By Dottie Indyke
Her modest studio is a small and peaceful space—two converted, airy bedrooms, the surfaces spotless, her market ribbons hung in a cluster—and one that has served Michelle Tsosie Sisneros well. From here, she has built her painting career, illustrated her first children’s book, and devised a literal cottage industry of products featuring her imagery of women, animals, and koshare clowns. Surviving alcoholism and an abusive marriage, Sisneros has lived to see many of her fantasies come true.
Growing up in Window Rock, AZ, the family was poor, her father was an alcoholic, and her mother not only held their lives together but went out of her way to champion her daughter’s artistic talent. On the wall of Sisneros’ studio today are three geometric-style paintings that her mother rescued from the trash bin when Sisneros was a teenager. At the time her mother also brought some of the paintings to Indian trader Tom Woodard in Gallup, NM, and he bought them all, convinced of Sisneros’ potential as an artist. In the ensuing years, he has continued to encourage her.
At 18, she left Navajo country for Santa Clara, married, and at 21, gave birth to a son. By 25 she had turned to alcohol to medicate herself against the pain of the sexual, emotional, and drug abuse that pervaded her marriage. “I didn’t want to leave my son, so I endured it,” Sisneros says. “I was painting all through those years but I couldn’t find a place for myself … I couldn’t find my style.”
One day, unemployed and without financial resources, Sisneros hit bottom. She applied for the only two jobs available on the reservation—police dispatcher and police officer—and was hired as an officer. After 14 weeks of police boot camp, she graduated third in her class of cadets. The work gave her a dose of self-esteem, tested her intellectual skills, and bolstered her physical and mental strength. She divorced and stopped drinking. At 33, she met her future husband, Murphy. The couple has been married for a decade.
Her process of healing eventually led her back to painting. “Painting after almost seven years away was like picking up a rusty saw,” she says. “I did two shows and they were just disastrous. I was competing with 20 times the number of painters than when I’d left. I looked around and I thought, ‘I just can’t do this.’ “Then the worst thing happened. In 1999, my brother died of alcoholism. We were very close and that death changed my entire view on why I paint. Since then, I’ve done nothing but what comes from my heart and soul. I make no excuses. If I never sold another piece, I’d still paint what I paint.”
Working on several paintings simultaneously on a large drafting table, Sisneros first creates the mottled backgrounds of her pieces with a sponge and acrylics. Then each figure is sketched. She creates her characters, whether Pueblo women in prayer or dancing koshare clowns, with great detail, so the painting process is slow and methodical. Finally, she adds the embellishments—hand prints and spirals, circular planets and speckled fields of tiny dots made with a toothbrush. Lately her pieces are accompanied by short stories and poems that, as she puts it, give them “a voice. I write about my life, Mother Earth, my feelings, my recovery, my children.”
Last year, she made 26 paintings to illustrate the children’s book Kokopelli’s Gift for Kiva Publishing, fulfilling a long-held goal. In 2000, she was the first woman in the 24-year history of the Pueblo Grande Museum Auxiliary’s Indian Market to receive the poster award, and she was also invited to join Scottsdale’s Blue Sage Gallery and the Chimayó Trading Post and Mercantile. Her line of tiles, magnets, greeting cards, Christmas ornaments, and bookmarks, many hand painted, are augmenting her visibility and financial success.
The road that she has taken through adversity to growth and happiness has been long and surprising for the artist, who grew up in awe of her famous relatives, painters Helen Hardin and Pablita Velarde. “My goal is to be as successful an artist as Pablita Velarde, to be as humble as she is. In my mind, she’s like the Indian Georgia O’Keeffe. A lot of Indian women have her to thank.” And there are other dreams to realize—perhaps a book of her own writing and paintings and, soon, a large, new studio where Sisneros can work and exhibit her art.
Michelle Tsosie Sisneros’ paintings can be seen at Blue Sage Gallery in Scottsdale, AZ, and Chimayó Trading Post and Mercantile in Chimayó, NM. Her greeting cards and other products are sold at the IAIA Museum shop and Susan’s Christmas Shop in Santa Fe, NM, and at the Heard Museum shop in Phoenix, AZ.
Featured in February 2003