Best of Phoenix

Best of Phoenix 2015: Steve Yazzie's Newest Work Is a Series of Films About Indigenous People

For more of the best people, places and things to do in Phoenix, check out our 2015 Best of Phoenix awards. 

I've been in the Valley full time since about 1996. I grew up in northern Arizona in Black Mesa, LeChee, and Page. I spent some time in the Marine Corps and lived in some other cities: Portland, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Eventually, I came back to Phoenix in the mid-'90s because I had family and friends in the area and because rent was cheap.

I am continuously thinking about how we live and thrive in the desert and what our shortcomings are in the way we design and build our homes today. I just finished up a few short documentaries on indigenous sustainability for Arizona State University. One story I explored in the series looks at the complex and often contentious relationship that indigenous and non-indigenous people of the region have with water. The story of the Gila River Indian Community water settlement is one we should all know about because it affects us greatly. Currently, I'm working on a video project about the David Wright House, a Frank Lloyd Wright house built in the Arcadia neighborhood in 1952. It's a project that has brought me closer to midcentury architecture in ways I never would have imagined. In fact the title of the houseplans of the David Wright House is "How to Live in the Southwest."

Life in the desert has influenced my attention to light, my color palette, and my choice in subject matter. For the past nine years, I've either been drawing, painting, or creating new video work with the desert and natural environment almost always as a subtext or theme. Hopefully, my work helps to get people to think about how they're part of their own backyards. I hope what I'm creating with paint, film, and video is reaching an audience that considers our environment and our histories in more meaningful ways.

I've never thought of the desert as a place I wanted to claim or call my own, even while I've always seen the desert as a beautiful and spiritual place. On the other end of the spectrum, it can be extremely relentless and a painful place to exist in, if you don't pay attention to what it's telling you. Still, I find that 5 a.m. bike rides, hikes, and yard work can be your best friends in the summertime.

I once heard a definition of culture in the context of a burgeoning community that went, "It can't be made; it just happens." I used to believe that sentiment completely, but more and more, I see active participants in the community helping to shape the city and the place we live in. I've seen the arts community grow and flourish at an amazing rate in the past few years. I've seen designated areas in downtown and beyond becoming places of destination.

As a city, we're still striving to define who we are and the struggles of creating a unique, culturally diverse, and genuine place to live. It's a project that comes with many challenges. I think being able to step back and get a broader sense of this desert city in a national and global context — politically, economically, and culturally — will allow us to find less to hate and more to appreciate. — as told to Robrt L. Pela