Eric-Paul Riege wearing jaatłoh4Ye'iitsoh 1, jaatłoh4Ye'iitsoh 2, and his performance regalia.
Native American artists forge a contemporary scene in the heart of traditional art country.
Story by Ashley M. Biggers
Photography by Riley Russill
Jerry Brown lives in clay country. His home sits 45 minutes outside Gallup, the nearest town of any size. During summer monsoons or winter snowstorms, the hardened clay roads quickly soften to a muck that spins tires and makes roads impassable. It seems an unlikely place for a contemporary painter to live. To him, the landscape just along the edge of the Navajo Nation is home. And traveling seemingly impassable roads has become Brown's specialty.
A graduate of Santa Fe's prestigious Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), Brown started taking his contemporary paintings to the Gallup Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial some 15 years ago. Founded in 1922 and regarded as the longest running tribal gathering, the ceremonial draws Native peoples and attendees from across the American southwest for a weeklong celebration of heritage, from dances and music to rodeos and a nationally recognized art market. Brown was an anomaly among the potters, jewelers, and weavers the ceremonial — and the town as a whole — venerates.
Gallup has long been a traditional Native American art epicenter. First, the Santa Fe Railway and then Route 66 brought travelers to Gallup. Its locale near Zuni Pueblo and the Navajo Nation made it a Native arts hub, so much so that it started calling itself "the Indian Art Capital of the World." That reputation has tarnished a bit over the years as larger cities, such as Santa Fe and Phoenix, drew artists away with promises of higher price tags for their work. However, one in four people in McKinley County still make at least part of their income from art. There are more artists here than nearly anywhere else in New Mexico.
"Art is something that's lived and breathed here," says Rose Eason, executive director of the non-profit gallupARTS. "The art is not imported. This is who the people around Gallup have always been. Art is part of the fabric of the place. If you like Native American art, it's a really important place to come." The town, two hours west of Albuquerque, remains a shopping destination with a dozen or so trading posts still operating along Old Route 66. Silver and turquoise jewelry, Navajo weavings, and pottery fill every square inch of the sprawling display rooms; each creation is more intricate and dazzling than the next.
Today, there's a parallel art track in town. ART123 and LOOM Indigenous Art Gallery have made Coal Avenue a contemporary-art nexus. OPO Gallery, on South Second Street, adds to the scene. "People are surprised there are Navajo painters here," Eason says. "Native artists are still pigeonholed into the traditional arts." Contemporary artists, such as Brown, Eric-Paul Riege, and Marina Eskeets, are gaining a foothold in this legacy-art town.
"I used to just have a goat track that I was following," the 48-year-old artist metaphorically says of his contemporary pursuits. "Now, it's still a dirt road, but it has some gravel and there are road signs pointing the way. Someday, I want it to be a two-lane paved highway wide enough for a bus, and I want to be the one driving it." Brown now has other artists in the passenger seats.
Riege is making waves in contemporary art far beyond Gallup's striated red mesas. The 25-year-old Diné (the word the Navajo people prefer to describe themselves) artist credits the generations of weavers in his family for his gifts. "It's woven in my veins and memory," Riege says. "My body remembered how to do these things before my mind knew how to do them."
Moving seamlessly from woven sculpture to wearable art to performance art and back again, Riege skips among the creative landscape. To him, it's all weaving. His work reflects on his culture and the Diné's shared history and perseverance. For his fine art thesis at the University of New Mexico, he wove a wearable art piece representing Navajo-churro sheep and reenacted the story of a lost sheep during the historic Navajo Livestock Reduction.
In July 2020, he's joining around 20 indigenous artists in a performance encampment in Plymouth, England. The Settlement artists will occupy a park to create works commenting on colonization during the quadricentennial commemoration of the Mayflower voyage. During the spring of 2020, Riege visited family members in the greater Gallup area to draw upon their shared traditions and weave together. These pieces became a large regalia piece Riege will wear during a Settlement performance art piece. "I've made a conscious decision that anything I create has to be worn and interact with my body," he says. He sees the work as alive and speaking both on its own and through integration with his body.
Riege's heritage is never far from him or his work. He sports a pair of tattoos on his wrists. The cross represents hózhó, a part of Diné spiritual beliefs that — at least as far as outsiders can understand — refers to interconnectedness and harmony among all things. "The work," he says, "is a celebration of how blessed and privileged I am to have access to that." His work was also featured at the international SITElines.2108 Biennial at SITE Santa Fe, and he opened his first solo exhibition, Hóló˛—it xistz, at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Miami in 2019. His art also appears in Heard Museum exhibition Larger Than Memory: Contemporary Art from Indigenous North America, running through October 2020 in Phoenix. Despite these achievements, Riege considers himself a maker, not an artist. "It's more respectful to my hands to call myself a maker. When I think of an artist, it's of the mind."
Eric-Paul Riege's hands.
For a long time, contemporary artists like Riege would leave their familial and cultural ties in Gallup to pursue work in cities with more financial opportunities. However, more artists are finding ways to remain. Others, such as Gallup-raised artist Marina Eskeets, are maintaining their ties through projects and shows, even though they live elsewhere.
LOOM Indigenous Art Gallery is making that possible. It's an arm of gallupARTS, a catch-all non-profit fostering the arts that also oversees ART123 gallery, as well as administering grants to re-envision downtown Gallup as a creative commons space and is building a virtual museum of the town's collection of 144 pieces of New Deal Art. Riege sits on LOOM's advisory council, as do artists such as Demian DinéYazhi´, a Diné multi-media artist who is now part of the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art. Zuni/Diné artist Orlando Walker leads the gallery. It has become a go-to space for contemporary Native American artists, regardless of where they live. For example, it has hosted shows for the likes of Phoenix-based painter Jeff Slim. Eskeets exhibited there in March 2020.
Eskeets' spring show was a sound performance that recorded with snapping sounds of chalk lines laying out a Hogan (a traditional Diné dwelling). Eskeets' art considers the balance between her heritage culture and today, and, at age 25, her place in the modern world as a young indigenous woman. The Albuquerque-based artist commuted to Gallup for months in fall 2019 to paint a mural (located between First and Second Streets and Coal and Aztec) called Óódááł | Everyone Moving Forward.
Backed by a cedar tree with wind turbines dotting the landscape, Eskeets' mural depicts her walking with her sister as they blow bubbles with their gum and wave their hands to move sheep. It's based on Eskeets' memories of herding Navajo-churro sheep (valued among the Diné for their fiber used for weaving) for her grandparents. The image balances ancestral knowledge and the quest to move into the future in a sustainable way. "It's dedicated to my grandparents and all grandparents who taught us to walk on the land," she says. Returning to Gallup, where she grew up, was important to Eskeets. Often, the work Native American artists create is taken out of their communities. "I want to create work that my own people will see," she says.
Marina Eskeets' mural "Everyone Moving Forward."
Jerry Brown has also contributed to the Gallup cityscape. He completed a mural at the Gallup Veteran's Memorial, a mosaic on the south wall of the McKinley County Courthouse, and various public trashcans and planters around downtown, which artists painted to brighten up the town. Outside of Gallup in 2019, he sold his work at the Santa Fe Indian Market, the Cherokee Art Market in Tulsa, Oklahoma; and the Autry Museum of the American West Native Arts Market in Los Angeles.
Brown layers his paintings with other mediums to reflect the varying textures of everyday life and often incorporates realistic images of animals, especially hummingbirds that appeared to him in a dream. His abstract paintings summon the energy of ceremonies Brown grew up doing in his traditional Diné household. The ceremonies remain figurative. "I'm not going to put a price tag on my culture and tradition," he says. Maintaining these connections was especially hard won for Brown.
In ninth grade, Brown was sent to a Latter-day Saints summer program in West Jordan, Utah. He says his host family essentially kidnapped him. The family was unfamiliar with the Diné language, which isn't written. The family didn't own a phone, so when they didn't hear from Brown's mother for a few months, they assumed he wasn't well cared for and kept him. They did so without consulting with him or his mother. After a few months, Brown returned home and began attending St. Bonaventure Indian Mission and School. There, painter Clarence Giese, who taught at the school, noticed his talent and gave the budding artist a suitcase of supplies. Brown went on to study and graduate from IAIA in 1995. "They told me to leave all my [artistic] baggage at the door. And I did," he says of his transition from realism to abstractionism.
Jerry Brown and daughter Mary Helen at work in the studio.
His daughter, Mary Helen Brown, grew up in the studio with her father. The 11 year old has picked up the palette brush — and many other implements — creating her own award-winning, mixed-media pieces. She's earned ribbons from the New Mexico State Fair and the Santa Fe Indian Market, and she showed alongside her father in 2019 at ART123.
Brown's daughter isn't his only pupil. He often demonstrates his work and mentors young artists. "It's important for them to see someone that looks like them making art," Brown says, "and to do it as an abstract artist."
Jerry Brown's "A Window."
While the work is abstract, it's not unapproachable. The artists share a devotion to participatory art. Eskeets recorded community members' memories of herding to accompany her mural; these recordings are available on the Gallup Main Street Arts & Cultural District website. Brown invites passersby to apply paint to the canvas as he paints during show demonstrations. Riege allows viewers to touch his creations. "I want everyone to exist within the work as much as I do," he says. "The intention and energy of the work is welcome."