Native Arts | Emmi Whitehorse

Untitled painting by Emmi Whitehorse, painting, southwest art.
Untitled painting by Emmi Whitehorse

By Dottie Indyke

The serenity that pervades Emmi Whitehorse’s paintings is, in part, learned from her grandmother, a traditional Navajo weaver, who taught her that art is a mental journey with a calming purpose. “My grandmother wove a lot of contemporary images,” Whitehorse remembers. “From watching her, I learned to see space. I got a sense from her about how to get three dimensionality from a flat surface, which she achieved with her blankets.”

Whitehorse has become famous for her abstract paintings of luxuriant, atmospheric spaces sparsely populated with plant forms—thinly drawn marks that seem to float across deep color fields. These symbols are also inspired by her grandmother, who collected seeds and planted them in summertime, hung plants upside down to dry, and then used them for dyeing wool.

Whitehorse’s grandmother was her first mentor, but there have been significant others. One was an art teacher, Kathleen Hueser, who encouraged the painfully introverted junior-high student to enter an abstract painting in a statewide competition. Whitehorse’s prize came with a college scholarship and a boost of self-confidence. From that point forward, she had found her calling.

At the University of New Mexico, the feminist artist and teacher Harmony Hammond fostered Whitehorse’s development by granting her permission to break longstanding art rules. “Harmony encouraged me to work big; before that I’d been doing these dinky little things. I stopped trying to paint traditionally at an easel and started working on a tabletop, using my hands. After that, things clicked. My work became more fluid, much freer. I was inside the painting.”

For nearly 20 years, this has been Whitehorse’s creative process. She layers chalk, turpentine, and oil on paper, then draws with oil bars and litho crayon. Next she adheres the paper to canvas. The result is soft, feminine, and dreamy but at the same time confident and unique images that are unmistakably Whitehorse. Lately, her intuitive, biomorphic renderings have evolved into water symbols that she describes as “circles and little loopy things” reminiscent of a rushing, gurgling stream.

Growing up outside Chaco Canyon, which straddles the Continental Divide in New Mexico, Whitehorse was exposed at an early age to the stunning beauty and desolation of the Southwest. Her family was nomadic, living inside in winter and outside in the warmer seasons without the benefit of electricity or other modern conveniences.

For one six-year period after college she lived in Connecticut, and the absence of New Mexico’s familiarly beautiful landscape made her crazy and wreaked havoc on her work. In 1987 Whitehorse came home to New Mexico and instinctively turned inward. “My work began to be about the meshing of acquired taste and traditional Navajo life, with images of stirring sticks and high-tech stereo equipment. That went on for a year or so, and then my palette cleaned out and I focused on the land again.”

Only 43 years old, a loner and fiercely self-sufficient, Whitehorse is astonished at the course her life has taken, at the way the limelight seems to follow her despite her reluctance. “This has always been a personal journey for me and always will be,” she says. “It’s amazing how far I’ve traveled, that I can make a living at my art. I think I’ve survived because of my own stubbornness and determination.”

Whitehorse is represented by Vanier Galleries on Marshall Way, Scottsdale, AZ; LewAllen Contemporary, Santa Fe, NM; Telluride Gallery of Fine Art, Telluride, CO; Jan Cicero Gallery, Chicago, IL; Jan Maiden Fine Art, Columbus, OH; and Dorothy Piepper-Riegraff Gallery, Frankfurt, Germany.

Featured in “Native Arts” July 2000