Local artists to be featured in NMAI project

Nathan Strong Elk, acting director of the Southern Ute Cultural Center & Museum, will be featured with five local Southwest artists in the Artist Leadership Project, an upcoming YouTube project funded by the National Museum of the American Indian.

Southern Ute Chairman Jimmy R. Newton Jr. opens the video with a statement.

“For Utes or for any native … art is just a way of life,” he says. “Knowing that recession has hit all of us and we are not immune, but we continue to demonstrate and show the rest of the world that Southern Ute people are still here and living through the teaching of our elders, preserving our cultural and traditions for our youth … showing the rest of the world that our way of life will continue forever. ”

Strong Elk said he learned about the program during a trip to the NMAI in Washington, D.C., with the tribe’s Culture Department.

“[It’s] essentially having artists look at the different collections, at the various museums, and incorporating those ideas from the past into the present artwork that would benefit not only the community, [but] the tribe and the world in general. … We can have better visual displays and expressions of the native spirit through art.”

Southern Ute tribal member Arlene Millich said the project will benefit tribal members, especially youth.

“I hope we will have the ability to do this again … the grant process that SUCCM acquired,” she said. “Artists, we see things differently; we appreciate the environment.”

Ute Mountain Ute tribal member Babe Lansing, who works with youth in the Ignacio community, said for her part she wanted to help build a stronger foundation for the next generation.

“I wanted to show the students a more contemporary and modern medium that is used in everyday life. I’ve been really big on the aspect of youth in the community.”

Michelle Williams, one of Lansing’s students, said he lessons have helped her integrate art into her working life. Aspen Baker enjoyed taking the class with her sister, saying it was a family affair.

“My grandfather went to school to become an artist, and my brother went to school to become a graphic designer,” she said, “so it’s just in my blood.”

Esther Belin, an educator, writer and photographer from the Navajo Nation, said native art is changing.

“There are more working artists who are working with contemporary mediums. What I see is a lot of young tribal people focusing on and stumbling with is their value in terms of education. How they are valued as tribal people: perspective, worldview, contribution – the whole gamut – and how they can validate it, because currently isn’t validated,” she said. “In our workshop, we focused on creating a self-portrait. The students get to choose how they are presented and to whatever audience they would like and accompanying the portrait is a small piece of writing.

“Part of that is to examine our own role and the connection of this idea of colonization, ideas of cultural identity. How does that relate to the lives we live in the 21st century?” she continued.

During the Tri-Ute Games, Northern Ute tribal member Mariah Cuch taught class entitled, “UTE-ism: Beadwork and Ute Material Culture.”

“Art is very precious to me. Growing up on the reservation, in the chaos of reservation life, art was my oasis, because I was able to look inside myself and find a very strong, safe place to be,” she said. “Sometimes, my mother would come home from work, she would be so stressed and I would paint a bird for her. …  It would help her calm down. Once every so often, during the time she would get paid, she would send an order for beads and I looked at what I had consumed within the family network of resources.

“So as an adult, I asked my mom, ‘Why did you do that? Did my brothers and sister have shoes?’ … She said it was an investment, that all skills and all art should be invested in,” she continued. “She smiled and said, ‘You don’t know it, but I also invested in your brothers and sisters in different ways.’ That’s how I treat my art.

“As an adult, someone who has the direct knowledge of things … I want to share that,” Cuch said. “I don’t want to think of someone on the other side of knowledge waiting to begin or stopping and giving up.”

Anthropologist Carmelita Topaha of the Navajo Nation taught weaving and dyeing wool with native plants.

“When someone knows the old way of dyeing wool with natural and native plants, I think it brings memories back. … Their grandmothers, grandfathers: how they kept all this precious knowledge of preserving cultural materials through the work of art,” she said. “I try to present this to the students when I teach classes, because it is very important to understand where we came from as people, how our elders have suffered in the past due to a lot of issues with the United States government. But we managed to survive; we hung on to our cultural beliefs, our arts and crafts and our philosophy.

“I love dyeing wool. It’s a natural process for me, experiencing the variety of colors that each plant can give,” she continued. “I’d like the students to progress in the future [to] where they will know the business of art. This is very crucial in becoming an artist – and documenting your work, knowing the business aspect of it, knowing the wheeling and dealing, marketing, business plan, selling. … You need to know that in the world today.

“Where you can combine technology and computers with the old way, I think the youth will be very interested in experiencing these new pass-down methods of arts and crafts,” Topaha said.

As the videographer on the team, I found this project inspiring and a tribute to the Native American artists who shared their knowledge, time and commitment to their community. Contact the museum for the YouTube release date.

Special thanks to Keevin Lewis at the NMAI.

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