Hyrum Joe | The Quiet Side of Native Life

By Gussie Fauntleroy

If you had asked Navajo painter Hyrum Joe, when he was 16, what his culture was, he might have glanced quizzically around for a moment and then said with a grin, “My 5.0 Mustang! Football!” Growing up in the northwestern New Mexico oil and gas town of Kirtland, just off the Navajo Reservation, Joe identified with the small-town, mid-’90s American culture that surrounded him, even though his father, Oreland Joe, was a sculptor already gaining national recognition by then.

Art was present in young Hyrum’s world, along with the Navajo language and culture, but for the most part they remained on the periphery of his teenage consciousness—until something happened after high school to bring them front and center.

When it did, Joe was ready. He dove into drawing and painting and unleashed a vibrant interest in his cultural heritage, his ancestors, and Navajo history. Now 28, he has blossomed into an award-winning artist with a growing following of collectors and a style and approach all his own. He expresses gratitude that his father gently offered him encouragement, an example, and art materials to try, but never pressured him to follow an artistic path—so when the time was right, he could discover it for, and within, himself.

Hyrum Joe - Native American Arts

The oldest of six children, Hyrum spent his first 10 years in Shiprock, NM, on the reservation. His father—whose own artistic interests included drawing, jewelry, sandpainting, and sculpture in stone and later bronze—had sketchpads lying around that the children could use. He brought out bars of soap and butter knives and passed them out to his kids, their cousins, and friends, explaining that this was how he first learned to carve. “He’d say, ‘Here’s a sketchpad, here’s paint, here’s a chisel, but it’s up to you if you want to use them,’” Joe recalls. “If he saw talent in one of us kids, it would have made his day if one of us said we wanted to be an artist. But it was nice not to be pushed into it. He gave me the choice.”

Young Joe did take an art course in high school in Kirtland, where the family moved so his father could build a larger studio. “But to tell the truth, I got a C,” he laughs. “Probably because I didn’t show up to class. I did art when I wanted to, when I was inspired. I felt like I could learn more at home.” Instead, he focused on sports in high school, as a member of the track and field team and captain of the football team. After graduation he moved to Mesa, AZ, just outside Phoenix, to attend Mesa Community College. He expected to get a general education and then coach football. He signed up for an extra-curricular course in the fundamentals of drawing. As it turned out, the class was taught by a man who happened to be the “best art instructor at the school,” Joe recounts.

Jim Garrison had an intense teaching style that served to winnow out students unwilling to give it their all—which meant about half of the class dropped out before the end of the course. But Joe was pleased to be challenged, and encouraged to receive critique, often positive, from an artist other than his father. “Jim Garrison was serious. He would be right behind you, breathing down your neck as you were drawing. He was very critical, but he made a promise that if we stuck with him, we’d be three times better as artists when we were done. I stuck in there and it paid off. I took two more classes with him,” the artist recalls.

Following graduation from Mesa, Joe returned to Kirtland and immersed himself in painting, focusing on figurative realism and in particular on historical imagery from the Navajo tribe’s past. He also began picking up pointers from his father on the business end of art. “He’s given me what it took him 15 or 20 years to learn,” Joe acknowledges. “Most artists walk out of art school today and ask themselves, ‘Now what? Where do I go? What do I do now?’” Oreland Joe’s advice, and his son’s discipline in following it, soon proved its worth. At 22, Hyrum became engaged and he and his fiancée, Celinda, sat down to talk about how they would support the family they both wanted to have. “I said, ‘I’m an artist.’ She said, ‘If that’s what you want to do, I think you need to be serious.’” Joe agreed, and Celinda has supported him unwaveringly, he says.

In 2004 Joe earned a Santa Fe Indian Market Standards Award for Best Drawing. The following year, the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA), the organization that runs Santa Fe Indian Market, awarded him one of its coveted annual fellowships, further boosting his confidence and career. Joe’s latest major award came earlier this year at the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair & Market in Phoenix, where he took Best of Classification in Painting for a work titled LAST DANCE WITH GERONIMO.

The painting offers insight into how the artist gathers inspiration and translates it into the concept for a painting. It also reflects the strong value he places on family, tribal loyalty, and on the sacrifices of the past. LAST DANCE began as many of Joe’s paintings do, in historical research through photographs and books. In this case he came across an Edward Curtis photo of Geronimo in which the aging Chiricahua Apache leader’s eyes seem filled with sadness. From there Joe imagined a detailed scene, which became the painting: Geronimo, his wife and sons and their wives and children are seated by a fire in their desert encampment. The old scout has been fighting and hiding from the U.S. military for years. His resistance force is down to 35 warriors. There is no reliable food source for his people. Knowing the time has come to turn himself over to his enemy, Geronimo has gathered his family at sunrise and requested one final Gan Dance, the traditional Apache spirit dance. “It’s dedicated to Geronimo,” the painter says of the work.

For Joe, delving deeply into his tribal heritage was a natural consequence of becoming serious about art. Predominantly Navajo from both parents but also with some Southern Ute, Hopi, and Apache blood, he needed to know about his people’s past. He began talking with his grandparents, asking about his ancestors and about the old ways. Now he and Celinda hope to pass on what they’ve learned to their 5-year-old son, Ouray, and 3-year-old daughter, Aspynn. “I want to teach my children about the traditional lifestyle, because that’s what I’m painting,” he says. “My people give me the inspiration for what I do.” Recently, indigenous peoples from other parts of the world have begun to draw his interest as well, especially the connections and similarities between those cultures and American Indians. On a visit to Hawaii last year Joe spoke with and photographed native Hawaiians and Samoans, who soon may appear in some of his work.



While Joe acknowledges the historical suffering American Indians have endured, and his art occasionally touches on such topics, most of his attention is turned instead to the quiet strength and beauty of Native people in everyday life. For example, PEACE AND HARMONY IN MARRIAGE AND LIFE portrays a thoughtful-looking long-married Navajo couple in traditional dress, walking arm in arm. A large work on his easel depicts a group of young Navajo children playing in the dirt on the reservation, with some of their families’ sheep in the background.

And still in the artist’s mind is a historical painting inspired by a moving and memorable dream he had one night. In it, an elderly Navajo man is planting his field, red-rock cliffs behind him. He senses horses’ hooves and looks up, squinting. A cloud of dust in the distance soon reveals itself to be wagons, driven by American army officers. He calls to his wife, who steps out of the hogan. As they gaze at the approaching wagons, a tear rolls down his wife’s face, and then down the old man’s own craggy cheek. The wagons are filled with long-lost family and friends finally coming home, survivors of the Long Walk of 1864 and forced four-year internment at Fort Sumner, NM.

“I’m not interested in painting battle scenes,” Joe reflects. “I can read about the painful experiences, but I have a forgiving heart and just want to go forward, and I’m able to go forward because of their sacrifices. I want to show the more intuitive side of the Native lifestyle, the more beautiful side. Just the daily, peaceful, loving side. We have that, too.”

Featured in May 2008