Story Keeper

By Kristin Pazulski

Photography by Scott Dressel-Martin

Artist Melanie Yazzie has been creating paintings, sculptures and prints for years, pulling from her experience growing up in the Navajo Nation in Ganado, Arizona. Also an associate professor of art at the University of Colorado, Boulder, Yazzie has traveled extensively, and she makes it a point to visit schools when she travels, to introduce cultures to a real “Native American” to break the stereotypes.

While some of her work is created to educate people about her culture, her current exhibit at Denver Botanic Gardens, “Story Keeper,” on display until May 8, features pieces that are both reflective of her childhood and interpretations of the beauty she found in the Gardens.

Yazzie, who lives outside Boulder but often visits her family in the Navajo Nation, took time from her artist’s talk on March 10 to sit in the high-ceilinged Gates Garden Court gallery to chat about her work and “Story Keeper.”


KP: Growing up, it seemed like your family recognized its heritage and celebrated it, it’s not something you found later in life, is that right?

MY: My family, my dad really, practices a lot of the traditional ways, the Navajo ways, and we grew up with a lot of that. … We also attended other services of different friends … of different backgrounds because we were always told by my parents that we should always respect everyone’s different ways of seeing the world.


The name of this exhibit, it’s called Story Keeper. How is that different from a storyteller? What is a story keeper?

I think I called it “Story Keeper” because even though at this lecture you saw me talking  a lot to people, I really honestly believe that I’m a shy person. I’m not shouting out my stories, I keep them inside. [But] sometimes someone will ask me, ‘What is this about,’ or ‘Where did this come from?’ and this story will come out. You saw it in the lecture, I’ll go from one story to the next and it’s all sorta mixed in there. So at times when I’m asked, the stories come out, but for the most part I just keep them inside and sort of carry them.


During this lecture, in showing the photos of the Gardens that you took, next to the [painted] pieces, it’s really interesting because you can see how they are similar …

Exactly. There is a huge similarity but then there’s a different part that I’ve added to all the pieces. There’s this layering of thought and marks that are there, so it’s not just reproducing the images in the photograph but adding these other layers to the works.


And what do those other layers include?

The layers, they are different thoughts or different memories from childhood. Like for example with the orchard piece here, there are the fish bones and other plants. Those are images from Red Lake, [Arizona], when I was growing up and we would catch catfish and eat them. … Some of the other pieces, there are seedpods in them that are reminding me of times of when we would collect different things as kids to play with.

With a lot of them, the pieces represent what you took a photo of, and that’s very obvious, but a lot of times the colors are very different. Why do you do that and how do you choose which colors to use?

The colors are different because I’m referencing either sunrise or sunset at home at different periods of time on the reservation and [other] places... There’s sort of this memory of color in places and when I start to paint. I may put a blue field down thinking about early morning dawn, or blue to represent the cold blue of water in New Zealand, but there are different places that I sort of go [to] when I start putting the different layers down, and I can’t really say what each one is, but it’s drawing from each of those different experiences.


So it’s not like you’re consciously choosing to create daylight, but you are just there?

No, I’m just there and it’s very intuitive. I really enjoy color because of all these places that I’ve been. I wake up really early in the morning to see the sun coming up, and it’s that color at dawn or at sunset that I think a lot of these colors come from, and the places that I’ve been at those different times.


When you travel you said you try to visit classrooms. Why is it so important to you to teach about [Native Americans] when you are abroad?

There are so many stereotypes that people have about Native Americans. People don’t normally see us or know what we look like in everyday life. So part of what I do is I make myself available and go, when I’m invited, to different schools, to share my artwork, to share who I am, the stories, to sort of break the stereotypes and for them to see what a Native American looks like ... I think it’s really important that we do that as people. If there is a stereotype that we don’t like about who we are, part of the responsibility at times is to go educate people about ourselves so [others] learn that we’re not walking around in a headdress and … with feathers in our hair.


So creating the art is a much different experience than your teaching, both in your classroom and when you are traveling. How do those two [creating art and teaching] relate to each other, and come together?

I try as hard as possible not to show my students my work. I know they can Google me and find the things, but I’m more interested in my students finding their own voices, their own marks, their own stories that they have to tell. And I always start out with projects that speak about their history, their family history, who they are so that they know who they are and are confident in that place, so that when they leave my class they’ll always know why they made the work. It’s not … an assignment that I said they had to draw this plant and make it well. I’m saying, think about your family history, think about your personal history, and put it into your work. And then after a while, the work isn’t about assignments anymore. It’s about their own interest and love, and making what’s important to them.