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."

"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.

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."

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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