Painted Desert Project Summary, Artist: Demian DinéYazhi

From September 6th – 9th, 2016 I was invited out to the Painted Desert Project by Chip Thomas (Jetsonorama) to engage with students at the Shonto Preparatory School on the Navajo Nation. Prior to my time with the Painted Desert Project, Chip and myself discussed making artwork with the immediate community that would result in a wheatpaste and text-based mural. My target community was an Indigenous LGBTQ2S and/or intergenerational group whom I could workshop and collaborate alongside before leading up to the production of artwork for a proper mural. Eventually, we agreed on connecting with a local school over the course of a week to establish a group of youth to work with on a longer engagement slated for the spring of 2017.

As established by Chip, my main point of contact at Shonto Prep was the Jane of all trades, Orleta Slick, whom set up prior arrangements with the interim art teacher, Nicole Laughter. My first day in the classroom was spent introducing the kids ( 5th grade to 8th grade) to my artwork and the themes explored through the imagery. For instance, I began speaking to the kids about Indigenous identity and the importance of self-representation. By showing them images that appropriated photographs taken from a non-Native photographer that simultaneously address Indigenous Feminism, I asked the students to look up definitions of patriarchy, matriarchy, appropriation, and subversion.

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Introducing the kids to these themes was no easy task, I realized the concepts I was bringing to the classroom was likely the first time the kids had been introduced to these words and definitions. Ultimately, I was able to link it back to reservation issues that are often seen in Navajo communities and referenced historical events, like the Long Walk, as a way to create context for the students. It was inspiring to see the kids thumb through their dictionary after being prompted to look up some of these words in their dictionaries, but also to see the children make connections between Hopi maidens and Princess Leia without being asked to consider the potential connection and appropriation of Indigenous Hopi culture.

In spite of the challenge of trying to demystify complex concepts to a group of students whom likely hadn’t grasped the social hierarchies embedded into the fabric of Indigenous and contemporary society, I felt my first day with the students was a success. After introducing my work and projects I am a part of, I took a moment and introduced the kids to the main reason why I was in their classroom: to create a mural that was a reflection of their community. Some of the students were familiar with the Painted Desert Project, so I asked them to consider how these images and murals made them feel the next time they came across them in passing. For instance, “do these images make you feel a sense of pride in who you are as Diné people?

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The next day I started the students off with a 5-minute “free write”. After giving the students a prompt—such as, “write about one of your favorite memories or dreams”, “what do yourself doing when you’re 18”, or “write about whatever inspires you most in life”—I told the students that they did not need to share this with the class and that whatever they wrote they were free to do with as they saw fit. I wanted the kids to walk away from the exercise with two things: 1) to spend time with their thoughts and using their hands as a tool of expression; 2) to feel secure knowing that whatever they wrote wasn’t for an adult or for a participation grade, but that writing could serve various purposes outside of conventional school assignments.

After the writing assignment I spoke briefly again about the Painted Desert Project and whether the students wanted to do a group collage together or create monoprints in the classroom on the last day of my residency. The curiosity of the kids all gravitated toward monoprinting. After that was decided, Nicole Laughter and myself accompanied the students outside for a drawing assignment focused on drawing the surroundings of Shonto Prep. Some kids drew large trees that tower over anthills, the water tower off in the distance, stink bugs that slowly walked by, or imagined entirely different landscapes. This was a short exercise, but it afforded the students the opportunity to engage with the world and consider drawing from real life.

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My last day at Shonto Prep started off with a 5-minute “free write”, and was followed by an interactive monoprint workshop with each class. I showed the students some examples of the different types of screenprinting and letterpress (text-based) printing that I have worked on over the last few years. Initially I had anticipated a group project, but the students all gravitated toward individual text, which ended up being really effective because it challenged the students by having them consider how the image gets printed—in reverse. Some students printed their names, characters from popular app games (i.e. Minecraft), school sport team logos, hearts with “MOM” written above them, or the name of their schoolyard crushes.

What interested me the most about this project was the amount the students opened up in such a confined space. They were challenged to work together on a limited surface and while some people were compelled to work on images and prints, other students were more drawn to focus on spreading ink or applying pressure to get a good print. This fascinated me because it was a true example of the benefits of working together and respecting the labor involved with each process. Another thing that I didn’t consider is that not all the students felt inspired to be creative in the exact same way, because for others, physical labor is as valid of a form of creative expression and holds as much purpose as creating a piece of art.

Upon my departure from Shonto Prep, I felt that the workshops and class exercises were successful in exposing students to alternative ways of thinking about creative practice. Another goal was to create a relationship with students and a community that could be nurtured through the coming months. While my time at Shonto was limited, it was important for me to create a prolonged engagement with the community in order to familiarize myself with the landscape and the community that takes care of it and survives in the comforts of what it has to offer.

I also wanted to get a sense of what I felt would be a meaningful interaction and reflection of the community. It became evident that the best representation of this community would come through the form of a photography collage project that asks the students to photograph their families, landscapes, animals, or things that make them proud, and then take those photographs and create a mural that will be displayed outside the front of their school building.

hózhó

Dan Budnik is a Flagstaff based photographer who first came to this region in the 70s to photodocument forced relocation of Navajos living on “Hopi Partition Land” on Black Mesa.  It was his documentation of the conflict that led to the 1985 Academy Award winning documentary “Broken Rainbow” which examines coal exploitation and the origins of the Navajo – Hopi tribal government conflict.  His images from that period are compelling.  It’s the type of up close + personal, black + white photography that I grew up seeing in Life Magazine.  The imagery reflects Dan’s time commitment to telling a story truthfully and the trust the people he was photographing had in him.

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Stinkfish poster with MLK criminal justice reform posters.

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Collaboration with fellow Justseeds printmaker + activist, Thea Ghar.

I first met Dan maybe 3 years ago; however, it wasn’t until he had a show of black + white, silver gelatin prints and color photos at a small restaurant in Flagstaff in May of 2015 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery that Dan got my attention.  I wanted to know what a photographer of his caliber was doing in northern Arizona.  He told the story of going to the Navajo nation in the 70s and falling in love with the people and the land.  I stopped him at this point and told him he didn’t need to elaborate.  I got it.  The show was worthy of being held in any gallery in any city in the world.  I’m not exaggerating.  Though Dan is a humble, gentle spirit, his talent as a photographer is exceptional.  It was his image of  Dr. King that appeared on the cover of Time Magazine in April 1968 when Dr. King was killed.

King by Dan Budnik

I’m proud as hell to be able to say Dan Budnik is my friend.  Last year we’d hoped to collaborate on a project in Selma where I’d install some of his images from the Selma to Montgomery march on abandoned store-fronts in downtown Selma.  However, the bureaucracy to realize this dream was insurmountable.  Instead, Dan let me use an image of marcher Frederick Moss for an installation in Brooklyn.  (Yeah, Brooklyn.  I like the unintentional symbolism of a black man on his back in the street holding an American flag. This time last year there were several black men on their backs in the street.)  When Dan shot the image of Frederick Moss, Mr. Moss was simply exhausted after a grueling 5 day, 54 mile demonstration and laid down in a vacant spot to rest.

I wanted to pay tribute to my friend by getting the Frederick Moss image up in his adopted home of Flagstaff, AZ.

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toren

Toren at Moenkopi Wash

Hózhó – a word that defines the essence of Navajo (Diné) philosophy. It encompasses beauty, order, harmony + expresses the idea of striving for balance.

telluride mountain film festival

photo by jim hurst

I was honored to be one of 2 artists in residence for the 2016 Telluride Mountain Film Festival. As stated on Wikipedia “…Held every Memorial Day weekend since 1979, Telluride Mountainfilm is a documentary film festival that showcases nonfiction stories about environmental, cultural, climbing, political and social justice issues in Telluride, Colorado. In addition to documentaries, the festival also brings together world-class athletes, change makers and artists via interactive discussions, free community events, a gallery walk, an all-day symposium, outdoor programming and presentations. Mountainfilm aims to educate, inspire and motivate audiences.”

Huffington Post article about my contribution.

up highway 64 towards the entrance of the south rim (at thomasina’s stand)

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It had been a  couple years since I last spent any time with Marley and her mom, Sina in their spot near the Little Colorado River Gorge.  I had a leftover screen print that was one of the posters used to promote the 2014 People’s Climate March (printed by Justseeds artist, Jesse Purcell).  Although Sina wasn’t there, Marley was there with a full crew.  Thanks for a fun hang!

flagstaff x la misión

Wow.  It’s been a busy couple weeks which included prepping like a big dog for the Mountain Film festival installation, going to Telluride at 9000 feet to do the installation with the occasional small piece going up in Flagstaff.  Shout out to Brooklyn Street Art who’ve scheduled to run the story of the Telluride installation tomorrow.  Good looking out Steve + Jaime.

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mash up in flagstaff

corn

Talking about corn and climate change.  The text reads “The Diné (Navajo) word for sweet corn is naa dáá which is a large grain plant first domesticated by indigenous peoples in Mexico[1] about 10,000 years ago.  Beginning about 2500 BC, the crop spread through much of the Americas.[6] The region developed a trade network based on surplus and varieties of maize crops.  After European contact with the Americas in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, explorers and traders carried maize back to Europe and introduced it to other countries. Maize spread to the rest of the world because of its ability to grow in diverse climates.

And what is the future of maize and other crops in the southwest as the planet warms?  The Southwest is the hottest and driest region in the United States, where the availability of water has defined its landscapes, history of human settlement, and modern economy.  Severe and sustained drought will stress water sources, already over-utilized in many areas, forcing increasing competition among farmers, energy producers, urban dwellers, and plant and animal life for the region’s most precious resource.  Agriculture, a mainstay of the regional and national economies, faces uncertainty and change. The Southwest produces more than half of the nation’s high-value specialty crops, including certain vegetables, fruits, and nuts. The severity of future impacts will depend upon the complex interaction of pests, water supply, reduced chilling periods, and more rapid changes in the seasonal timing of crop development due to projected warming and extreme events.”

me installing jamison

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Jamison + his dog at the Boiler Room Studio in Flagstaff

klee + princess in the mission by (aniduhh)

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Klee + Princess in the Mission, San Francisco outside Galería de la Raza coinciding with their “For the People” show.  The full backstory on this piece “What we do to the mountain we do to ourselves” will appear on the blog Brooklyn Street Art tomorrow.  And how can you not love Brooklyn Street Art when they love you more everyday?

gamma goat to the rescue

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The Navajo nation has an unemployment rate at about 50%.  While the tribe is pursuing investment and job opportunities much of the land under consideration for development is contaminated with uranium from over 500 uncapped mines which deters businesses from investing.  The companies who abandoned the mines in the 60s + 70s when the price and demand for uranium dropped aren’t legally bound to clean up their sites per mining laws from the 1800s when prospectors were mining for precious minerals.

Concerned with the possibility of accidental contamination by wandering into abandoned mine sites the EPA created a coloring book for grade school kids on the rez.  The star is “Gamma Goat” who introduces himself saying “That’s right.  I’m named after the most powerful form of radiation given off by uranium, gamma rays.  I know how to stay away from areas where radiation may harm me and I’m here to teach you, your friends and family how to be safe too.”  Meanwhile, contamination continues to affect the land, water, animals and humans.

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jc at the white house

 

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jc at coconino center for the arts

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thanks to travis iurato for arranging the wall.

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we be darker than blue (a jetsonorama + jess x. chen collaboration)

backstory (as told to Ralf):

There is an art space in Brooklyn (BRIC) which hosts a once monthly poetry slam. The MC is poet and Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe poetry director, Mahogany L. Browne. BRIC will also be hosting the first night of the Women of the World Poetry Slam in March. I was invited to do a poetry themed mural for this event. I invited Sonia Sanchez to participate in the photo shoot with Mahogany L. Browne and based it on the Frida Kahlo painting “The Two Fridas.” However, this interpretation of that painting speaks to the migratory, trans Atlantic movement of the oral tradition + spoken word and it’s intergenerational manifestation as poetry.  Mahogany + Sonia are presented as exemplars of the tradition.

Around the time of my father’s death in June 2006 I had an experience with a bird.  I was outside at a friend’s condo and after 30 minutes on the phone with my dad I noticed a small bird in a nest who remained motionless and quiet with one eye riveted on me. My father implored me to come home to Raleigh with the words “come home son; dad is dying.”  The moment was dramatic, confusing and ultimately true.  I flew home the following day and spent 3 wonderful days with my dad before he underwent an outpatient procedure which led to his death as he never awoke from anesthesia.  The bird resting quietly in it’s nest an arm’s length away from me as my dad told me of his condition represented a messenger spirit between the worlds of the living and the dead.  The seagulls in the mural are signifiers of the freedom of movement across borders and communication with ancestral spirits.  In honor of one of Sonia’s poems Jess and I titled the mural “We Be Darker than Blue” as it speaks to intergenerational sisterhood.

 

with jess x (installing)

jess + i installing

 

with jess x

 

 

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sonia sanchez reading

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sonia and mahogany

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shout out to supa sister ursula rucker who facilitated meeting and getting to work with sonia sanchez

 

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sonia seeing the mural for the first time

 

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mahogany l. browne, ursula rucker + sonia sanchez

 

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ian cozzens assisting; jess modeling

completed-mural

The setting for the mural is the Hungry Ghost cafe at Bric.  Before doing the photo shoot with Sonia and Mahogany in January I watched a documentary called “BadDDD Sonia Sanchez” and was moved upon seeing Sonia’s old notebooks in which she wrote and edited poems.  I asked her to bring a few of these to the shoot.  It was magical as she’d not looked at these notebooks for some time.  She flipped through pages remembering and sharing the stories that inspired the poems and discussed her process for creating poetry.  These images of her hands engaging tangible memories appear on the front counter.

Thanks to everyone who helped make this project manifest – Mahogany L. Browne, Ursula Rucker, Sonia Sanchez, Jess X. Chen, Jennifer Gerow and the staff at Bric, Icy + Sot, Clara Darrason, Andrew Erdos + Ian Cozzens.  I want to give a special shout out to Alexandria Johnson who reminded us all that good spirits are amongst us.  Y’all made magic happen!

 

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