Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Getting Here From There; Evolution of The Painted Desert Project

nyc based street artist, lny, asked me to write an essay on the painted desert project and how it came to be for his art program to benefit at risk youth in the city.  here's the rough draft...

Fly in the Buttermilk, Shoo Fly Shoo

A couple years ago I was doing a wheat paste installation on a friend's outhouse at his rodeo arena.  A team roping competition was to start several hours later.  I woke up around 5 a.m., drove an hour to the site and started working before sunrise.  An 18 wheeler loaded with calves was parked nearby.  A white cowboy emerged from the cab and groggily made his way to the outhouse.  Upon seeing me he mumbled to himself "...Where else would you find on old black man wallpapering the outside of an outhouse at dawn at a rodeo event on an Indian reservation?  Only in America."  We both laughed.  In retrospect, it was an improbable moment but in the words of Spaulding Gray, it was also a perfect moment in that it captured the bridge building potential of public art.

That's the question I get asked most frequently - what the fuck is an old black doctor doing wheat pasting images of Navajo people along the roadside on the reservation?  It's an unlikely journey.  However, upon further inspection it makes perfect sense.

I came to work at a small clinic on the Navajo nation 26 years ago bright eyed and full of idealism and misconceptions.  My first misconception was that as an African-American I'd be accepted by the Navajo who'd share a sense of solidarity with me as a member of a historically oppressed group like themselves.  Wrong.  I learned quickly that people here are focused on addressing their daily needs such as herding sheep, hauling water, firewood and/or coal and taking care of family first.  Acceptance into the community is hard won.  There's an expression amongst Navajo people that unless you've walked amongst them for 2 years, they don't take you into their trust.  They've grown weary of outsiders coming to take from them leaving little in return.

My first year here I set up a black and white darkroom.  After work I'd go out into the community to spend time with people as they were doing chores around their homesteads or hanging out with their families often getting to photograph these experiences.  I'd started shooting black and white film in junior high school.   My junior high school experience was unique and in retrospect, was instrumental in influencing my efforts to contribute fully to my adopted community.  

I attended a small, alternative school in the mountains of North Carolina called The Arthur Morgan School.  The school had only 24 students, aged 12 - 15 in grades 7, 8 and 9.  Being an actively engaged community member was demonstrated to us in practical terms every day. Each student had work assignments that we'd rotate weekly.  The projects involved everything from preparing meals to working in the garden to repairing bridges on the dirt roads around the school.  Once a week we'd have community meetings where students and staff would sit around in a large circle to discuss issues affecting our lives at the school.  Coming from a traditional, all black public school, I remember being impressed that my opinion in these meetings mattered just as much as anyone else's opinion including our principal.

During my family practice residency in West Virginia during the early 80s, I'd make frequent trips to NYC hoping to see break dancing on street corners + burners on trains.  My dream was to become a member of the Zulu Nation and it was during this time I started experimenting with graffiti.

Public Health Meets Public Art

The Navajo nation is located in the Four Corners region of the U.S.  The land area is 27,500 square miles in size which is larger than the state of West Virginia.  It's home to roughly 160,000 people.  Coal, natural gas, oil, uranium are found in abundance here.  The Navajo should be one of the wealthiest groups of people living in the U. S.  However, because of the way the contracts were written to exploit those natural resources, the Navajo people are amongst the poorest people in the U. S.  Health problems on the reservation reflect those of other impoverished communities.  Rates of diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, teen pregnancy, interpersonal violence are all higher than the national average.   In the midst of what many from outside the reservation characterize as overwhelmingly dire circumstances, there are people living lives of dignity, celebrating the joys of family, farming and community.

My first intersection of public art and public health occurred shortly after I arrived on the reservation.  Concerned with what we considered irresponsible advertising in that it was promoting cheap, sugary drinks in a population plagued with Type 2 Diabetes, a community health nurse and I went out one night to correct a billboard on the reservation.  




It used to read "Welcome to Pepsi Country."



Building Community

Wikipedia defines community as a social unit that shares common values.  The reference says that "in human communities intent, belief, resources, preferences, needs, risks and a number of other conditions may be present and common, affecting the identity of the participants and their degree of cohesiveness."

 What does it mean then to build community and what are the implications of such an undertaking for someone from another community whose belief system differs from the host community?  I didn't consider any of these questions before I started placing photographs along the roadside.  

During my time on the reservation I'd been following street art from a distance.  Any time I'd go to a big city with graffiti or street art, I'd definitely notice it.  In the mid 90s I did a project I called the Urban Guerrilla Art Assault where I'd place black and white photos on community bulletin boards and in store windows in Flagstaff.  In 2004 I travelled to Brazil for the first time and was blown away by the abundance, diversity and caliber of the street art there.  I returned to Brazil for 3 months in 2009.  The first day of my return the feeling of being alive and intrigued by art on the street made by the people and for the people consumed me again.  

There was one guy whose work I saw and liked as I moved around Bahia.  His name is Limpo.  It turned out that during my last 3 weeks there I rented a flat immediately above his studio.  I spent everyday in his studio talking with him and street artists from around the world who'd stop by to share ideas in sketch books, videos online and street art books.  The highlight was getting to go out on the street with one of the artists as he did a piece.  These guys loved what they were doing.  Their energy and enthusiasm were infectious.  As I left Brazil, the street art community that had embraced me and stirred something in my soul said "keep it going!"

When I returned to the States I decided to enlarge and start wheat pasting images from my 22 year archive of negatives along the roadside.  I got a recipe for boiling wheat paste off the internet, talked with people at Kinko's about how to make enlargements and away I went.  My first forays were at night.  I pasted onto roadside stands where people sell jewelry to tourists venturing to the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley and Lake Powell.  As I contemplated doing this, I had to consider how to introduce a new art form into a traditional culture?  What imagery is acceptable?  After stumbling a couple times, I settled on what I considered universally beloved Navajo themes - Code Talkers, sheep and elders.  

One of my first pastings was of Navajo Code Talkers that I pasted onto an abandoned, deteriorating jewelry stand along the highway to Flagstaff.



I was shocked a week later as I drove by the stand to find people out repairing it.  Curious, I stopped to find out what was up.  The guys working on the stand didn't know I was the person who'd placed the Code Talker photo there.  They said that so many tourists were stopping to photograph the stand, they decided to repair it and start using it again.  I asked if I could take a photo as well and then told them that I placed the image there.  They responded by asking me to put something at the other end to stop traffic coming from that direction.  This was my first validation from the community to continue pasting and it was my first insight into the potential of art to promote economic independence for the roadside vendors.  More  importantly, I appreciated the potential of this work serving as a tool to bridge cultures and races of people.  

It is through these types of interactions with people as I'm installing art that I get to better know my community apart from the constrained interactions I have in the clinic.   Installing art in communities on the reservation where people don't know I'm a doctor who has been here for 26 years and that I have a sixteen year old 1/2 Navajo son, I defend what I'm doing by telling people that my project is a mirror reflecting back to the community the beauty they've shared with me over the past quarter century.  It's my hope that a stronger sense of self and collective identity is nurtured through the images which thereby strengthens the community. 

Last summer I decided to pursue a dream suggested by a fellow street artist to invite some of my favorite artists out to the reservation to paint murals and to work with local youth.  I called this experience The Painted Desert Project.


The Painted Desert Project 

The Painted Desert Project hates stereotypes, respects the unique culture in which it operates and spreads love.  

Before the first group of artists came out last summer to paint murals (which included Gaia, Labrona, Overunder, Doodles, Tom Greyeyes and Thomas "Breeze" Marcus), I sent to the non Native American artists copies of a chapter on the Navajo creation story, a book of images and observations about the land and the people, a beaded item from one of the roadside stands and a film ("Broken Rainbow"), in an effort to sensitize the artists to the different world view here.   I attempted to pair artists with various roadside stand owners and arranged for sweats with tribal elders to bless our efforts and to give the artists an idea of acceptable imagery and Navajo taboos.

It's important to me that artists come to the project without preconceived ideas of what they're going to paint.  It's important that they have enough time to interact with community members and spend time in this land of enormous skies and stunning landscapes then create work that reflects this interplay of cultures and landscape.  In this way, it's responsive to the moment like jazz.  My hope is that the artist leaves enlightened and that the community feels enriched or vice versa.




Gaia saying goodbye to Matilda + her son, Tony

Last summer as the first group of artists was preparing to leave, we did something I'd never done in my long tenure here.  We invited members from the community to my house to share a dinner with the artists.  It was a simple meal shared around a candlelight lit table outdoors under the stars.  How can this type of rich exchange not inform my medical practice which like my art practice attempts to heal and spread love?

My hope for the project this year is to not only share art but to do community service projects. For example, last summer Doodles painted a killer mural on a nearby food stand which burned down last fall.  I'd very much like to get him back this summer to help the vendor rebuild the stand and then repaint it.

So when mofos ask me what's up?  What's an old black doctor man doing wheat pasting on the Navajo nation?  I tell them like the brothers told me in Brazil.  I'm just trying to keep a good feeling going round and around.

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