Why Indigenous Artist Jacob A. Meders Filled a Room at SMoCA With Dirt

Jacob A. Meders'  And It’s Built on the Sacred installation at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art.
Jacob A. Meders' And It’s Built on the Sacred installation at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. Claire A. Warden

Jacob A. Meders grew up, he said, “a little bit everywhere.”

His dad was in the Navy. “It’s that old story about the military moving us around a lot,” the printmaker and artist said over the phone last week. “I went to three different high schools in three different states.”

Meders lived in Florida, Alaska, and Maryland; during his senior year in high school, he became an emancipated minor and moved to North Carolina. He wound up in Los Angeles and later Hawaii, where he waited tables and lived on the beach before heading to Georgia and the Savannah College of Art and Design.

“I had tried to get into art programs,” said Meders, whose new installation, And It’s Built on the Sacred, is now on display at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. “But I didn’t have a stable home life and my high school GPA wasn’t good. That kept me out of college for a while.”

At SCAD, he minored in printmaking, then attended grad school in ASU’s printmaking program. He befriended and worked with artists like Steven Yazzie and Postcommodity, a renowned artist collective.
“They influenced my work quite a bit,” said Meders, now an assistant professor in ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Science. “I came to Phoenix thinking I’d go to grad school and bounce. But having the whole Native community, and the luxury of hanging out with the Postcommodity guys, really changed my mind.”

There were dark moments, as well. At SCAD, Meders’ professors offered the use of the university’s printmaking equipment. “They put me on a list of people who had graduated but could use the printing facility,” he said, “but someone kept taking my name off the list for some reason, and the security people would throw me out. At one point they were threatening to take me to jail for trespassing.”

Meders resolved to open his own press. He founded WarBird Press, a fine art printmaking studio in Phoenix. He’d long been aware of the revisionist history of Indigenous people, told from a western perspective and passed along via the written word and in illustrations, all on paper. He wanted to use paper toward a different end.

“I wanted to look critically at a violent and disturbing history and inspire a conversation about some really bad things this country stands on,” he said of printmaking and of the message in his SMOCA installation. “But I wanted to do it as a question, versus saying, ‘Hey, you guys are bad, you did bad things, change this!’”

The new work, curated by SMoCA’s Julie Ganas, is open to the public through mid-October. It focuses on the gentrification of Indigenous land and the importance placed on Euro-American religious souvenirs. Meders painted traditional Native markings on religious totems and placed them around a circular dirt floor he constructed by hand.

Meders anticipated that visitors to SMoCA would assume the dirt he used came from a sacred space, maybe a Native burial ground or the side of a mountain where, as he put it, “eagles soared.”

“Yeah, no,” he said, then giggled. “That dirt came from my front yard. What I’m saying is the land we live on is sacred, and I’m really asking, what is sacred to you? We’re all just visitors here and have a responsibility to the Indigenous people who took care of this land before us.”

He didn’t just dump the dirt into the SMoCA space, he promised. “I went in and sang some songs to it. There were protocols I thought were important to give to the space, but with COVID I didn’t feel right asking someone from a local tribe to step in and do that for me.”

Meders didn’t like the idea of telling people they were wrong or bad because of their beliefs. “I’m more interested in a conversation than a judgment,” he believed. “I like having those discussions about how to get beyond this dysfunctional relationship we have in America, where we’re all living together on this planet, we’re all connected, and we’re using that connection to harm one another.”

He considered himself lucky. “I grew up in a colonial context, so I know about the church-on-every-corner thing. I know about Manifest Destiny, right? But I also know that taking down statues and changing the names of streets isn’t the best solution, either.”

He recalled a conversation he had recently with fellow artist Peter Bugg. “I said if there was a statue of Columbus outside, I wouldn’t want to remove it. Let’s change it, like those pieces in my installation. Destroying symbolic things just stops the conversation.”

Discussing difficult things is key to solving problems, Meders said. “We still need to talk about the bad things. How does it help to stick history away in the attic?”
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela