Native Arts | Peterson Yazzie

By Dottie Indyke

A Navajo painter takes a contemporary approach to traditional subject matter

Within the immediate Yazzie clan, Peterson Yazzie is an anomaly: the family’s first painter, first college graduate, and soon-to-be first holder of a master’s degree. For the 27-year-old Navajo, art is all about learning, and the classroom may yet prove to be his life’s laboratory.

Yazzie discovered his talent, appropriately enough, in a class taught by Don Whitesinger when Yazzie was a high-school junior. A graduate of the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) and Rhode Island School of Design, the well-schooled Whitesinger was Yazzie’s first mentor and introduced him to painting, sculpture, and printmaking, as well as the value of education.

With his teacher’s help, Yazzie pursued—and obtained—a slew of scholarships. The Heard Museum gave him $1,500 for art supplies, and the University of Evansville in Indiana offered him $20,000 to attend school there. The offer was tempting, but instead Yazzie chose a full scholarship from Northland Pioneer College in Holbrook, AZ, which was closer to home, then after a year transferred to IAIA in Santa Fe, NM.

The city of Santa Fe—while only one state away—seemed like a foreign country to the boy who had grown up in rural Greasewood Springs, AZ, where the ride to school was 16 miles on a washboard road. He didn’t know the way to IAIA, so his family escorted him to the campus in a caravan, then left him there to try out his newfound independence. “I met a lot of students from other cultures and tribes and had teachers like Norman Akers, Charlene Teters, and Mateo Romero,” Yazzie recalls. “It wound up like a second home to me.”

Yazzie graduated from IAIA’s undergraduate program in 2004 and was accepted into the University of New Mexico’s competitive graduate program in Albuquerque. Now in his second year there, he finds himself in the odd position of instructing others. “I’ve been a student up to this point and always on the receiving end of things,” he muses. “Now I help give assignments, critiques, answer questions. As I try to articulate, I realize how much I’ve learned.” After graduation, he hopes to teach.

Yazzie’s paintings, which have been honored by the Eiteljorg and Wheelwright museums and at Santa Fe Indian Market, include watercolors, pastels, and acrylics, as well as mixed-media pieces with collage and pieces that integrate sand he collects in washes and cornfields back home in Arizona.

Generally figurative, his paintings tend toward subjects that are rooted in Navajo creation mythology and the ceremonies and day-to-day life of his people. Motifs such as the moon, stars, and symbols of the four directions, and images of the two adjoining buttes that tower over his ancestral homeland, are often highlighted. The backgrounds of his paintings feature densely packed, swirling forms that contain hints of cubism and surrealism. Yazzie also experiments with abstraction.

And he explores the printmaking process. Unlike his paintings, which evolve spontaneously with “a splash of paint and a selection of colors,” printmaking forces him to plan ahead. “You have to think in terms of layers. Color theory comes into play. You can work with stones or plates or alcohol washes. I find printmaking very exciting,” he comments.

Sometimes Yazzie will explore a taboo aspect of Navajo life in paintings that reference addiction. The triptych beyond despair, which earned him an honorable mention at the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair & Market last year, depicts Indian dancers with tortured faces. the snowball effect touches on the recent controversy between the Navajos and U.S. government over the development of the Snowball ski resort in the San Francisco Peaks. The role of an artist, Yazzie believes, carries with it the responsibility of taking such risks. By moving back and forth between the positive and the negative, he claims, he not only remains grounded but also embraces the Navajo idea that life is based on balance.

Yazzie’s most recent foray was to Johnson, VT, and the Vermont Studio Center, where he joined other recipients of the Mill Atelier Fellowship for a month of lectures, presentations, and side-by-side studio work with artists from around the world. While there, he traveled across the border into Canada for a visit to the Montreal Museum of Fine Art. The trip comprised another series of firsts for Yazzie, who found himself face to face with masterpieces by Richter, Picasso, and Pollock, artists who inspire him and whose work he’d seen previously only in art books and magazines. These experiences will no doubt influence his future art and life, since he is, in his own words, “an individual co-existing between worlds.”

Yazzie is represented by Wright’s Indian Art, Albuquerque, NM; Yazzie’s Indian Art, Gallup, NM; IAIA Museum Shop, Santa Fe, NM

Featured in “Native Arts” December 2006