Connecting with nature can provide incomparable peace, and that notion is captured in the work of Melanie Yazzie, a printmaker, painter, sculptor and mixed-media artist, as well as a professor of arts practices and head of printmaking at the University of Colorado Boulder. Through her multi-layered work, which has been exhibited across the U.S. and internationally, she portrays the intrinsic symbolism of our natural world. Her latest exhibition, Peace Walking, follows that earthy through line, exploring the profound relationship between human beings and the environment at the Denver Botanic Gardens Freyer Newman Center, from Sunday, January 29, through May 29.
Drawing deeply from her Diné (Navajo) lineage, Yazzie examines the many facets and complexities found in Indigenous cultures, traditions and lived experiences, and she has traveled extensively to share her art practices and teachings with Indigenous peoples worldwide.
Most of all, Yazzie is deeply connected to the natural environment and has always mused on mankind's innate relationship with it. “I’ve had this way of seeing the world from a young age — collecting little rocks or shells or different objects, and they took on having a little spirit or a thing that had meaning for me. And not all Navajo children are like this,” she laughs. “Sometimes at home, people are like, ‘You’re just a little different.' And I just think, ‘I am!’”
She remembers sitting with her grandmother while she did her weaving, aware that this was a sacred, special time. These quiet moments taught her from a young age that whether she was coloring, drawing or crafting, creative work was important work.
“At times when I was a kid, I hated sitting in quiet and just listening to flies and distant airplanes. I would look up and think, ‘Where are they going?’ and, ‘I wish I was going,’” Yazzie recalls. “And then as I got older, I’d be on a plane and look back down and think of home. I’d remember those times with my grandmother, just sitting there while she’s working on something with yarn or sewing, and I’d miss the sound of flies, the quietness and the time with her.
She is always taking time to notice all the little things around her — the visible, the invisible, and especially those moments of space, silence and "nothingness."
“That’s what the exhibit is about,” she says of her upcoming show. “It’s about going outdoors and taking care of yourself by listening, seeing or hearing different things. We don’t do it enough! We just don’t. And so my small hope is that people will hear this title, Peace Walking, and go on their own peace walk, their own way of finding centered-ness and balance, and then maybe look at the work and be inspired to make their own.”
Yazzie’s passion for printmaking began when she was fifteen, after she left home to go to a Quaker boarding school outside of Philadelphia. There she took her first formal art classes, quickly discovering her interest in screen printing, etching and ink work. After spending a year living in Mexico after high school, she returned to Arizona to attend Arizona State University — one of the top printmaking schools in the country — and received a BA in studio arts.
She first moved to Colorado in 1990, when her first husband was accepted into the School of Mines. She started working in retail, but it wasn’t long before she found herself signing up for art classes at Red Rocks Community College and turning their apartment into a home studio. Yazzie then decided to pursue her MFA at CU Boulder.
She began teaching classes at CU Boulder during her graduate program, and by the time she made it to her thesis semester, she had already secured a full-time teaching position at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico, one of the most prominent contemporary art programs for Native Americans in the U.S. She moved to Santa Fe after graduating and taught there for six years.
She then spent a year as a visiting artist at the University of Arizona in Tucson and became a professor for that school's art department for six years. There she met her current husband, Clark Barker; they moved to Colorado when Yazzie was offered a tenure position at her alma mater, CU Boulder, where she continues to teach today.
“I never, ever thought that would happen. I thought I’d always have to be back home to find that peace," she continues. "But there’s a huge power in knowing that I’ve created a new path and a new realm in this little bubble of Colorado that I’m in. Now I yearn for the mountains, and when the redwing blackbirds first come back in the spring. There’s so many aspects of where we live now that mark time. September, when the elks bugle in Estes Park, is one of the most magical times of the year. Up in Rocky Mountain Park, sitting on the wall and having a pika run across you — it’s like magic. So there are new moments of magic that are a new kind of childhood in this older age.”
Yazzie’s joy for life and appreciation for what’s around her has extended far beyond the landscapes of the American West. Throughout her career, she's traveled to France, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Korea, Russia, Italy and more, spending time with the locals and Indigenous peoples of each place in order to learn about their respective cultures, and connecting with them through teaching, artmaking and finding shared meaning in tradition, heritage and symbolism.
She adds that there is a positive commonality, as well: "It’s our connection to nature, to animals — to how they tell us different things about ourselves, and how they teach us how to be. Every place I’ve been, there’s a connection to that. And that’s something that’s in my work, so when I go to these other places, there’s this immediate connection.”
Pointed themes of colonization and post-colonial issues for Indigenous peoples are seen in Yazzie's work, alongside her vibrant palette and nature-oriented themes. “Sometimes it’s really directed, what the piece is going to be about," she says, "and at other times I am making it to soothe myself and heal myself from what we’re living in. A lot of times people look at the work I make and they think it’s just this one level, but when we start talking and start unpacking the symbols or the meaning in the work, we start to verge into all these different conversations, which I think are really quite wonderful.”
Yazzie hopes to spark more of these conversations at Peace Walking’s accompanying artist talk on March 4, and printmaking workshop on February 4 at the Botanic Gardens.
"Whenever I get low, I either make some work, go for a walk or enjoy a cup of tea and just being. That’s the type of life I've been trying to walk," Yazzie says. "It’s hard to slow down and be quiet. But my path of being an artist is bringing those small moments of joy to myself, sharing them with other people and trying to have patience with others and with myself.”
Peace Walking, Sunday, January 29, through May 29, Denver Botanic Gardens Freyer-Newman Center, 1085 York Street. Tickets and more information can be found here.