Spotlight: Melanie Yazzie

A Q&A with Denver printmaker and multimedia artist Melanie Yazzie.

Photo by Paul Miller

“A lot of my pieces tell a story,” says Boulder artist Melanie Yazzie. “It could be just about taking a walk that morning; it could be about planting flowers. The story doesn’t have to be huge. Sometimes the pieces are speaking about the injustices in the world and what’s happened to women, but sometimes a piece is about centering yourself and noticing the light and thinking good thoughts.” Yazzie, who grew up in the small Arizona town of Ganado on the Navajo Reservation, now lives in Boulder with her husband, Clark Barker, also an artist. She has taught at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, the University of Arizona, Boise State University, the Pont-Aven School of Art in France, and since 2006 at CU. “My teaching positions provide steady income, and I get to work with young people who are interested in the arts. The ones who are amazing make it so worthwhile. I think I see a little bit of myself in some of them; I feel a sense of wanting to pass on hope and help them the way I was helped.”

When she discovered art

“On the reservation, pretty much everyone is talented in the arts—making jewelry, weaving Navajo rugs. Mom and Dad were teachers and always wanted us to do art projects to keep our minds busy. I also did art projects in school and Campfire Girls, and people would ask if they could have the things I made. In high school, I went away to Westtown School, a Quaker boarding school in the East, where my art teacher, Caroline Sheridan Loose, encouraged me to go to an art school after graduation. My parents didn’t want that—they wanted me to go to a liberal arts school. So after a year in Mexico, I enrolled at Arizona State University, but ended up majoring in the arts.”

How she made art a profession

“I moved to Colorado after college and was looking at CU for graduate school. Kenny Iwamasa, who ran the printmaking department, offered me a job teaching the beginning, intermediate, and advanced screen printing classes. While I was doing that, he advised me to meet all of the faculty members in the art department and get critiques from them. Not everyone has the courage to do that, but I did, and I took a lot away from those critiques. Today, I tell all of my students to do the same thing.”

The more mediums, the better

“I work in multiple mediums because I have an amazing, supportive gallery, the Glenn Green Galleries in Santa Fe. The whole family is involved in the gallery, and it has always been a friendship between us. They’ve encouraged me to work in different mediums and I’ve slowly gotten comfortable with that idea and it has led me into a lot of different spaces. I do printmaking, I sculpt, I paint, I do surface design—we just started a line of scarves and a line of jewelry out of the gallery. I come from the Navajo people, and it’s part of our culture to wear jewelry—it’s second nature to us. And I’ve wanted to branch out into this kind of work for many years. The scarves and jewelry are like little amulets of animals and other things that I draw for hope and to bring health and wellness to myself.”

Themes in her work

“I’ve always loved animals. Growing up, I had dogs, ferrets, hamsters, and a pet rat named Coconut. Animals feed my soul and make me happy, so I do a lot of drawings of them. I can sit and draw and draw and draw, and they’ll just come out of me. I draw from memory, from feelings, from foods and people, and it comes out in the work but it’s very abstract. I’m really comfortable with all of the mediums, so I might just pick up a piece of clay and start molding it; I have this conversation with the clay as I’m working it, just as I have a conversation with a new piece of paper.”