Diné artist appeals to all ages

By Alysa Landry
Special to the Times

WINDOW ROCK, December 6, 2012

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TOP: Joe Yazzie, 70, of Carpentersville, Ill., created this piece called "Veteran dancer". Yazzie does sketches in pencil or ink, scans them into his computer and uses design software to add color and layers.

SECOND FROM TOP: This painting by Joe Yazzie is called "Yesterday." Yazzie incorporates his traditional knowledge and culture into his work.

(Courtesy photo)

J oe Yazzie isn't waiting for the paint to dry.

Yazzie, 70, of Carpentersville, Ill., doesn't wait for much anymore. After a lifetime of planning, Yazzie, who retired 10 years ago, spends most of his time in his studio.

"I wanted to be an artist since I can remember," he said during a phone interview from his home near Chicago. "It's taken me this long to get there, so that's all I do now."

Yazzie, who made a career doing paste-up for newspapers and magazines, wanted to incorporate his traditional knowledge and culture in oils or watercolors. Major shifts in technology since he was a child, however, led him to pursue a different sort of painting: digital.

Yazzie does sketches in pencil or ink, scans them into his computer and uses design software to add color and layers. He sends the digital paintings to a high-resolution printer.

The result, he said, is not so different from the paintings of the past, minus the time an artist would wait for the paint to dry, he said.

"There's not even water involved with this," he said.

Yazzie spends two or three days on a single painting. The prints show all the nuances in color and the layers of work.

"It's art that looks like a painting, but it's done on a computer," he said. "The only difference is that I'm trying to take this to the next level. I decided to do this on a computer to keep up with modern technology."

One of Yazzie's goals is to connect with all generations. His art hangs on the walls of Chicago-area galleries and appears in other, unlikelier places, such as the underside of skateboards.

A commitment to education and to bridging the gap between native elders and youth is one of the reasons Yazzie was named first artist in residence at the Trickster Gallery in Chicago.

"He was selected because of who he is and how he lives his life," said Joe Podlasek, executive director of the American Indian Center of Chicago and director of the Trickster Gallery. "He reaches a wide spectrum with his art. He uses the traditional designs that the older people will recognize, but blends it with the contemporary so it appeals to the youth."

Chicago is one of a handful of urban areas that is home to a large population of Navajo. According to 2010 Census numbers, one-half of one percent of Chicago residents are American Indian.

Yazzie surrounds himself with Native youth in Chicago. He hopes his involvement in their lives is opening doors for the next generation of Native artists.

"What really makes (Yazzie) special is that he has taken the time to transform from oil and sculpture to digital media," Podlasek said. "He runs the gamut, but he's also a good teacher, telling the youth that even if they live in the digital age, they can still be artists."

Podlasek believes Yazzie's role as an artist in residence will allow him to interact with the public and display his art in progress on the walls in a corner of the gallery. This honor comes in stark contrast to Yazzie's upbringing.

Yazzie grew up in Pinedale, N.M., in a home with four brothers and five sisters. All the children were sent to boarding schools, some as far away as Oregon and others, including Yazzie, to Fort Wingate, near Gallup.

Yazzie's father was a silversmith and his mother was a weaver, he said, so he grew up around art.

"I didn't know it was art then," he said. "It was just something they did. It was a way to make a living, to put food on the table."

In 1964, Yazzie signed up for an education relocation program in Chicago, where he attended the Institute of Lettering and Design. He finished one year of school before the Vietnam War intervened.

He served as a machine-gunner in the Army, returning to Chicago in 1967 with severe emotional issues. After several months of unemployment, he planned to travel back to New Mexico.

While on the bus heading to the train station, however, he passed the Montgomery Ward building and decided to apply for a job as a commercial artist.

He met his wife there, and worked for the company for 25 years. He then took a job as a graphic designer at a newspaper in Arlington Heights, Ill., where he learned the tools that he now uses in his art. He retired after 10 years there.

"This is when I knew I had found what I was looking for," he said. "This is software that simulates watercolor."

It's the combination of old and new methods that makes Yazzie's art unique, said Podlasek, who added that Chicago is lucky to have a Native artist and teacher of this caliber.

"Having him here gives encouragement to others," Podlasek said of Yazzie. "He's cutting through stereotypes, encouraging other tribes. He's leading the way for youth."

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