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Tucson Weekly Mixed-Media Memories

Emmi Whitehorse's "Stonewall" exhibit at TMA blends abstraction with the Navajo aesthetic.

By Margaret Regan

DECEMBER 1, 1997:  WHEN THE ARTIST Emmi Whitehorse was a child, living off-reservation in the "checkerboard" area northeast of Gallup, New Mexico, she used to watch her grandmother at work.

"She was a weaver who would go plant hunting," said Whitehorse, still lively after giving a talk one morning earlier this month at the Tucson Museum of Art. "Then the plants would hang upside down on the wall (to dry). That stayed with me. She would collect and save seeds, too. I remember seeing the shapes lying out bleaching, and her cutting them apart and opening them up."

In many ways, she said, her art, alternately steeped in contemporary abstraction and a Navajo aesthetic, could be considered a "re-examination of what my grandmother did."

Her 35 mixed-media paintings and prints on the walls in the TMA's 12th Stonewall exhibition, a solo show given annually to a New Mexico or Arizona artist, are full of shapes taken from the natural world. "Sola," for instance, is a large oil-and-chalk on wood panel (8-by-16 feet) whose sweeping surface is marked by delicately drawn leaves, spirals and seed pods. But like her grandmother's plants, these evocative shapes have been set free of the earth. They drift against a strangely undefined background colored in maize and brown and gray. The backdrop suggests either the flatness of a cliff wall--like the kind where Whitehorse's forebears might have etched petroglyphs--or the deep spaces hinted at in the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock, himself influenced by Native American sand painting.

"I took some of the formal training and sensibilities from European ideals and married that with Navajo sensibilities," said Whitehorse, who counts Mark Rothko as one of her favorite painters. "It took me a while to get the hang of that. I looked at myself: I'm living that already. I might as well paint in that fashion. There's no sense in claiming to be traditional and having a fax modem right there."

Even her clothing reflected what seems like an easy inhabiting of two cultures. Dressed in the cool artist's uniform of snappy black shirt and pants, she also wore a Navajo necklace in silver and turquoise. Nowadays, Whitehorse lives far from the reservation--with a Belgian painter in a town not far from Santa Fe--but she had a very traditional childhood. She grew up on the open land, in a nomadic family that spoke only Navajo.

"We had no running water or electricity. We spent a lot of time moving with the sheep camps...Even our shelters were temporary. We had a tent. Outside there was a lean-to shelter that grandma would build. We would be there (outside). We had our table there, and we'd hang our food in sacks. Lots of stuff was dried. My grandmother made a lot of soup out of dried meat...In the winter we had a house-house."

But events conspired to disconnect her from that traditional world of windswept vistas and close communion with animals and plants. Like her four brothers and sisters, young Emmi was packed off to one of those notorious government boarding schools where Indian children were punished for speaking their native languages. (A classmate and friend was the well-known Navajo poet Luci Tapahonso.) And back home, for reasons Whitehorse still doesn't fully understand, when she was about 10 her mother and grandmother formally abandoned the traditional Navajo healing rituals.

"They threw away the wedding baskets and bags of pottery and fetishes," Whitehorse exclaimed, shaking her head. "They should have saved them! The beauty and form and power those things had."

In those days, though, Whitehorse wasn't thinking about objects as objects. It wasn't until high school, in Page, Arizona, where a brother was living, that she gave much thought to a life in art. An ambitious teacher roped her into drama classes and a speech club, showed her reproductions by the old masters and pushed her to enter a student art contest. When Whitehorse won the state prize, and won some money, she started thinking about art in a new way.

"That was the impetus," she said.

In 1975, she enrolled in the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, the first in her family to go beyond high school. ("My mother said it had to be within a day's drive.") There the art professors helped distance her even more from her heritage.

"UNM at the time was very rigid, academic...with male-dominated, Harvard-trained professors who taught European-dominated art...Anything that wasn't in the chronology or deviated was looked down upon. As for Hispanic or native cultures, they were ignored or their works called 'craft.' Students like me really suffered."

She painted what the professors seemed to want, "washed-out, highly abstracted work." Still, Whitehorse hooked up with Garo Antreasian, a professor who was a well-known lithographer. He encouraged her, and though she got her undergraduate degree in painting in 1980, two years later she earned an MFA in printmaking. While still in school, she began showing and selling her work, and after graduation made the obligatory move to the East, which she found dark and damp and confining. It was not until she returned to New Mexico in the late '80s that she began finding her true subject, in the Navajo heritage that she had once nearly abandoned.

"I did things that were an exploration of my background: the clan system, the creation stories, the moral stories. The work became very figurative. Birds would float in and out, and a female shape (emerged), Changing Woman, White-shell Woman."

But Whitehorse was dismayed by New Agers' delight in these new paintings, and by their expectation that Whitehorse would play some sort of Native American artist-shaman. She "switched back to nonobjective, almost color-field paintings," the enigmatic style that prevails in most of the works in her Stonewall show.

Whitehorse constructs her paintings in layers, in an elaborate technique that's every bit as time-consuming as her grandmother's weaving. First comes an earthy chalk on paper, and preliminary "doodles." Next she wets the paper with a medium, and uses a needle to dig lines into the paper's surface. After the medium dries, she soaks the paper with turpentine and adds oil washes. Finally, when the whole thing is dry, she begins excavating into the layers, rubbing, scrubbing, adding more color, drawing, keeping the paper flat, circling around it. When she's satisfied it's finished, she decides which end is up and glues the paper onto a stretched canvas.

The artist says her imagery is starting to change. She's aiming toward greater abstraction, toward working solely with color. Before long she may discard the floating plant parts and odd life forms, just as her elders abandoned their baskets and fetishes. But it's unlikely the works' allusions to the northern New Mexico landscape and the Navajo people who live there will ever fall away.

"I'm focusing on my environment...These (works) are my silent statement about how careless we are about what we have been given."

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