By Robert Blood
[Editor’s note: The following interview was culled from conversations between the reporter and artist Filmer Kewanyama and Patti Ortiz, marketing and art education coordinator at ‘Tis Art Center & Gallery. “Journeys in Spirit 2016,” which features some of Kewanyama’s pieces, runs May 19-June 21 at ‘Tis Art Center & Gallery, 105 S. Cortez St., 928-775-0223. The opening reception is 5-8 p.m. Friday, May 27. Artist demonstrations, discussions, and dances take place May 28-30. Find out more at TisArtGallery.Com and SmokiMuseum.Org.]
How many years has the “Journeys in Spirit” show been at ‘Tis and what’s the idea behind it?
Ortiz: We’ve been doing this since 2010. Fil was involved from day one, and used to be the curator. He’s become so popular these days that we wanted to give him more time to do his art, but he still participates. The idea of the show is to showcase contemporary and traditional approaches of American Indian artists today in a modern gallery setting.
Kewanyama: The main thing, I think, is showcasing local Native artists. It just happens to be right alongside the Phippen Museum’s Western Art Show, which is all about Western and Southwestern art. What makes the show unique is all the other things that happen during that overlap, like the native dances by dancers coming from the reservation, and showing what the ceremonies are about. They did two buffalo dances last year in the gallery. People can come in and see that, and that’s special.
Why the mix of traditional and contemporary art?
Kewanyama: A lot of us lean both ways as far as art goes. I do a lot of traditional painting, but if my mind decides on something else, I’ll paint something more contemporary. We exhibit our traditional art, but you have to recognize there are other approaches. That’s what attracts people to the gallery, I think. It’s a love of art. It’s a love of change.
Ortiz: It’s certainly evolving.
Kewanyama: We’ve had an artist, for instance, a Navajo artist who works with ink, Dustin Lopez. We’ve had a female artist, Night Zamora, who has chosen photography as her medium, and another, Jacq Caudell, who makes tiles. These are contemporary approaches that will make you really want to look at these pieces again. It’s not all one type of traditional acrylic painting. There are different mediums. Last year I showcased a sculpture in its raw form, oil-based clay, that wasn’t bronzed. I wanted people to see it that way. Actually, I got a commission later because of that piece, so that was pretty nice.
Ortiz: ‘Tis, by nature, is just contemporary art. It’s nice to see that mixture of the old and the new in there. It’s a beautiful range of mediums. Even the jewelry — it’s not just one type of, say, beading or silversmithing.
Kewanyama: It’s not just one tribe, either. It’s a mixture.
When some people hear “American Indian art show” or “Native American art,” a particular image probably pops into their heads. Do you try to cater to that or challenge those expectations?
Kewanyama: Well, let’s put it this way. … When I talk to an artist about the show who’s interested, I ask them if they’d do something that has a native look or feel to it. If someone wanted to do photography, maybe their subject matter is houses on the rez. So, in a way, I guess we do cater to the public’s expectations. Part of that’s because another one of the goals of the show is to educate the public. Say there’s a picture of a Kiva and someone doesn’t know what that is. They’re encouraged to ask, and the artist has a chance to talk about their culture and heritage. … I guess it challenges people, too. Actually, a lot of people who move here only know one tribe in Arizona: the Navajo. They don’t know about the 21 tribes in this state alone. Even as people on the inside of that, we learn about other tribes and other traditions as a result of shows like this. If you’re going to live here in Arizona, then you might as well know who your neighbors are. … There was a family here from Norway in April, and the little boy asked me some questions for a history assignment about Native Americans. Kids are so honest — I love that. He was surprised by what he saw. He really thought we’d have teepees. That question was an opportunity to talk to him about pueblos and adobe housing.
Ortiz: Years ago, I had friends visiting from Argentina who wanted to see the Grand Canyon. Lilo, who is ever inquisitive, turns from looking into the canyon and asks, “Pat, where are the Indians?” I guess she expected them to be wearing headdresses or something. Anyway, I pointed to the young man in the flannel shirt standing right behind her.
Kewanyama: That’s what happens. It’s a good way to teach people about who you are. At the same time, that person may want to talk about who he or she is. They might be Irish or German. People’s ancestry is important and it’s something to be celebrated.
Ortiz: One of my favorite things from last year were the Buffalo dancers from the Acoma Pueblo. On the second day of the show, they decided to come through the back door where they were let in by a young couple who had been married the night before in the ‘Tis third floor banquet hall and were back to return their key. Well, they all came down in the elevator together. When the door opened, there was an elevator full of dancers in full attire, and a bride and groom smiling from ear to ear. That’s a memory that will stay with them forever.
So what exactly makes art “look native”?
Kewanyama: When you get to know what tribes do what, you’ll start to see certain things. I’m Hopi and I paint katsinas.There are particulars like that in other mediums, too, that you might not expect. One of the artists makes jewelry that’s unique, but there’s still elements of it that have a Navajo flair. There’s a lot of feathers in some people’s jewelry, and that’s something people associate with native design. … People who know a little bit ask more informed questions. Someone might see one of my pieces and ask me which katsina it is, what’s it’s purpose, you know, those kinds of things. When I’m doing my work, that’s where I start — a purpose. There’s always an explanation for what I’m doing. There’s always a meaning. There are some things, for instance, that I would love to paint — certain parts of ceremonies that are very sacred, that only we know about — but I know I can’t, I won’t do that. What I do paint, though, is authentic.
What aspects of the show are you excited about this year?
Ortiz: This is our third year in a row doing this in partnership with the Smoki Museum. Cindy Gresser has been assisting Judith Skinner, who is our gallery curator, as the exhibit curator since Fil took a step back so he could paint and sculpt. She has helped open up a lot of new avenues for connections. Without Fil’s connections, it was going to be very hard to reach out and find artists. We are grateful to have the help and support of Cindy and the Smoki Museum. And you know what? The shows just keep getting better.
Kewanyama: Last year, we had more people than usual come up and say it was the best show that it’s ever been. You know, when we started the show it was only Hopi artists. After a few times, we realized we were only tapping a portion of the population. As the show gets bigger, it encompasses more and more groups. That’s exciting. Having the native show right across from the big Western show is a pretty neat thing. It brings those two ideas together, and that’s an important thing. The dances are always exciting. It’s interesting to see them, you know, in the city. It’s part of your home that’s come back. … I’m very thankful to the gallery and the staff and the founder. We gave this show a test drive and it’s just caught on. We were sure for a while it was going to fade away, but we’ve gotten so much positive feedback the last couple of years and it’s grown.
“Journeys in Spirit 2016,” traditional and contemporary art by American Indian artists, runs May 19-June 21 at ‘Tis Art Center & Gallery, 105 S. Cortez St., 928-775-0223. The opening reception is 5-8 p.m. Friday, May 27. Artist demonstrations, discussions, and dances take place May 28-30. Find out more at TisArtGallery.Com and SmokiMuseum.Org.
Robert Blood is a Mayer-ish-based freelance writer and ne’er-do-well who’s working on his last book, which, incidentally, will be his first. Contact him at BloodyBobby5@Gmail.Com.
Tags: 'Tis Art Center & Gallery, American Indian art, Cindy Gresser, Filmer Kewanyama, Jacq Caudel, Journeys into Spirit, Judith Skinner, Native art, Night Zamora, Patti Ortiz, Robert Blood, Smoki Museum