Big Brain Awards

Jeff Slim: 2015 Big Brain Award Finalist, Visual Art

You submitted nominations for the best and brightest emerging Valley creatives, and the results are in. Presenting the 2015 Big Brain finalists.

Leading up to the announcement of winners at Artopia on May 9, Jackalope Ranch, Chow Bella, and Up on the Sun will introduce the finalists. Up today is Jeff Slim.

"If paintings don't sell, I paint over them."

Jeff Slim, 29, says it nonchalantly while sitting in the studio space he shares with fellow artist Daniel Funkhouser in the Easter-egg-colored La Melgosa on Grand Avenue. Past the white gates that look like interconnected spider webs, Slim's creative space holds dozens of spray paint cans.

See also: Beth May: 2015 Big Brain Awards Finalist, Performing Art

He concedes that collectors shudder at the thought of him effectively destroying his work. But for Slim, it's better to begin again than to present something that people don't connect with. Worse yet would be for a piece to sit around for months and months. This blend of borderline superstition and humble outlook makes the Navajo artist's work all the more covetable.

The room's warm, with a loud fan circulating air up to the high ceiling. David Bowie's "Sound and Vision" plays from a small speaker in the corner. Slim is alternating between working on four paintings that hang on the walls, which are streaked with bright lines of paint. The largest of the four, a blue-heavy self-portrait in which a bespectacled Slim stares out with gentle, almost sad eyes, will go up in just a few days as part of monOrchid gallery's "Street Art" exhibition.

He works quickly. Since his first show at 1Spot Gallery off Roosevelt Row about two years ago, he's steadily shown art in galleries locally and outside Arizona. His brightly colored works, often portraits complemented by weaving geometric lines, have garnered a following. "Sometimes, it's a bit overwhelming," the artist says.

Slim likes to explore what it means to be Navajo, what his tribe's creation stories mean, and what he can learn from bridging the gap between the reservation and city life. As a member of the Black Sheep Collective, an arts group that works to connect young and older Native artists, he remains connected to his Navajo community, despite residing in Phoenix. "I'm still learning about who I am in terms of being Navajo," he says. With his murals and paintings, he questions superstitions, gender roles, and how the past intersects with the present.

He remembers drawing with his grandfather as a kid. Subject matter tended to veer toward pop culture icons, particularly the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Nowadays, he tends to work alone, researching stories he wants to paint and working positive messages into his multi-layered works, messages that you might have to look closely to catch.

Slim paints to understand his own feelings about his ancestors and present-day family. He wants to delve into what masculinity and femininity are and challenge preconceptions.

There's a creation story, he explains, about how men and women were separated from one another. By painting a man in full makeup, he wanted to explore the story's implication of gay relationships and how individualism and self-identity shape the modern world.

By sharing these stories, he hopes to expand others' understanding of them, as well as his own. "I try to connect it in a subtle way," he says. "So it feels more hidden."

Ultimately, though, he just wants to create.

"I just paint," he says. "If galleries like it, that's awesome."

The 2015 Big Brain Award winners will be announced on Saturday, May 9, during New Times' Artopia, an evening of food, drink, art, and music at Monarch Theatre. For details and tickets, $25, visit

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Becky Bartkowski is an award-winning journalist and the arts and music editor at New Times, where she writes about art, fashion, and pop culture.
Contact: Becky Bartkowski