A family of artists breaking boundaries

By Glenda Rae Davis
Navajo Times

KAYENTA, Feb. 23, 2012

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(Times photo - Glenda Rae Davis)

Alvin John, center, stands with his children, Myleka, left, and Tulane, right, as they display some of their finished pieces.

S ince the early 1900s Navajo artists have been utilizing nontraditional media to express their artistic vision in a more contemporary manner, expanding into photography, painting on canvas and graffiti.

For Alvin John, 39, and his children, these mediums have become an outlet for displaying their ties to Navajo culture.

Like many Navajos, John, originally from White Cone, Ariz., is no stranger to art. His mother would put him and his nine siblings to work turning raw wool into the yarn she used in her rug weaving.

From shearing the sheep to setting up the loom, John learned early that the process of creating art is not easy.

It was not until he entered Greasewood Springs Boarding School that he learned to draw and paint with oil, acrylic and watercolor.

"The teachers used to have us compete with our art," John said. "Any event that was held always had an art show. I won a couple of awards."

The most memorable moment for John, who is Naaneesht'ézhí Tábaahá, born for Tsi'naajinii, was being picked to design the program for his eighth-grade promotion ceremony.

"It was a great opportunity," he said.

After such a promising start, he stopped focusing on art after high school and began working construction. During this time John was accepted to the University of Arizona and University of Miami's College of Art but was unable to attend either colleges because of the financial stability his construction job gave him.

John's artwork became a hobby during this time. He worked on small paintings whenever he got a chance but never tried working on big projects because his job kept him busy.

Re-entering his art

In 1995 John, then 22, resumed making art. He credits the woman who became his wife, Iverna Parrish-John, for helping him believe in himself and his art.

"It was during the time I met my wife. We went to a couple of art shows, not to compete, just to look around," he recalled in a recent interview. "And my wife said she believed that I was at the same level as other artists at the art shows. So, I started getting back into it."

He began painting and sculpting in metal, making use of his familiarity with construction materials.

"Because I worked in construction I was able to easily work with corten steel," he said, referring to a steel alloy that quickly develops a patina of beautiful earthy colors.

"It was the stainless steel and bronze that I had a hard time with because they are a lot harder and they require a lot more work to sculpt and different wielding techniques," he said.

John added that he liked working with steel because he wanted to be different.

"You usually see wood, stone or bronze so I decided to do metal," he said. "We (John and his wife) wanted to be unique."

In 2000 he entered his first art show, the Pueblo Grande Museum Indian Market in Phoenix, and began to learn the difficult inner workings of the art world.

"My wife and I began researching a lot of the shows and found out you had to win several smaller art shows, like Gallup Intertribal Ceremonial, to be considered for bigger shows like Santa Fe and the Heard (Museum)," John said.

"We found out right away that it was hard to get into the larger markets because of these requirements," he said.

John also found out early that he could not look to other artists for information.

"We had to find out a lot of things on our own," he said. "Other artists were not helpful."

In 2001 John was accepted to show in the Santa Fe Indian Market for the first time. Although he did not take home a ribbon, it was enough for him to have his foot in the door.

No parental pressure

John always wanted his children to share the joy of making art and when his oldest, Tulane, turned 7 in 2003, he started sharing what he knew.

"We didn't want to push them into art. It was up to them if they wanted to do it or not," John said.

For Tulane it was an easy decision.

"I like doing what I do and if it was my career I'd love it," he said.

Soon after Tulane began making art, his younger sister Myleka, now 13, followed.

"I like to show people what I can do and I like using my art to show aspects of our culture," she said.

Along with not pushing his children, John let them find their own favorite medium.

"I let them watch me but I don't really direct them cause I want them to be them and not me," he said. "I wanted them to develop into their own artist."

Unburdened by parental pressure, the children, who are Nat'oh Dine'é Táchii'nii born for Tábaahá, began to develop their own unique ways to express themselves artistically.

For Tulane, Legos became more than a toy.

"Tulane has always been into cartoons, Star Wars and Legos," said his dad. "We took him to Legoland one year and he saw what could be done with them."

It was at this point that Tulane began incorporating Legos into his artwork, and the colorful plastic building blocks have become a hallmark of his work.

"The Lego Corporation is behind Tulane," John said, adding that two corporate representatives attended the Santa Fe Indian Market last year to bid on one of Tulane's pieces, a Yei bicheii head in Legos on canvas.

"They didn't get it though - they were outbid by a Navajo family," he adds laughing. "That family outbid a corporation!"

Tulane's work with Legos paid off in 2007 when he received the Wilma Kaemlein Memorial Purchase Award from the Arizona State Museum for a piece titled "Future Teepee 2020" made of Legos and acrylic on canvas.

For Myleka, it was not medium but her choice of subject - the sandpainting faces of the Holy People - that guided her path.

"During her Kinaaldá, she was told that at the end of her ceremony she was going to be given something from the Diyin Dine'é and the images of the sandpainting ye'iis are what she received," John said. "It was a part of the blessing."

Myleka's first winning art show entry was a Navajo doll crafted from felt, tin foil and acrylic, which took a first at Flagstaff's Navajo Festival of Arts and Culture in 2005.

In 2011, the Santa Fe Indian Market organizers picked the John siblings' work out of hundreds of others by young artists to illustrate the 2011 Indian Market poster.

"They had originally submitted separate pieces," said their father. "I guess the judges saw their work and thought 'what better way to promote our work than through a brother and sister?'"

The poster featured one of Tulane's Lego yei bicheii and Myleka's signature sandpainting ye'iis. This fortunate pairing marked the start of the siblings' art partnership.

No ordinary subject

The Holy People are the subject of many works by the John family, whose accomplished members extend beyond Alvin's brood.

His younger brother Melvin L. John was the featured artist at the Southwest Indian Art Fair, held over the weekend in Tucson. Alvin's older brother David K. John established his own gallery in Santa Fe.

Alvin's sculptures and paintings often depict holy spirits and beings. The images are altered to avoid violating cultural restrictions, he noted.

"We stick to the contemporary look of art and change a couple of things on the beings to be able to do what we do," Alvin said.

He credits his brother David for finding a way to depict the deities without giving offense to traditional Navajos.

"My older brother has set a good standard for us," Alvin said. "He was one of the first that started using ye'ii bicheii in his art."

Alvin adds that he also underwent a ceremony when he was a child, which conferred permission for him to depict images that resemble the Holy People.

"I have been initiated so it gives my kids consent to do it too," he said.

Tulane's artwork sometimes includes a yei bicheii head made out of Lego pieces and Myleka's sandpainting ye'iis have become recurrent in her work.

Alvin said that these representations of traditional images in their work are a result of the family's effort to promote healing of Mother Nature adding that "a lot of things happened in the world and we need to go back and respect Mother Nature. It's our way of giving back to Mother Nature, the creator and our elders. We want to thank them in that way."

The John family's main interest is to inspire other people and in particular other Navajos. Alvin said his inspiration stems from his parents and grandparents.

"They are my inspiration and I just hope that I inspire them," he said.

Tulane hopes to inspire other youth to make art, saying, "That was how I got started. They need that inspiration."

Myleka wishes to inspire a different group of people.

"I want to inspire other people that are good at art but don't think they are any good," she said. "It may seem like nothing but you can become more if you just keep developing your art."

Looking to the future

Currently Alvin and his children are working on art to be shown at the 54th Annual Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair & Market, scheduled March 2-4 in Phoenix. They can be found at booth D34.

Nearly 700 Native artists from all over the U.S. will exhibit there, according to the Web site, www.heard.org/fair.

The fair is one of Arizona's most significant cultural events and is one of the two biggest Native art shows each year.

As for Alvin, his goal is ambitious: "I'm just hoping to get a best of show this year. That's one of my goals."

For the children, being at the Heard show is one of many opportunities to meet new people and be close to their dream school, Arizona State University.

"I want to go to ASU for college," said Myleka. "I want to be a (clothes) designer. I watch HGTV with my mom and I like fashion so that's where I want to be."

She hopes to continue developing her art while she attends college.

"My art is more abstract and I like to work small scale but want to someday work on bigger canvases," she said.

Myleka is currently an eigth grader at Kayenta Middle School.

Tulane's biggest dream at the moment is to become an architect.

"I want to design the building but I want be a part of the whole construction too," he said. "I want to be there for the whole process."

In addition to ASU, Tulane is also looking at Stanford University and the University of Kentucky.

"I like Kentucky," he said. "Mainly because I like their basketball team."

He is currently a freshman at Monument Valley High School.

Additional new work by Alvin John, along with that of several other Navajo artists, will soon be on display at the Navajo Nation Division of Transportation's new headquarters off State Route 264 east of Tsé Bonito, N.M.

John helped create two 15-by-22 foot murals and statues near the main entrance of the building, scheduled to open to the public March 20.

Information: Alvin John, dineartsaj@gmail.com.

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