Tag: the painted desert project

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.


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.

building community

“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.

klee + princess 1.jpg


klee + princess 2

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.


klee + princess


john, sam + step


ladies 1

ladies 2

ladies 3

ladies 4

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.

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.

hugo’s stand

serita dale's grandson with his ferret

 serita dale’s grandson with his ferret.





“protect and preserve the holy spaces.  the confluence of the grand canyon belongs to all of us, all the people.  our ancestors preserved it for us.  let us preserve it for generations to come.”

renae yellowhorse for save the confluence.



hugo’s stand (jetsonorama x nicolas lampert)


today was one of those amazing days.  i mean how often does a kid with his ferret stop by?  thanks so serita dale and her ferret carrying grandson for stopping by to share some love.  thanks to robert + utahana for stopping by.  it’s been a minute since i’ve seen you two.  it’s always good when i do though.  thanks too to karen begay who stopped by sharing conversation + water infused with navajo tea you picked today in zion.  yeah, today was one of those amazing days…

 for more information on the proposal to build a resort at a sacred site in the grand canyon, check:

1.   new york times (december 3 2014)

2.  smithsonian magazine (march 2015)










































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:  jetsonorama@gmail.com.  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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