By Dottie Indyke
Linda Lomahaftewa’s parents often assured her that she could be whatever she wanted to be. But, her mom cautioned, she must remember that Indians have to work twice as hard as others to achieve their goals. The lesson wasn’t lost on Lomahaftewa, who has had dual careers—artist and educator—for 30 years and managed to win accolades for both.
She was born in Phoenix, where her parents met as students at the Indian Boarding School. Her late father was Hopi and her mother, Choctaw from Oklahoma. Her dad was more closely connected to his tribe, returning every summer to Hopi land with his three children, so Lomahaftewa grew up with strong ties to Hopi customs and traditions. During her adolescence the family moved back and forth between Phoenix and Los Angeles, but her father continued the Hopi ways, fasting and singing. The kachina shapes and colors, square-topped mesas, petroglyphs, and corn maidens of Hopi culture remain centerpieces of her artwork.
In 1961, she was sent to a mission-run Indian boarding school in Phoenix. “I hated it,” she recalls. “It was real strict. They even limited what we could eat.” No art classes were offered, and Lomahaftewa felt excluded by cliques of Navajo kids who spurned those from other tribes. As luck would have it, the Institute of American Indian Arts opened that same year, offering an arts program for high school students. At her mother’s instigation, Lomahaftewa headed for Santa Fe.
Her experience, like that of countless other IAIA graduates, was revelatory. “A whole new world opened up,” she says. “I didn’t know there was much beyond Hopi and Choctaw. There were people from all different tribes that I hadn’t even heard of. Before, I thought California Indians were Hollywood Indians like on TV.”
The school had a rich trove of art supplies, and students were set loose to experiment. They learned, she says, from one another, in “monkey-see, monkey-do” fashion. By the time she was a senior, she had chucked her plan to become a commercial artist in favor of painting. Scholarship in hand, she was part of a group of IAIA students, including T.C. Cannon, Kevin Red Star, and Bill Prokopiof, who went on to the San Francisco Art Institute. Lomahaftewa was one of only three IAIA alumnae who graduated. By 1971, she had earned a master’s of fine art degree.
While at the Art Institute, Lomahaftewa broke away from European techniques. “I got tired of painting the model the way I had been instructed,” she has written. “So one day I flipped my canvas around and started painting parts of the body and putting in my own color schemes. I began drawing all these Indian geometric designs.… After that, my teachers left me alone and didn’t try to force me to paint in any particular way.”
While raising two children, she took part-time teaching positions, first as an assistant professor of history in the ethnic studies department of Sonoma State College and later as a professor of painting and drawing in Native American studies at the University of California in Berkeley. Then, in 1976, she leaped at the chance to teach at IAIA in order to return to the Southwest. Twenty-seven years later she is still at it, training generations of Native students in the foundations of art, painting, and printmaking.
“Teaching lets me learn about the cultural ways of different tribes,” she says. “And it’s good to see students grow and succeed.” Her students have included Tony Abeyta, Randy Chitto, and Michael McCabe. The latter is a master printer who now collaborates with Lomahaftewa on her signature monotypes at the College of Santa Fe’s printmaking center.
When the school year ends, she “switches to artist mode” and prepares for Santa Fe Indian Market, her mainstay for more than 20 years. Because her time in the studio is so limited she has come to focus almost entirely on monotypes, which she can produce far more quickly than paintings. Her once dark, abstract canvases have morphed into simple, vividly colorful depictions based on the sweeping landscape of her father’s village. She uses stencils to make mountain lions and horses that move majestically against backdrops of mesas, clouds, and luminous skies at dawn and dusk. Occasionally Lomahaftewa is inspired by other places, but mostly her work pays homage to the Hopi and Pueblo cultures of the Southwest.
“I’m happy that I’m recognized as a Native woman artist,” she muses. “And that I’m still doing work after all this time. A lot of people give up. When I retire, I plan to do my art full time. Then, I’m going to kick butt.”
Lomahaftewa’s work can be seen at Art of Hopi Gallery in Sedona, AZ, and at Santa Fe’s Indian Market.
Featured in March 2003