Art Confidential: In the studio with Filmer Kewanyama

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Filmer Kewanyama recently paints at his kitchen table in his home studio in Prescott. Photo by Angie Johnson-Schmit.

By Angie Johnson-Schmit

It’s not unusual for artists to have studios near or in their homes. Nor is it unusual for them to eat where they work. Working where they eat … that’s another story.

“I tried working in the garage a couple times,” offers Prescott artist Filmer Kewanyama, but he preferred the dining room table.

Kewanyama’s airy, modern living room is full of art. Paintings are on the walls. A sculpture, too. Crafts, some intended as gifts, rest on a side table. Prints of Kewanyama’s work lean against its side.

The colors are vibrant, the images simple and powerful.

The real studio action is in the dining room, though.

The table is covered with art supplies. Big plastic tubs of liquid acrylic sit atop a bookshelf within easy reach. There are two easels on display, but they’re just for display.

“I don’t paint like the traditional artist, standing in front of the easel,” Kewanyama says.

He paints the way he was taught at home.

“We cradle our artwork,” Kewanyama explains.

This can be challenging for larger works, but it’s necessary for him to use small, detail brushes.

Sitting on a chair next to him is small TV. Kewanyama points to it and laughs.

“I have two televisions. … I usually have this one on when I’m working.”

Not that he watches it. It’s on because he doesn’t like working when it’s too quiet. The sound of the TV becomes white noise while he paints.

Although he’s dabbled in other mediums and materials, Kewanyama almost exclusively uses acrylics.

“It’s what I grew up with,” he shrugs, alluding to his Hopi heritage.
It informs Kewanyama’s artistic style, subject matter, and the way he makes art.

An artful, art-full childhood

There are a few Hopi images Kewanyama won’t put on canvas for the general public. The Hopi people have a complex religion and worldview, some of which is public and some of which is reserved for members of specific kivas — i.e. sacred underground ceremonial places. Each kiva holds a piece of the knowledge and wisdom passed down through generations that function as archives for their people.

Which images are appropriate to share?

Kewanyama says it’s pretty intuitive.

“That is the only thing I’ve painted that I questioned if it was OK,” he adds and points at a painting behind his kitchen table workspace.

It’s not the central image that gave him pause; it’s two snakes running along the sides of the painting. Kewanyama showed them to his uncle, who reassured him they were fine.

This artist’s imagery, methodology, and choice of studio space are deeply rooted in his upbringing. Hopi children are involved in making art from an early age. After Hopi children are old enough to attend their first initiation ceremony, the Katsina Ceremony, they learn the meaning of the Katsinas and other Hopi symbol and help their families make ceremonial items. Kewanyama’s childhood was no different.

Some of his best early memories are of spending time with his father, a noted Hopi artist, sculptor, and silver smith whose work is collected throughout the United States. While his father worked on a sculpture or painting, he’d give Kewanyama an outline of a drawing to color in. As Kewanyama colored, his father told him what the image meant.

As a child, Kewanyama went with his father to sell his dad’s work to a local art store. After his father’s business was finished, the shop owner would turn to Kewanyama and ask to see the young artist’s work. He’d often buy one of the young artist’s drawings for a quarter, which was a lot of money to a little boy at that time, Kewanyama noted.

 

An artist’s life

Although he had an affinity for drawing and painting, Kewanyama didn’t pursue a career as an artist until later in life. He joined the military. After retiring, he moved back to Hopi land and decided to return to his childhood love of painting. Eventually, he relocated to Prescott. Prescott’s proximity to Hopi land is a plus, but Kewanyama has a genuine affection for the town, too.

In some ways, Kewanyama is as much a cultural ambassador as an artist. He’s frequently invited to lecture by Northern Arizona University on his artwork and the Hopi culture. He also volunteers for veteran organizations and is proud of his military career. His paintings have won awards and are collected nationally.

Kewanyama’s artistic career has taken off since moving to the area. During a recent show at the Smoki Museum, the artist sold almost all of his work. Normally that means a dash to finish more paintings as soon as possible, but Kewanyama had other priorities to attend to.

“I’ve got a lot of paintings to do, but my duty as a grandfather comes first,” he says, alluding to crafts he’s making for his grandchildren.
For Kewanyama, family and culture come first.

*****

Angie Johnson-Schmit is a Prescott-based freelance writer and movie producer who works with the arts and zombies. She is deeply amused that these “about” bits are typically written in the third person. Follow her online at DeadVotesSociety.Com.

Filmer Kewanyama’s artwork has shown locally in multiple venues. Recently his show “Cowboys and Indians” was at Arts Prescott Cooperative Gallery. His work is part of the Yavapai College Alumni show that runs through May 25 at Yavapai College. Beginning May 23, you can see his paintings at ’Tis Art Center and Gallery.

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