West by Southwest – November 2012

By Ernie Bulow
Photos by Michelle Peina Bulow

Diné Painter and Sculptor Gets Wheelwright Fellowship

Gallup Journey Ishkoten Dugai

Ishkoten Dugai

The Wheelwright Museum in Santa Fe has long been a supporter of Diné art and artists – its original name was Museum of Navajo Ceremonial Art and was built around the sandpainting tapestries of the famed medicine man Hosteen Klah.

In recent years their Fellowship program has greatly expanded due to the generosity of a number of patrons.  To receive a Wheelwright grant an artist doesn’t have to be young, though many are, doesn’t have to be a beginner, though it’s a consideration.  They just have to show great promise and need financial help to move forward.

Almost all of the recipients of fellowships have done good things and several of them are major prize winners at shows around the Southwest.  Originality seems to be a key and one of this year’s winners will be hard to top in that category.

Ishkoten Dugai looks, talks and creates as a man marching to a drummer only he can see and hear.  He says of himself, “I paint and carve stone, I hunt, I am an artist.  My work is the proof of an Indian alive in the modern world.”

Ishkoten Dugai’s parents chose the name for their baby boy with great deliberation.  In the contemporary world it is sometimes difficult to be stuck with a strange name, but in Ishkoten’s case it is a badge of honor, signifying his dual Apache/Navajo heritage.  (Historically, of course, they are two branches of the Diné).

Leo Dugai, his Navajo great grandfather was a prominent leader at the beginning of the last century.  He was one of the guides who took the first party of Anglos to “discover” Rainbow Bridge.  He also told tales about his meetings with the mystical boy artist, naturalist, explorer, Everett Ruess.
Leo Dugai predicted the exact day of his own death.

Ishkoten was an Apache medicine man and one of the few Native American sheriffs.  Both of Dugai’s great-grandfathers were men of honor and accomplishment and the name is something to live up to.

Gallup Journey Ishkoten Dugai

Ishkoten Dugai's wearable art

Ishkoten Dugai attended the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe, which has been a stepping stone for many accomplished Indian artists since the middle of the last century.  At the IAIA, Ishkoten had teachers who supported his somewhat eccentric vision.

He says of his three-dimensional painting, “I am looking for a new color that doesn’t exist.”  Following rather arcane formulas of color and light he paints in true 3-D.  The images, in a rather painterly style with big splashed of bold colors, are clear enough, but they jump and twist when looked at through the same glasses used to watch movies.

At his booth at Indian Market, Dugai had a pile of the iconic cardboard eyewear with one blue lens and one red lens.  The paintings were indeed suddenly transformed when viewed that way.  I asked him if he had to wear the glasses when he painted, so he could tell what effect he was getting.

“Sometimes I do,” he said with an impish smile, “and sometimes I don’t need to.  I have developed a ‘calculated theory.’”  He points out that though such a statement is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms, it makes sense if one thinks about it.

When you look at his work the idea makes perfectly good sense.  There is nothing about Ishkoten Dugai’s painting or sculpture – or jewelry or T-shirts – that is derivative.  Dugai is a one-of-a-kind artistic spirit.

“I like the idea of wearable art,” he says.  At the reception at the Wheelwright Museum he had a display of earrings much like small wearable paintings for the ears.

The irrepressible humor of Native Americans is lurking about.  Is that the face of John Wayne wearing a war bonnet and beaded vest?  Sure looks like it to me.

Mallery Quetawki, Zuni Artist Connects the Dots

Gallup Journey Mallery Quetawki

Mallery Quetawki

In the entry way of the Indian Health Hospital in Zuni, New Mexico, there is a suite of paintings that stops new visitors in their tracks.  Aesthetically they are paintings – with the properties of color scheme, balance, point of interest and all the other elements.  But on closer look they are anatomical charts of the various “systems” of the human body:  skeletal, nervous, circulatory and even reproductive.  But look again.  Traditional Zuni symbols and designs, many taken from the pottery tradition of the Pueblo, are intertwined, blended, attached in interesting ways.

“The whole idea grew out of a fellowship I got for advanced study in medicine.  I spent some time in San Francisco.”  During that time Mallery Quetawki was aware of the rumors that said she was betraying her culture, moving away from her heritage, becoming “un-Zuni.”

“Nobody born into the Zuni Pueblo can ever become ‘un-Zuni’ even if they really, really wanted to,” she says.  “Being Zuni is in your blood, your bones, your heart – your very DNA.”

That idea mulled around in the back of her mind for a time.  Finally the nagging annoyance bore fruit.  “I got the idea for the series of paintings that would illustrate that idea, that a person can’t un-create herself.”

Gallup Journey Mallery Quetawki

The Heart

Certainly a major aspect of being Zuni is the extraordinary level of artist function, creativity, at the Pueblo.  “We were born into this, it is our sixth sense.  Creativity saturates every Zuni household, and for a majority of us, it is our livelihood.”

Mallery refined the idea, wrote it down, tidied it up and presented it for a spot in an advanced studio art class.  “In the end I was one of the few students who managed to complete my project as designed,” she says with some pride.

A local doctor at the Zuni hospital wanted to buy the whole suite.  He was willing to display them in Zuni until he left, and then the artwork would relocate with him.  That prompted a search for funds so most of the collection could stay in the village.

Mallery’s mother Theresa points out that her artistic talent revealed itself early.  When Mallery had barely learned to walk she took a red crayon and drew Mickey Mouse on the living room wall.  It may not have been original, but it was recognizable.   Quetawki has been drawing ever since.  Of course paintings of body parts was a one-time thing – she is better known for portraits of Pueblo women and girls and other subjects.

Gallup Journey Mallery Quetawki

The Skeleton

She has also been a potter since an early age.   She has won many ribbons and awards, garnering three new ones at this year’s New Mexico State Fair, including a first place in figurative work.  Her talent doesn’t end there.  A couple of weeks ago I was talking to her at the Zuni Visitors Center where she was taking part in the Ancient Ways art sale.  Her name came over the loudspeaker as the winner of the pumpkin carving contest, beating out several well-known Zuni artists.

Mallery Quetawki’s life has been as complex as her art career.  She grew up as a traditional Zuni – her father Arlen Quetawki is the current Zuni Governer – or as she puts it, “Raised as traditionally as modernly possible.”  She has college degrees in Biology and Art Studio – an unusual combination.  She would like to be a doctor some day, or at least a physician’s assistant.  Reaching that goal is a step-by-step process.

Her artwork is like her racial heritage, in the blood and inescapable.  She participated in the Museum of Northern Arizona’s Zuni Map Project illustrating the connection between the Zunis and Grand Canyon.  Her mural at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center pleased her even more because “it is so obviously Zuni made.”

So her path continues, stitching together traditional and modern life, Zuni and Anglo visions, science and art, realism and symbolic truth.  She is excited about the prospects for the future.

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