Celebrating Three Indigenous Artists for Native American Heritage Month

JayCee Beyale, Anna Tsouhlarakis and Melanie Yazzie Create Art for the Boulder Community, Inspired by Their Navajo Upbringings

Article by Jessica Mordacq

Photography by Poppy & Co. by Kelsey Huffer

Originally published in Boulder Lifestyle

JayCee Beyale: Muralist and street artist

Growing up in the Four Corners area of New Mexico, near his family’s Navajo reservation they visited regularly, JayCee Beyale watched his older brother graffiti fonts and styled lettering around town. Intrigued, JayCee checked out books at the library on street art and practiced drawing his own bubble letters. 

“Graffiti is what made me what to do art,” JayCee says. After earning a bachelor’s in printmaking from the University of New Mexico, JayCee creates art combining the sharp angles and bright colors found in graffiti aesthetics with traditional, geometric motifs found in Navajo rugs and pottery. 

A Buddhist of eight years, JayCee applies his religious and lifestyle teachings—which are in line with his Navajo upbringing in a spiritual household—to his art, combining indigenous ideologies and Buddhism with motifs of modern technology.

“The act of creating art is like a form of prayer,” says JayCee, who projects his thoughts and energies into what he paints, the same way his grandfather and uncles practiced as traditional healers. JayCee often depicts Navajo people in his murals in order to pass on and restore his culture.

Since 2020’s start, JayCee has painted seven murals in Colorado and now serves as a co-curator and assistant to marketing and advertising at the Dairy Arts Center. 

Anna Tsouhlarakis: Sculpture, installation, video and performance artist 

An enrolled member of the Navajo Nation, Anna Tsouhlarakis grew up between Kansas and New Mexico and naturally had access to creative materials. Her father, who was a construction worker then jeweler, brought her home wood for sculptures and metal scraps to stamp and roll out.

Anna’s degrees from Dartmouth in studio art and Native American studies, as well as her master’s from Yale in sculpture, inform one another and allow her to reshape indigenous art’s aesthetics.  

“I knew there were gaps in native art history that needed to be filled,” Anna says. While in the early 2000s, African American and Asian American artists created in then-unique mediums of performance, installation and video, there were few contemporary Native American pieces in these mediums.

In order to work across several artistic disciplines, Anna avidly reads and follows Native American news dealing with land rights, the environment and social issues. Her pieces’ foundations start with Navajo philosophies and teachings. 

Anna moved to Boulder in May 2020 from Washington D.C., catching the tail end of her artist residency in nearby Colorado Springs through the year. Her children Mahate, Akocha and Oaks Carreiro are the most important part of her life here, as there aren’t many native families in Boulder.    

“One of the most exciting things about being in Boulder is the native community at the University,” Anna says. She’s the Director of Foundations and a tenure-track Assistant Professor in CU-Boulder’s Art and Art History department. “It’s absolutely amazing to be on a campus with native students and colleagues,” Anna says.    

Melanie Yazzie: Printmaker, painter, sculptor and mixed media artist

Melanie Yazzie learned the art of studio practice from her grandmother Thelma Baldwin, a traditional Diné (Navajo) weaver. Melanie sat with her while she wove quietly and intentionally, meditating while she worked. As a printmaking professor at CU-Boulder since 2006, Melanie preaches the same method of carving out creative time to her students. 

Raised in Arizona on a reservation, Melanie felt encouraged by her parents to explore her artistic sense. A part of the Salt and Bitter Water Clans, Melanie creates what she believes in around themes of post-colonial dilemmas, Native American womanhood and her personal experiences, all to educate viewers on the issues shaping modern Diné people.  

After receiving a bachelor’s in studio art from Arizona State University and a master’s in printmaking from CU-Boulder, Melanie attracted attention for her realistic art. 

“Artists don’t go into the studio to become famous,” Melanie says. “They do it to honor their grandmother and community. When you’re honest with your craft about things beyond yourself, people want to connect with that.”

Her self portraits, for example, portray her experience as an unseen brown woman in society, mixed with bright colors and fun animal imagery. Last October, when Melanie’s mother passed from the coronavirus with no preexisting conditions, she painted from childhood memories, then made stencils of homes around Boulder and added healing and prayer imagery. 

“If I depict the reality of our situation and histories, it’s so bleak,” Melanie says. “I have to make this beautiful work, put on rose-tinted glasses to see the world and heal myself.” 

With more than 500 group and solo exhibitions around the world under her belt, over the last 20 years, Melanie has also organized other artists’ work through more than 300 print exchanges. She collects several of the same print from a handful of artists before sending or delivering them to regional and national collections. This way, even rural artists can advertise their name and work.

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