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

Aside from intermittent flights of fancy and the occasional vision scooped from his subconscious with a pint glass, most of Yazzie's work is typically marked with some twist of humor and elements that can be as much disturbing as they are warm and fuzzy. It upholds the honor of guys like Eric Fishel and Larry Rivers well.

Since completing the mural, Yazzie says he's developed a better work ethic, a sense of purpose. He understands, and can define, what it is that he does.

"Knowing that a part of me that went into it is truthful. I think out of that I wanted to be known not as a Native American artist but an artist that happened to be Native American. I wanted self-definition. I guess it's like I'm here and I'm scared again. I'm scared every time I pick up the paintbrush. I think everybody that does it is scared."

"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.

Currently he is stockpiling paintings for trips to Santa Fe and West Coast art galleries. The galleries aren't banging on his door, which means much of his survival depends on how well he can sell himself. Having to rely on creativity to earn a living forces you to become the very thing you are trying to avoid.

His work, and others from The House Studios, will be available during First Fridays at the Holgas Gallery downtown.

"We're nurturing a new group of collectors and people that are buying that are in their mid-20s," he says. "Those are the people that we need, in the long run those are the people who are gonna appreciate what we are doing."

Yazzie arrived at The House Studios in downtown Phoenix just after Robert Anderson started it seven years ago. Anderson got Yazzie into painting. The cleverly renovated digs were set up to serve as an artist community that offers cheap space for undernourished artists.

Built in 1920, the drooping Victorian was once a single-family home when the city thrived on foot traffic and trolley cars. Later, it was a church, then it housed a palm reader. A massage parlor came next, which later morphed into a meth lab with drive-through pickup. Before the artisan element, it served as a shooting gallery for local junkies. Currently, eight young artists are renting spaces in the studios.

"When we got the house, we had to clean the needles and stuff out of there, human feces," remembers Anderson.

"The guy that was renting it was insane," says Michael Michuta, an artist who's about to relocate to Santa Fe. "It was knee-deep in trash and dirt and garbage. He was crazy and he didn't like getting evicted, so he took a sledgehammer to the place."

A whole new generation of artists now resides in The House Studios.

"It's what I always wanted. It makes me so proud," says Anderson. "It's an awesome, free-thinking place where there are no rules, where you can have an exciting, rewarding life. We could choose a different set of principles and standards to live by than the standard commercial set of values today."

Anderson, who now lives in the woods of northern New Mexico, has had a falling out with Yazzie. "I didn't plan to leave Phoenix. I only planned to come here to make an outpost," he explains. "But the treachery of some my friends changed everything . . ."

He says Yazzie is a "very talented painter with a bright future. I don't know, I feel so betrayed, I feel like I should say something back. He didn't invite me to the opening of his mural. I don't know, I could be all wrong, I smoke a lot of weed," he says with a chuckle. "It's just a weird time in my life to be talking about Yazzie."

Yazzie says years ago he made the fatal mistake of sleeping with the wrong girl. Anderson says that has nothing to do with it.

Anderson is a House Studio success story, as are David Lewis and Jeff Cochran. Anderson says that in this past year and a half he has sold a half-million dollars worth of his art.

In March, Yazzie starts on a street mural at 15th Avenue and Roosevelt with a group of high school kids. In May, Yazzie's removing himself from the womblike studios that he runs. He and Leslie are moving to a living space/studio/gallery next to the Bikini Lounge on Grand Avenue. "It's gonna keep the same energy. There's always been a good, young, fresh energy, and I hope it continues after I'm gone.

"For me I just have to move on. Robert [Anderson] left, and everything made sense. David Lewis and Jeff Cochran left. Michael Michuta is on his way."

At King's Lounge, Yazzie is explaining his need to be in this town. Says it has much to do with its lack of so much art and culture. "Just sticking around, you can make things happen, but only in small steps. It needs an energy.

"I don't want to leave," he adds. "I love it here. There were moments when I did leave, but not anymore."

A Native American wino with a toothless grin steps up and offers Yazzie a tender soft-shoe in exchange for a beer. The dancing dolls move appreciatively, and the beer arrives.

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