July 2024
A Universe Alive
Fil Kewanyama paints the Fourth World

Not long ago artist Fil Kewanyama was invited to the planetarium at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University to give a presentation on Hopi cosmology. He shared stories and images he had painted of naa’nuk’sohum, shooting stars who play tag across the sky. Hopi legend holds that these beings wear bells that can be heard as they streak across the heavens. Shortly before the ERAU event Fil was sitting at the dining table in his apartment eating, and he got an impulse to paint the tabletop. He carried it outside, gessoed it, and on it painted a traditional Hopi representation of Tawa, the sun, who created the First World. When the people planning the event at the planetarium asked for an image they could use for advertising the event, Fil thought, “Maybe that’s why I had the impulse to paint this.”

Fil Kewanyama

Fil’s knowledge of Hopi traditions and imagery is deep. Born into the tribal culture, he was raised steeped in the stories and ceremonies that inform his artwork. ‘Hopi’ is a way of life, he says, deeply rooted in the spirituality of the culture. Hopi ceremonies are performed for the benefit of the whole world. Fil’s father was a sculptor and painter and, though Fil attended a boarding school, was able to share the essence of the culture with him. Hopi ceremonies center around the katsinam, the spirits of all natural things — rocks, stars, weather, plants — and of ancestors who have lived good lives. Much of Fil’s work represents these beings, who are central to Hopi life.


When I visited Fil at his studio on 6th Street he shared with me a lot about Hopi history and culture. Most people have some notion of Navajo culture, either through our proximity to the Navajo reservation, which covers most of northeastern Arizona, or through Tony Hillerman’s books, but we are generally less familiar with the Hopi.

Retracing Ancestral Footsteps at Koyungkuktupqa

The Hopi reservation lies within the much larger Navajo reservation, and most of its 10,000 tribal members live on about 2,500 square miles. While the Navajo have traditionally been nomadic sheepherders, the Hopi culture has been more centered on agriculture, with corn at the center, and community, and their ancestral homes are fascinating to visit. Like most indigenous peoples the Hopi see themselves as guardians rather than owners of the land.

Retracing Ancestral Footsteps III at Yupkoyvi (Chaco Canyon)

Much of Fil’s work revolves around images of the many katsinam, who remind the people of how they should behave to lead successful, upright lives here in the Fourth World. Fil describes them as benevolent but also disciplinarian. Each katsina has a history, a teaching story. Fil was asked to include a piece for the current show at the Natural History Institute, titled Green Guardians: Artists Standing Strong for the Verde River. As water is vital to all life, there are of course many katsinam connected in some way with water. “Basically everything I paint that represents an aspect of Hopi culture has to do with the sacredness of water.” One of his works in the NHI show is Water Maiden, which features water running through her hands.

Kuyi (Water Maiden), Essence of Life

Tradition dictates that every katsina, whether carved from cottonwood root or painted on canvas, requires specific colors. Children learn about the katsinam from a very early age, including how to render them artistically. “Every Hopi child is artistic. They’re always drawing,” says Fil. Small children are given simple carved, painted katsinam to introduce them to these guiding spirits.

Ahngusnasumtaka (Crow Mother)

Fil was not always a painter; he took up the practice after he moved to Prescott in 2004. Following his military service he traveled regularly from his home on the Hopi reservation to the Veterans Administration hospital in Prescott. One great thing about the VA healthcare system is that it doesn’t worry about whether a certain procedure or service will be covered by insurance. My VA-physician husband loves meeting with veterans and having the freedom to try to connect the patient with as many services as he thinks will help. When the VA asked Fil what they could help him with, he said he would like to go to college. They directed him to Yavapai College, where he took art classes paid for under the GI Bill. He decided to stay in Prescott and pursue painting. He found it really healing to be able to put on canvas representations of the spirit beings of his Hopi traditions that live so vividly in his soul.

Veneration and Respect

Over Fil’s 20 years living in Prescott he has become known as a fine painter, respected and appreciated for sharing his native traditions through his work, and he’s exhibited in many area galleries. He is often invited to speak to groups on Hopi culture, to share the traditions of his people to build deeper understanding of their very old and unique civilization. When Fil speaks about Hopi — about anything, really — you get a sense of calmness, of clarity. When speaking with him you feel his gratitude and passion for sharing his culture, because it brings him so much meaning and context. While he chooses to live in Prescott, Fil keeps up his connections with those who live on the reservation, and goes regularly to visit, participate in ceremonies and act as a Road Scholar guide, leading groups through Hopi and Navajo ancestral sites.

Thunder and Lightning

Each year Fil participates in the Prescott Area Artists Studio Tour in October, the Journeys in Spirit show at ‘Tis Gallery, and the regular open-house tours of the 6th Street artists. You can also see his work at the Cactus Wren Gallery in Tubac. To learn more about Fil, follow him on Instagram at Fil Kewanyama, at fineartamerica. com, or on Facebook at Yoimasa: Art of Fil Kewanyama.

You can contact him at yoimasa@gmail.com.

Abby Brill is Associate Editor of 5enses.

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