Interviews

Meet the US Southwest’s Art Community: Steven J. Yazzie Sees Creative Community in a Climbing Gym

An interview series spotlighting some of the creative community members in the US Southwest. Hear from artists, curators, and art workers about their current projects and personal quirks.

Steven J. Yazzie (courtesy Steven J. Yazzie)

This is the latest installment of the interview series Meet the Art Art Community of the US Southwest. Check out our past interviews here.

Steven J. Yazzie was born in Newport Beach, California, and lives and works in Denver, Colorado. Yazzie is a proud member of the Navajo Nation and a veteran of the Gulf War serving honorably with the United States Marine Corps. He received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Intermedia at Arizona State University and was named the 2014 outstanding graduate for the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. He also studied at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Maine.

Yazzie is a multidisciplinary artist working in video, painting, and installation environments. Yazzie’s professional career spans a long exhibition list of national and international institutions, most notably at the Museum of Modern Art in New York; National Museum of the American Indian in New York; National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa; Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto; and the Museum of Contemporary Native Art and the Wheelwright Museum in Santa Fe. He is also the co-founder of Digital Preserve LLC, a video production company collaborating with artists, filmmakers, and interdisciplinary creatives to produce meaningful stories and content that highlight indigenous issues.

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Where were you born?

I was born in southern California. When I was about three years old, my family moved to Black Mesa, Arizona, on the Navajo Reservation. I spent a good deal of my early childhood on the rez and the northern region of Arizona.

How long have you been living in Denver?

I moved here two years ago from Phoenix where I lived on and off over 30 years.

What’s your first strong art memory?

My earliest art memory that resonates was a painting my mother created of two Navajo girls standing by a sheep corral in a barren landscape. She painted when I was growing up and partly inspired me to become an artist. She was also very encouraging about the drawings and paintings I was making as a child.

What was your favorite exhibition you saw this year?

I was recently in St. Louis and came upon a few works by Suzan Philipsz. It was by far one of the best things I experienced this year. The sonic minimalism and reverberations into objects and architecture were incredibly moving and really forced a relationship or moment in the spaces they occupied. I’m always impressed when an artist, designer or architect can do so much with so little.

What are you currently working on?

At the moment I’m involved with a number of projects.

I’m currently a visiting Community Scholar with the Interdisciplinary Research Institute for the Study of (in)Equality at the University of Denver where I’m primarily working with the School of Social Work on a research project called Our Stories, Our Medicine Archive. It’s a community-based, community-owned research project about Indigenous health knowledge and wellbeing. My role with the project is to help merge art with science in a way that builds a visual aesthetic of video production and photography (with my collaborator, Mark Woolcott) alongside scientific research. I’m really excited to be on an incredible team of creative researchers and thinkers who are all contributing to something meaningful for our indigenous communities.

Much of the video production work I’m involved with lately has been in collaboration and support of Arts and Cultural institutions and their cultural programs. For example I just wrapped a short documentary film on the cultural preservation actives of the Tohono O’odham Nation in collaboration with the Marcus Monenerkit at the Heard Museum. I’m also creating new video display projects for the Denver Art Museum, primarily to highlight indigenous exhibitions, but the process is similar to creating a video installation.

In the studio I’m painting for a new group exhibition in the spring at the Heard Museum, exploring issues related to land-identity and western perspectives of place and resources. Hopefully I can continue to keep a balance of video projects and studio time. It’s been a challenge lately to find time for the old school studio practice, but I feel like I’m building some momentum and I’m enjoying it so much more these days.

Steven J. Yazzie, “Kid in a Field” (20o9). Oil on canvas, 16 x 20 inches (courtesy Steven J. Yazzie)

What guides your process?

I don’t know. I mean I don’t pay too much attention to what gets me in the flow with work and projects, but if I had to attribute anything to my process, it would have to be self-imposed deadlines, with enough time to fail. I usually get into a rhythm if I force mistakes I need to fix. So much of my process has been problem solving.

What’s the best book you’ve read recently?

Well, the only book I’ve read recently is Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami, and I’m not done with it yet. Seriously, it’s a great read and the story that surrounds this painter in Japan is really strange and mysterious. Sounds like I’m reading the back of the book to you, but I don’t want to give too much away. I wish I would have paid attention to his work prior. Guess I have a lot of catching up to do.

Do you prefer to see art alone or with friends?

That depends. I tend to see work with other people because of social norms and schedules. I thoroughly enjoy seeing art with my kids and experiencing it through their eyes is so fresh and fearless. The way they pick up on things and relate or connect to art is so cool and rewarding as parent. I hope they continue to carry an appreciation with them as they grow up. But, given the chance I wouldn’t mind occasionally seeing work in a gallery or museum alone without the noise or influence of others.

Steven J. Yazzie, “Katchina Trail 2” (2007) from Driving and Drawing. Pencil and tire on paper, 8 x 11 inches (courtesy Steven J. Yazzie)

Do you like to photograph the art you see?

There are times I think this (insert art here) will make a great Instagram image, and then I remember that I never post anything. So no, not really. Occasionally I will if I know I need to share it with someone, or I want to steal some idea or nuance, but generally I’m grateful for the experience of taking the memory with me.

What do you see as the centers for creative community in Denver?

I think any place that offers a shared experience can offer up a form of creative community. There are the obvious places like arts districts (RINO in Denver), museums, and universities that have “creative community” well defined, but I’ve noticed here in Colorado, the outdoor communities engaged with play and physical activities can often stimulate creativity. The climbing gym is a great example. This place I visit is full of colorful handholds arranged throughout undulating architecture, where climbers are constantly challenged with new sets of problems to overcome. It’s cerebral, meditative, and physical. It’s also a shared experience and very social at times. It’s such an interdisciplinary experience if you think about it bringing all types of people together who are motivated by a shared creative process designed to simply put one hand over the over in order to move up a wall.

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