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!
I’ve known Rose and Paul Hurley for the 30 years I’ve worked at Inscription House. It’s been a joy to watch them age gracefully.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
“The war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war and he does at his best what lover’s do which is to reveal the beloved to himself and with that revelation to make freedom real.” James Baldwin
When I started wheat pasting large images along the roadside in 2009 I imagined it as an opportunity to deepen my relationship with the community where I work on the rez. I often thought of this process as an experiment in building community in which I knew the medium for building community but was uncertain of the outcome. What I’ve learned along the way is the importance of trust and how the process of building community parallels nurturing a friendship.
As a documentary photographer I believe everyone has a unique story though not everyone wants their story told. But for those who do a trusting relationship established over time with the story teller is critical to an objective telling of this story. I’ve learned inadvertently that taking someone’s words and writing or painting them directly onto their face is akin to the exercise of falling backwards trusting that the person positioned behind you will really catch you and prevent you from hitting the floor. Unlike writing onto a photograph of someone’s face, spending 30 to 60 minutes sitting 18 inches away from someone you may not know well exploring the contours of their face, their lips, gently writing on their eyelids is a bonding, trust building exchange. That someone would let you do this, photograph them and create a public mural is tangible evidence of their conviction to their beliefs, to their words. As James Baldwin said, they are willing to reveal the beloved to himself and with that revelation make freedom real.
Rey Cantil painting the words of Flagstaff activists onto their faces regarding the controversial practice of using reclaimed waste water to make artificial snow on a sacred mountain.
The experiment in community building is ongoing. I continue falling backwards believing someone will be there to catch me. And while I don’t want to be known as the guy who writes on people’s face, it is an effective tool for getting a heartfelt message out. Thank you to the community for trusting me with your words and joining me in this adventure.
new times interview before the show at chartreuse contemporary gallery in phoenix is here!
stay tuned! stickers and a screen print of this image of stephanie on j. r.’s house from 2010 will be coming out soon.
ha! silly me. i thought i was just going to jc’s house to get a photo of her holding my new 1 color, hand-pulled screen print on archival paper (which features her as a 6 month old). but no…
15″ x 25″ archival screen-print embossed, signed + numbered for $35
meanwhile, if you’re going to dream, dream big!