Category: the painted desert project

adios + gracias hermano


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.


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.

owen at the crossroads; back to the future…












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.




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



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.


It used to read “Welcome to Pepsi Country.”

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










































from time to time i get asked whether i have anything for sale.  i do.  i now have a page called “schwag!” that gives you an idea of what’s available.   the site isn’t set up as a business so if you’re interested in something, email me at:  all monies will be used to bring more art to the rez and work with local artists in the painted desert project.


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