small town drama and feelings of boredom & isolation drive alcoholism & depression for many people in the community, that lack of access to healthy food and opportunity has big implications on people’s ability to believe they can do what they want with their lives. They helped cut out the large stencils of Grandpa Buck, Gloria, Florence & Bahe and we talked about what they hope to accomplish in the community as they become leaders.
By the end of the week I found myself inventing small jobs so they could work independently and experiment developing their individual styles. They paint the chapter’s backhoe, cold planer, electric meters, a bunch of picnic tables, and definitely a few things without permission.

Spending 12 days painting at the Navajo Mountain chapter house was an opportunity to be with people and attempt to create art that reflects back all that the community shared with me about who they are and how they see themselves. Wrapping up last night, we agreed that in our time together, we were exceptionally productive but that also projects like this unveil how much more could be possible….. What could happen if we committed to using art to explore community stories all year long? How could we support the students to learn the skills to resist depression and alcoholism by engaging in art? I feel good about leaving this project with new questions and inspiration. Huge thanks to The Painted Desert Project for getting the art & dialogue started.

 

Thank you Kate for your passion, dedication + amazing work!

adios + gracias hermano

the-raven

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.  buffalobearFor 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.  IMG_6222“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.  the-crewI talked with him about the philosophy of jazz and the act of creating in the moment inspired by one’s surroundings.  ann, alexis + nico 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.  antelope-hills-in-progress-(enhanced)painting-antelope-hillsWorried 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

 

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.

raven-day-3

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…

raven-at-night

Gracias por el amor hermano.  You touched many souls.

owen at the crossroads; back to the future…

6.--overview

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2.  painting %22future%22

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4.  with jeff wilson + clara bensen (styling)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3.  with jeff wilson + clara bensen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

with jeff wilson + clara bensen

Artist Nils Westergard painted a mural in the fall of 2013 of a young man (Calvin Smith), from the community of Inscription House.  Last spring there was a day when the wind gusted up to 70 miles/hour resulting in several panels of the mural being blown off.  With great effort a friend and I repaired the painting.  (Thanks Stella!)  The same thing happened this spring; however, before being blown off a second time the piece was tagged by the Route 16 Lost Boyz.

I wanted to interact with Nils’ original piece and found a one of my favorite photos of Calvin Smith’s nephew, Owen + attempted to create a dynamic between them where they’re considering their futures.  Thanks to Jeff Wilson, Clara Bensen, Daniel Fararra + Nils Aucante for an amazing day!

 

new print!

step on parched earth

 

just dropped!  “i am the change” (otherwise known as “stephanie on parched earth”).

19 x 25, hand pulled screen print on archival paper printed by the good folks at ocelot print shop in detroit, mi.  support the painted desert project to help get art on the roadside on the navajo nation for $50 including shipping.

peace.

 

 

Interview with Kyle G. Boggs, host of “Collaborative Communities and Contested Spaces: A Mini-Conference on Teaching, Resistance, and Alliance” to be held at the Museum of Northern Arizona 12, 2015

 

cow-springs-with-labrona

labrona x jetsonorma in cow springs, august 2014 

Kyle: What pedagogical strategies have you employed that allow students and/or community members to a) recognize the influences that shape the way they see, value, and experience natural landscapes? b) how has that particular understanding resulted in the marginalization or outright dismissal of those peoples who approach those landscapes with a different—sometimes competing—view? How do we see the complexity in natural spaces? What is the role of art in translating this complexity? What does privilege and oppression look like in contested spaces? How can art be used to transform our idea of were oppression takes place, and what it’s impact is on people and landscapes?

me:  Thanks for giving me the opportunity to evaluate and discuss my process.  I find the introduction to your question revealing in that it reflects your position as an academician.  You ask “What pedagogical strategies have you employed that allow students and/or community members to…”  This language is troubling to me in that in assuming I practice a “pedagogical strategy,” it creates a false power dynamic with me in the role of teacher and the community as student.  Yet in my 28 years as a primary care physician and more recently as a public artist on the Diné nation my role is both teacher and student.  Certainly as a public artist interacting with the community while erecting work often in areas where I’m not known as a physician, away from my power base, I am primarily a student.

  1. What I read into the framework of your question is what strategy do I use to engage the community through my art practice?   For me your first question becomes “What strategy do I use to engage the community through my art practice to recognize the influences that shape the way community members see, value, and experience natural landscapes?  Or in what way does the art I create shape the way community members see, value and experience natural landscapes?”

The scale of my work and its presentation as large black and white images of people from the community challenges people to perceive their surroundings differently.  The work appears on manmade structures but is presented in such a way that it reflects the vastness of the Colorado Plateau in its scale.  The reservation doesn’t have a tradition of public art or muralism.  While people are accustomed to seeing photographs their primary association with photography is color images on a monitor, in magazine or on billboards.  The scale of my images and it’s presentation on manmade structures along the roadside influence the way people see, value and experience natural landscapes.  The art is also an opportunity for me to challenge the community to see not only the natural environment (landscape) differently but their social environment differently as well in that a lot of the imagery I chose celebrates the culture.

While one might object to the presentation of unsolicited murals as intrusive; the work is on par with the intrusiveness of advertising but it’s intention is to foster a sense of pride and enhanced self esteem.   Most people have come to accept advertising even in unadulterated, natural landscapes even if they don’t agree with what’s being promoted.  Simple, large, black and white depictions of people who inhabit these spaces invite viewers to engage those people and to create dialog both within the community and between outsiders and community members.  This is in contrast to the purpose of advertising images found concurrently in those landscapes.

  1. How has that particular understanding resulted in the marginalization or outright dismissal of those peoples who approach those landscapes with a different—sometimes competing—view?

Those people with contrasting, competing interpretations of the landscape and the art that appears in the landscape are not without means to challenge my work in that it’s sometimes defaced.  For this reason public art and more specifically street art is considered the most democratic of art forms in the way this dialog between practitioners and the community evolves.

As a case study, let’s look at art that is currently being generated in public spaces on the reservation and in Flagstaff to honor the sanctity of sacred spaces, specifically the Confluence of the Little Colorado River and the Colorado River.  This is a site where a developer based in Scottsdale is proposing to build a resort that’ll impact the ecology of the area as well as the way various tribes that hold this site sacred will relate to one another.  As a consequence the tribe is divided over the issue as the Bodaway Gap/Cedar Ridge communities on the reservation have an unemployment rate around 60% or higher.  There are few employment opportunities around this area.  A reductionist view of the question being asked by Traditionalists who oppose the development is whether its worth sacrificing the culture for short sighted economic development of one of the 7 wonders of the world.  Art that has been generated around this issue speaks to the uniqueness and sacredness of the Confluence and the Grand Canyon without consideration of the competing view for economic exploitation.  There are times when art shouldn’t be objective and has to take sides.  Perhaps it’s considered propaganda but artists have to decide where they stand on an issue, understand their intention and feel good about their role in supporting the good fight.

  1. How do we see the complexity in natural spaces?   What is the role of art in translating this complexity?
  1. What does privilege and oppression look like in contested spaces? How can art be used to transform our idea of where oppression takes place, and what it’s impact is on people and landscapes?

My art project is an example of how privilege looks in contested spaces.  I think frequently about how my day job as a physician supports my passion for creating public art yet the public art is used in a way to support my work as a physician.  By this I mean my work in the clinic is to promote wellness while my work in the field as a public artist promotes emotional and psychosocial wellness.  But no doubt the medium I chose for public art is heavily dependent on a consistent funding source to create it (otherwise identified as my salary).

I’d suggest billboards represent a form of oppression in contested spaces.  For example, in 1989 the Pepsi corporation erected a billboard along Highway 89 near Moenkopi Wash outside Tuba City directed at motorists traveling from Flagstaff and Phoenix to Page and points further north.  The billboard depicted cold, refreshing cans of soft drinks to relieve the motorists thirst traversing the hot, barren but beautiful Painted Desert.  However, the ad neglected to recognize that the corn syrup laden drinks depicted appear in a region of the country with one of the highest rates of adult onset diabetes.  Art was used to transform our idea of where oppression takes place.

welcome-to-diabetes-country

It used to read “Welcome to Pepsi Country.”

Thanks again for this opportunity to share my process + philosophy.

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