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"I was surprised I was picked, because I hadn't done anything, especially in a museum," Yazzie says. "I had just recently started putting my work out in a gallery; I just started selling. But I really felt that they considered me on the quality of my painting."
He walked into it not knowing the magnitude of the project. The heavy research load involved interviewing Yaqui and Navajo dignitaries. "When I started developing the story and the painting, it started demanding more of itself and more of me. Like, 'Man, I'm trying to represent so many people here.' I had no idea that after the fact -- now that I am done with it and everything -- I feel like there is so much that is expected of me. I was representing Native American culture, and before that, I never had."
The mural, an 8-foot-by-160-foot oil on canvas titled Fear of a Red Planet, Relocation and Removal, 2000, is mounted on three walls of the Heard's Ullman Learning Center.
Using imagery that is at once brutal and graceful, the mural allegorizes the upheaval and near-cultural genocide caused by removal and assimilation policies forced upon Arizona Indians of the mid- to late 1800s. With emphasis on the Navajo, Yaqui and Colorado River people, Yazzie's potent visual rendering is supported by heady cultural and theological symbols that resonate in your head for days.
Some prominent images: Cavalry soldiers death storm a fright-faced Navajo family whose feet are but roots in the soil; Kit Carson is depicted gallantly on horseback as a pawn on a chessboard; Native American children recede through culture-cleansing boarding schools and become faceless shapes who float toward a heaven made of television sets and fast food, a nirvana of corporate subjugation; fish flow freely from a slot machine into the sickly Colorado River, the triumph of commerce over culture, gaming as greedy hope for easy riches.
The mural tugs at ridiculous racial stereotypes, ones deeply embedded in our culture and collective subconscious. The mural, as much a history lesson, is a thing of power and beauty.
Baker says the response to the mural has been overwhelmingly positive.
"People have often been moved to tears when viewing the mural. People left there in a quiet kind of pause, having to reflect on our own peculiar history that is the United States of America.
"We are all really proud of Steven Yazzie. And, well, he is accomplished. I think it's easy to be seduced by the media, the accolades and the applause from the arts community. I think there's more to Steven Yazzie than that. There's an honesty and a real quality about him that will serve him well in the future. Steven Yazzie has become part of our family there, and we look forward to future projects with him."
Yazzie received $25,000 for the mural. During the nearly six months of work, he holed up in the Heard's Lovena Ohl Artist Studio, and he and his girlfriend Leslie stayed in an apartment adjacent to the Heard.
There was discipline involved. For one thing, he had to work museum hours. Yazzie was accustomed to late nights; the 3 a.m. paint splashes, the beer. He had to curtail one of his other passions, his drinking.
"That really reconnected me to a different reality," he says, laughing. "There were moments when I just had to have a couple of beers.
"There were times midway through the mural when I thought there would be no way I could finish," he continues. "There were so many times I nearly broke up with Leslie. I was completely riddled with self-doubt. There were moments when I had the gut feeling that it wouldn't get done, that I was gonna completely fail. Everybody around me was so supportive."
"I was really disappointed that galleries didn't go out and pick him up," says Kraig Foote, owner of Art One in Scottsdale, sole gallery dealer for Yazzie's work. "And I really felt when he painted that mural at the Heard he would take off instantly."
Foote says the attention of the mural hasn't elevated sale of Yazzie's work. Yazzie's approach to what is now a career isn't about maximizing fiscal possibilities -- that would mean developing an essential trait for success in our culture: self-promotion skills. Yazzie's a kind of throwback, an exemplar of egalitarian '60s hippie ethos.
The gallery owner agrees. "He does not do any self-promotion whatsoever. Still, in order to paint a huge mural in a major museum, I have not a clue why nothing has happened yet. I mean, I look at his work and he's an amazing painter. He's easy to work with, he doesn't have an attitude. We have a real faithful clientele for him. No matter what he paints, the majority of them will buy it. We sell 95 percent of what he brings in."
Yazzie does his work, but he doesn't worry about it.
His latest, Loose Fruit: Bunny Gets Paid Part 2, offers more homage to a constant in much of his work: the rabbit. In it, two rabbit-eared gents nearing lustful exasperation stand fully captivated by a curvy woman figure gyrating on a tabletop. In one hand, she holds a rabbit's foot. Various fruits in fanciful colors abound, and there's a feeling of live movement. The overall effect borders on hallucinogenic.