Native Peoples — July Aug 2014
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SWAIA Fellowships
Chee Brossy

Artists hailing from Montana to Chicago become SWAIA fellows

BEING A PROFESSIONAL ARTIST has never been the steadiest of jobs, as artists navigate the terrain of business, selling their work, supporting themselves and their families—and yes, finding time to actually make art. Since 1980, the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA) has used its fellowship program to help artists with time, money and space to finish a project, to push the envelope, to take a few risks. There are three categories: the Residency Fellowship, the Youth Fellowship and the Discovery Fellowship.

Residency Fellowships

Residency Fellows receive a two-month artist residency at the Santa Fe Art Institute, beginning in August, as well as a $1,000 cash award.

Monte Yellow Bird (Arikara/Hidatsa), winner of a Residency Fellowship, has established a career as a culture teacher and motivational speaker, in addition to being a painter and sculptor. Yellow Bird uses ledger-painting demonstrations as the jumping-off point when he teaches students about Native culture and history in the middle and high schools of North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana, where he lives. Yellow Bird says the two aspects of his work go hand in hand.

“I follow our traditional Native ways,” Yellow Bird says. “I take the classes that I teach very seriously. Most of the students I teach to are non- Native, so I try to convey the history, trials and truths of our peoples as best I can. I teach that our art has a spirit attached to it, that the culture and history and beauty are all linked together.”

Yellow Bird, 53, got his start as an artist at a young age, selling his first drawings at the state fair as a fourth-grader. “Fifteen dollars was a lot of money back then,” he says. But his art career really took off when, at 16, he went to Santa Fe to study at the Institute for American Indian Arts.

“Santa Fe opened things up for me as a serious artist,” Yellow Bird says. “It was satisfying to know people would pay for my work.”

Throughout his career, Yellow Bird has strived to keep a sense of spirituality as the foundation of his work.

“My grandmother taught me a spiritual way of life,” Yellow Bird says.“Some people believe that religion or spirituality is something you do for 45 minutes on Sunday. For us, our way of life is to be thankful for the air you breathe. This helps me when I [speak] in front of audiences, or teach at-risk youth. It allows me to be inspired by them, to be filled with their voice[s] and energy.”

Luanne Redeye (Seneca) makes time for her own painting and printmaking in between the hours she spends teaching studio arts at Central New Mexico Community College in Albuquerque. Redeye, 29, often uses her family members as the subjects of her paintings, rendering them with her realist technique in the intimate spaces of their homes or smiling in unguarded moments. Redeye grew up on the Allegany Seneca reservation in western New York and gravitated toward drawing at a young age. But it wasn’t until she left the reservation in secondary school that she began to use art as a tool to examine her experiences.

“My life on the reservation became my inspiration and my subject,” Redeye says. “Going off the reservation was a much different experience than I was used to, and not always positive. I realized there was a lot I needed to think about, and art allowed me to do that.”

Redeye went on to earn her bachelor of fine arts from the State University of New York at Oswego and then earned a master of fine arts in painting and drawing from the University of New Mexico in 2011.Redeye counts realist Flemish painters of the 17th century like Rembrandt and Vermeer as her influences, but she has also found inspiration in contemporary artists through her work at Central New Mexico.

“What really gets me inspired and searching for new artists is working with the students at CNM,” Redeye says. “I try to get them interested in new things, and that gets me interested, too. Recently, I’ve found myself drawn to Chicano artists working in prints, like Ester Hernández, Judy Vaca and Luís Jiménez.”

Of late, Redeye has been looking to incorporate more traditional Seneca designs with her contemporary style and plans to use her August residency in Santa Fe to explore that area. She plans to work in printmaking for the project. Her advice to other up-and-coming Native artists is to “trust your instincts” when it comes to choosing your subject.

“When people see my work, they say, ‘It’s nice, but it isn’t Native art,’” Redeye says. “But I knew I didn’t want to change what I had in my mind, so I kept pursuing my own aesthetic and waiting for everyone else to catch up. It’s encouraging to receive an award like this, to see that my work is recognized.”

DiscoveRy Fellowships

The SWAIA Discovery Fellowship, which comes with a $5,000 award, is designed to encourage artists to push the boundaries in their respective media.

For Elihu Johnson, a Chickasaw bowyer, or bow-maker, the fellowship comes at the right time. Johnson, 37, of Meers, Oklahoma, has learned the art of Southern Plains bow-making largely by trial and error, teaching himself what wood to use, how to shape a bow and how to cure the wood.In the long process of bow-making—it takes two years from cutting the tree and curing the wood to even begin the shaping process—there are myriad ways to go wrong, says Johnson.

“Learning bow-making was like being led down a pathway at night with only a dim light,” Johnson says, “just enough light so you could see the next step in front of you, but no further.”

Johnson has since found other traditional Chickasaw bowyers in his home state who were impressed with how far he had come on his own. He grew up learning Kiowa culture from his grandmother and Chickasaw culture from his grandfather. But it wasn’t until he was older and out of school that he decided to make a concerted effort to learn about Chickasaw and Kiowa history and culture. Bow-making became his passion.

“I was raised in a rural setting with lots of hunting, fishing and living close to the wild land,” says Johnson. “In my research, I came across books about the history of bow-making and discovered that the practice was an important part of life for many Native tribes. I wanted a connection to that way of life, to learn how to use those natural materials, to be a bridge between traditional and contemporary ways.”

For Sierra Edd (Navajo), art was a way to teach a non-Native audience about her Navajo history and culture. Edd, who is 18 and preparing to attend her first year of college at Brown University, grew up in Durango, Colorado, a two-hour drive from her family’s traditional home in Newcomb, New Mexico. The daughter of artists Esther Belin and Don Edd, Sierra Edd Was immersed in the art community early on. In school in Durango, she was always aware of her difference from the largely non-Native population.

“Ever since I was little, my classmates were fascinated by my Navajo background,” Edd says. “It made me feel like culture was a special and important part of my life. Now, as I’ve gotten older, my paintings and drawings center around the urban Native experience in the U.S., about the separation between cultures.

“After talking with my teachers and classmates, I realized that if they don’t know anything about real Native American people, people who live in the world today, all they have to base their ideas on are portrayals of Native people in popular media, and often those are negative.”

With her award, Edd plans to buy oil paints, work on larger canvases and experiment with the medium. She plans to keep making art in college, and, in addition to pursuing ethnic studies, hopes to take art classes at Brown’s partner school, the Rhode Island School of Design.

Youth Fellowships

The $500 Youth Fellowship provides artists up to age 18 with $500 to purchase supplies for their artwork.

Ji Hae Yepa-Pappan (Jemez Pueblo/Kaw/Osage/Cheyenne River Sioux), winner of a Youth Fellowship, got her start drawing in the Japanese manga style. The exoticism of manga, with its stylized drawing and figures, is what initially drew Yepa-Pappan, 12, to the art form. She honed her skills with daily drawings.

“Sometimes it’s just doodling in between classes, but I draw every day,” says Yepa-Pappan. “It’s hard for me to say exactly how I’ve gotten better, but I know my drawings have become more detailed.”

Yepa-Pappan, who lives in Chicago with her family, plans to put her award toward more drawing and painting materials. In addition to her interest in drawing, Yepa-Pappan is a ballet dancer; she plans to take that skill as far as she can and maybe one day become a professional dancer.She says that, like art, ballet is “swift and pretty—but it takes effort.”

Youth Fellowship recipient Taylor Taliman (Navajo) picked up his grandfather’s Pentax K1000 camera when he was nine years old and hasn’t looked back. Now 12, Taliman specializes in photos of landscapes, nature and wildlife. His ambition is to become a professional photographer.

Taliman’s favorite photograph—one he submitted with his fellowship application—is of two horses standing next to each other.

“I like the way they’re standing,” he says, “almost like they have something to say.”

Taliman, of Flagstaff, Arizona, plans to use the $500 to help pay for a new lens for his camera. He will be sharing a booth with his silversmith grandfather at Santa Fe Indian Market, “where I’ve been going my whole life,” he says.

Chee Brossy (Diné) is a poet and journalist living in Santa Fe whose writing has appeared in The Taos Journal of Poetry & Art, Navajo Times and High Country News.
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