Artists and Conservancy: Depicting the Native American Legacy

This is a 6 part series on the role artists can play in the conservation and preservation of land and buildings. In this installment, I discuss the Sedona Plein Air Festival's theme of The Native American Legacy. 

The Sedona Arts Center produces the Annual Sedona Plein Air Festival and for two years has partnered with the Sedona Culture Collaborative (sponsored by the City of Sedona) in the creation of themes for the plein air festival. Together the Arts Center and the Cultural Collaborative created the Native American Legacy Series. The series, consisting of five events within the plein air festival, was designed to connect artists and audience of today with Sedona’s rich indigenous heritage. The groups worked with the Yavapai/Apache Cultural Resource Center and the National Forest Service, as well as noted contemporary Native American artist Tony Abeyta.

I was a festival artist during one of the two years of partnership. For those of you who do not regularly participate in plein air festivals, let me shed a little light on how they work. The most important thing to learn is that no one event is ever the same as any other. Each has its own set of rules, its own list of important criteria, and its own agenda. The only thing they all seem have in common is a group of enthusiastic organizers who love where they live and are passionate about art.

Tony Abeyta speaking about his process at Montezuma’s Well during the Sedona Plein Air Festival

Tony Abeyta speaking about his process at Montezuma’s Well during the Sedona Plein Air Festival

Sedona’s festival has its very own Arts Center. Its director for the school of the arts, Vince Fazio, is an artist himself. As a participant, my job is to connect with the community, to identify and commit to the mission of the organization, and of course to paint amazing pieces of art that will sell and make everyone happy in the end. While that is extremely fascinating, it is also a huge amount of pressure. When an event asks me to become involved in themes and activities specific to their festival, it is extremely important to do so.

Tracing back about 12,000 years ago, the first Native Americans made roots in this region. Currently, 22 distinct tribes, each with its own unique history and customs, dwell here. Festival Chair Vince Fazio worked closely with the Sedona Culture Collaborative to develop key pieces that were part of the Native American Legacy Series during the 9th Annual Sedona Plein Air Festival. “This was a perfect fit for the Cultural Collaborative, and they were a wonderful, creative resource,” said Fazio. “Together we moved from nebulous but rich ideas into an exciting series of meaningful and unique events.”

“Young Navajo Dancer,” by Gretchen Lopez

“Young Navajo Dancer,” by Gretchen Lopez

Due to the crazy, exhausting schedule a painter faces at a plein air festival, it is sometimes difficult to work in time for all of the extra expectations enthusiastically suggested on our itinerary. Luckily, I worked in three of the five offerings that year, and I will never forget those experiences. They included a Native American pit firing of ceramics and a talk by Native American artist Tony Abeyta, as well as painting at Montezuma Castle for a special showing of the works of all 30 artists done at Native American legacy sites near Sedona. Other locations included Montezuma’s Well and Tuzigoot National Monument.

Additionally, a special Native American paint-out at a local legacy site, Montezuma’s Well, invited groups to encounter four Native American painters (Will Tapia, Gretchen Lopez, Tony Abeyta, and Shonto Begay) as they painted at the site and told their “creation stories” about their work. Then a Yavapai tribal spokesperson told the creation story of the tribe’s emergence from the natural springs of Montezuma’s Well.

Tony Abeyta judged the Native American Legacy paintings and gave awards just before his presentation, “Ancient Questions and the New Face of Native American Painting,” and Will Tapia won the top award for his painting “Morning at Montezuma’s Well.”

Tony Abeyta announces the Will Tapia award.

Tony Abeyta announces the Will Tapia award.

Gretchen Lopez, a local artist, had this to say: “I am grateful to the Sedona Arts Center for being such a pulse of creativity for everyone here in the Southwest. When I was invited to be a part of the Plein Air Festival back in 2013, it gave me a chance to not only partner with the Arts Center, but to share in my Native side, which is Chumash Indian and Apache, my other heritage being Hispanic. Montezuma’s Well, which is a very sacred place, gave many of us, as artists, the chance to go back to and explore our Native roots. It was a very powerful experience, both a phenomenon, and a very humbling one. To be a part of recording, through my painting, an area where life is precious, and the spirits of the ‘Ancients’ could still be felt, is something which I feel has impacted my work and my teaching. The experience has given me a greater sense of being. Now as I think about it, my memory is there and will be, as it was the last time my husband, John, would accompany me on this journey.

“Now, because of the Gretchen Lopez scholarship fund, which was established in my husband’s memory, I look forward to another outreach with the students at Monument Valley High School, on the Navajo Nation, next spring along with my good friend and ceramic teacher, Dennis Ott. It just touches my spirit to be able to work with these gifted young people, and thus it provides me, personally, another opportunity to be a part of what we do at the Sedona Arts Center in partnering with Native and Hispanic young people.”

Tony Abeyta announces the Will Tapia award.

Tony Abeyta announces the Will Tapia award.

Lopez is currently part of the “People Speak Exhibit” a showing of Native American work at the Phippen Museum of Western Art in Prescott, Arizona.

As for me, I also had a very personal experience painting at Montezuma Castle. Admittedly, I had procrastinated getting out to the site to paint due to time constraints. You never know, when you take time out of your prime painting time to drive to some place unknown, if you will be excited about painting what you find there. I only had the afternoon, which was a mistake, because I could have explored much longer. But I had a task to do and so, at the first sighting, began to examine the structure from some 90 feet below to try to compose a painting.

Montezuma Castle was built and used by the Sinaqua tribe (their name means “without water”) between 1100-1400 AD. They had come to what is now known as Sedona about 900 AD. Ironically, Montezuma, for whom the monument is named, never actually slept here as my painting title suggests. The pueblo dwellings were abandoned more than 40 years before his birth. European-Americans mistakenly believed there had been some connection to the famous Aztec emperor when they first found the ruins in the 1860s. The dwellings were one of four original sites designated as National Monuments by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. It was first excavated in 1933.

The longer I stood there, the more I became consumed with the history of this place and its people. Over 90 percent of the structure is original, meaning that even though there have been several reconstruction and stabilization projects over the years, I was looking at the real place. This multi-level, apartment-style community seemed ancient to me, and yet was so young in comparison to the earliest Native influence in the area some 25,000 years ago. I could not even begin to imagine how to paint it, let alone bring honor to it. Perhaps it was extreme heat and exhaustion, but for whatever reason, I broke down, crying, filled with imagination and emotion.

“Montezuma Slept Here,” by Lori Putnam, oil, 14 x 18 in. Private collection

“Montezuma Slept Here,” by Lori Putnam, oil, 14 x 18 in. Private collection

The ruins face south, and it was getting later in the afternoon by now. As the westward sun began striking the facade of fieldstone bound by mud and clay, it literally began to glow. My brush could not move quickly enough to tell the story of this magical place. It was one of those paintings that I had nothing to do with; it came from somewhere else. It painted itself. Judge Jill Carver took notice and awarded the painting as that year’s judge. Carver now also owns the work.

Since that first painting trip to Sedona, I have returned multiple times to participate in the plein air festival, teach workshops, as an artist-in-residence, and as the festival’s judge this past October for the 12th annual event. It was an honor to include Lopez among the award winners.

For information on the Sedona Arts Center and find ways to be involved, visit its website.