Yazzie's Razzle-Dazzle

With his 160-foot mural in a major museum and his face on the cover of a magazine, artist Steven Yazzie still loves his hometown

New Year's Eve, the night of the dive bar tour at The House art studios, painter Steven Yazzie sports a bike helmet decorated with a fluffy boa wrap and three naked dolls with out-scissored legs. The dolls are attached to thin rods, which come to a teepee-like point two and a half feet above his head. A glow stick dangles from the top. Lights from downtown skyscrapers and the moon light up his attire: a woolen, chocolate-colored security cop jacket over flannel and sweats, a dingy gear bag off one shoulder, some visible tats and a thick mane of dark, near-shoulder-length hair. Faint Cuban beats circulate from a small cassette player stashed on his person. He's sitting on a rickety mountain bike equipped with a chirping handlebar bell and playing cards that flutter in the spokes, and Yazzie's overall élan is absurd -- half Mardi Gras minstrel, half Hollywood Boulevard wreckage.

There are others riding bikes with Yazzie, a handful of would-be pariahs. Among them are a zaftig French girl with a face painted blue, and several local artists also in daft hats, including Yazzie's girlfriend Leslie Englert and his half-brother Michael Little. Cops on horseback look on half amused as the near-drunk pack hurdles curbs, zooms sidewalks and runs red lights between beers at downtown snugs like Newman's and the Madison.

For a New Year's Eve, the town is the city of the dead. "This town needs an energy, it needs this kind of energy," shouts Yazzie.

"It's a hawk!" Steven Yazzie makes shadow figures at the Heard.
Paolo Vescia
"It's a hawk!" Steven Yazzie makes shadow figures at the Heard.
Yazzie at the Heard Museum. A portion of his mural, Fear of a Red Planet, Relocation and Removal, 2000, in the background.
Paolo Vescia
Yazzie at the Heard Museum. A portion of his mural, Fear of a Red Planet, Relocation and Removal, 2000, in the background.

The King's Lounge, next to the Jungle strip bar on Central, is the night's fourth pit stop. Inside, the den is crammed with Native Americans grouped around pool tables and pitchers of beer. Prince songs blare from gritty juke vinyl, and the air has an unsavory tint. King's is the kind of place where something is always on the edge of happening and you are powerless to slow it down. Some of the girls sense this and want to skip on to the next bar.

"Haaappy Neeew Yeeear!" shouts Yazzie from King's entrance. He's facing the surly bunch in the bar, arms outspread like a tipsy shaman. Dozens of fleshy faces turn and study the man and the wobbly dancing dolls on his head. Seconds later beers are hoisted, and more than half the bar shouts back in frothy unison: "Haaappy Neeew Yeeear!"

Steven Yazzie inadvertently succeeds in personifying a mythical Pablo Picasso/Jackson Pollock swagger, the portrait of the artist as a hard-drinking babe magnet. His face has ridges but isn't hard, his eyes are dark but gentle, and almost everyone who knows him agrees that he's the real deal.

Things are happening, or seemingly so, for the 30-year-old Gulf War vet. Last June, Yazzie completed work on a 160-foot mural in a major museum with an international reputation. His puckish grin graces the cover of the January/February issue of Native Peoples, a national magazine geared toward Native American arts and culture. He's amassed a growing legion of faithful buyers, and his last show sold out its 10 paintings. Nevertheless, galleries aren't busting down his doors as some anticipated would happen after he completed the mural. He's still running the rickety House Studios in downtown, the house that gave him his start.

The mural, which took five and a half months to complete, was a career windfall for Yazzie, who, up to that point, still considered himself an amateur painter lucky to sell enough of his work to successfully avoid flipping burgers.

Born in 1970 to an Anglo mother and a Navajo father, Yazzie spent his childhood on the Navajo reservation in northern Arizona and in nearby Page. He moved to Phoenix as a teen and joined the Marines after graduating from high school. He played drums in rock 'n' roll bands.

Yazzie's first etching efforts were inspired not by love of the art form or the fact that his mother is an artist or sibling dynamics -- he's the eldest of four -- but the female shape. During his Marine stint in the Persian Gulf, he began sketching nudes for lonely soldiers in the field.

In late 1999, Yazzie was chosen by the Heard Museum for its artist-in-residency program as part of the Artists & Communications project, a national initiative sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation.

Joe Baker, the Heard Museum's education outreach manager and coordinator of the artist-in-residence program, says Yazzie was chosen from a roster of artists who represented a range of disciplines. "I observed Yazzie as an artist of talent, of passion, of dedication. I really was interested because of the subject of [Navajo] relocation and its sensitive nature. We really wanted to bring into that a contemporary voice."

The pick surprised some, considering the nature of Yazzie's work. Its exaggerated gestures and inventive color combinations, the loose-lipped themes and droll sexual subtexts aren't the most appealing to some. Baker says the Heard's nod to Yazzie was a way to fully engage in the artistic process, a deliberate move to transcend traditional, noncontroversial styles.

"In many people's eyes, Yazzie was essentially a risk," he continues. "But I really felt that he could handle this project and even find a new direction throughout the course of this time. There were several of us that felt that way at the museum and were willing to invest in his talent and his ability."

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