Santa Fe: Brandon Varela

So much to see and absorb while I’m  doing the amazing Equal Justice Residency at the Santa Fe Art Institute. Feeling very pampered, humbled and grateful to be here, and trying to make the most of every minute.

I’ve seen some wonderful art in the last two weeks, and met many inspiring and bold artists, writers, performers and creative practitioners. Last night I went to the opening of several shows at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in downtown Santa Fe. I got talking to artist Brandon Varela (Pascua Yaqui Tribe) about his work “Sovereignty in Art: An Approach from a Yaqui Artist” which I’ve included below. He is a young, soon-to-graduate, BFA student at the Institute of Native American Indian Arts. He described his beautiful painting in detail, and we shared brief notes on the symbolism of the deer. I’m going with other residents to the Deer Dances at one of the local villages which will be open to the public tomorrow. I know that Brandon’s beautiful painting and his words will be on my mind.

I’m reproducing his bio and statement below and look forward to seeing his future work.

Brandon Varela (Pascua Yaqui Tribe) “Sovereignty in Art: An Approach from a Yaqui Artist” 2016 oil on canvas.

Two large square canvases are turned to be triangles and are joined at their points. Three smaller square canvases, one above the join and two below the join provide more surface for the image. The background is a white brick wall with grey joints, the left and right canvases feature shopping bags with masks in front of them and the top small canvas has an image of an upturned deer head which may be a headdress. The edges of all canvases are painted red.
Brandon Varela (Pascua Yaqui Tribe) “Sovereignty in Art: An Approach from a Yaqui Artist” 2016 oil on canvas.

Artist bio: Brandon Varela was born in Tuscon, AZ and is an enrolled member of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe in Southern Arizona. Varela has always considered himself creative and imaginative, being the youngest child of his generation, he often found solace in art. Varela practices art in multiple mediums that involve traditional and contemporary methods. Varela uses a combination of Yaqui/indigenous imagery and techniques, and graphical commercial art to address concerns and conflicts within Indian Country. He is attending the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where his practice has evolved to include ceramics, photography, and screen printing, in addition to his paintings. Varela is slated to graduate in May 2018 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts.

Artist statement: You don’t always need to put yourself in my shoes to understand my art. Sometimes you, as the audience, are right where you need to be. What you see or don’t see is exactly how I want the work to be viewed. I am aware that my culture is mine and what I choose to share, and how, is up to me as a sovereign artist. But because this is the culture of all Yaqui people, what you’re looking at is not all mine to share. I do not have the right to discuss everything about my culture with my audience. However, what I do choose to share is a scene from ceremonial Yaqui dances, particularly an intermission where regalia is hung on the walls of the dance arbor. Left to Right there is a Yaqui pahko’ola (Pascola mask) which is made in the form of a javelina (peccary), in the center is the Yaqui maso kova (Deer Dancer Headdress) and finally to the right is a traditional pahko’ola mask depicting a humanoid goat-like mask. Items of regalia pre-date Spanish contact and hold a critical position in Yaqui culture. Without the dances and the songs, people lose their sense of connection with their culture. Since I am nowhere near my home, my connectivity with my culture lies with my art. I am grateful to be able to share my culture with my audience with this work.





Santa Fe: Stars and Dreams

The chance to do a thousand mile road trip to get to New Mexico for a residency at the Santa Fe Art Institute was an irresistible dream come true. After weeks of planning and considering different routes, plus an hour of last-minute panic mulching to keep the weeds down while I’m away, I set off around 11 am for the first leg of a 1150 mile trip, and an 8 week residency. Aside from the fact that I love driving, I thought it would be a great way to transition from the concerns and habits of life in the bay area to think about what I might do with this opportunity and in the process also get used to the altitude of 7000 feet.

The Road Trip

Day 1 was a grueling 430 mile drive from Berkeley via the I5 and 395, stopping for the night at a tiny place called Yermo, just beyond Barstow. I know the I5 well but had never been through Bakersfield. There’s a very pleasant stretch of hilly driving just beyond the city before the desert landscape begins to unfold. Surprises were everywhere. On Day 2, I headed to Flagstaff, AZ for another long drive of 345 miles through wide open plains and rugged desert landscapes that transform into forest as the road climbs up to 6000 feet. The mountain air is fabulous and all along the way are turn offs for the original route 66, with mid-century motels in bright colors and small towns to explore like Kingman and Seligman.

Flagstaff is home to the University of Northern Arizona and a great base for exploring. On Day 3, I made a visit to the Grand Canyon which is only 75 miles north of Flagstaff, and truly one of the wonders of the world. Words cannot describe its immensity, its complexity and its scale. Along with many tourists I walked along the south rim and stood staring in amazement across a vast space that is often 10 miles wide, towards the north rim. In all directions there are brightly colored layers of rock and stunning formations that never seem to end. The average depth is 1 mile and daring to look straight down into the bottom was an ongoing challenge.

Taking a different route back to Flagstaff through more beautiful and rocky landscapes, I decided to end my ‘rest-day’ with a night of star-gazing at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff.

Famous for discovering Pluto, Lowell had a ‘live astronomer’ Dr. Ted Dunham available with real-time images of planets, stars, galaxies and other celestial objects displayed on a large television screen outdoors. Staff gave presentations about the nature and size of stars and the characteristics of our own solar system. We gazed through portable telescopes at the Andromeda Galaxy and the Orion Nebula, we heard the origin stories of some of the constellations and I discovered that many scientists now believe that life must exist in other parts of the universe. By day’s end, my body, mind and soul were completely blown and cleansed of any remaining vestiges of bay area hipsta sensibility. I felt so expanded by everything I encountered that I slept like a baby, dreaming of distant horizons and interstellar travel.

Day 4 was back on the tarmac however, for the last big leg of my road trip and another 375 miles of straight open road, endless deserts and huge flat vistas. I made it to Albuquerque for an early night and a glimpse of the Superbowl.

On Day 5 the hour’s drive to Santa Fe went by in a flash and I was soon settled in with the other residents in this beautiful building designed by Ricardo Legoretta.

All along the way I stayed in cheap motels that were clean and much more comfortable than I expected for my limited budget (thank you especially Budget Inn, Flagstaff and Econolodge, Old Town Albuquerque).

The SFAI is a beautiful building, designed by Ricardo Legoretta
A modern sleek courtyard design with bright blue stucco and the shadow of bare trees on the left wall
View of the Inner Courtyard, Santa Fe Art Institute
The Equal Justice Residency

I’m excited about what is possible here, who I might meet, and what I might learn. The Santa Fe Art Institute has created a powerful residency program for 2018 on the theme of equal justice. More details to come as the program unfolds but for now, all you need to know is that I have a private room (and bathroom) with underfloor heating and patio, 24 hour studio access, a gallery space available for exhibitions and a cohort of fascinating people to work with. Is this another dream and if so when will I wake up?