Art of origin
“If I have a philosophy of art, it’s this: You have to know where you come from in order to know where you’re going,” Dorothy Grandbois said on a recent afternoon in the photography studio at the Institute of American Indian Arts. The studio was quiet in the calm before the beginning of the semester: Stacked grey lockers hadn’t yet been assigned to students, rows of huge flat-screen Apple computers were all powered off, and the revolving doors to the analog darkroom were closed. Grandbois is a graduate of IAIA and the University of New Mexico, and has been a photography instructor at IAIA for 19 years. For Grandbois, an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa tribe, and for many artists in the department, working at IAIA is synonymous with engaging in questions of identity and representation.
Studio arts at IAIA encompass photography, digital art, printmaking, photography, painting, ceramics, sculpture, and jewelry and metal work. (Conspicuously absent from these offerings is fiber arts, due to limited space and allocation of resources, according to J. Craig Tompkins, the department’s interim chair and a cinematic arts and technology instructor.) The campus sprawls across 140 acres south of the Santa Fe Community College. Studio spaces are contemporary and unadorned, spacious and well-equipped. (“I have the most beautiful Epson printer,” Grandbois said.) The physical plant has come a long way from its beginnings on the campus of the Indian School, and later, rented space in the barracks at the College of Santa Fe, where the school was housed for about 20 years, from the early ’80s until 2000.
“The barracks were freezing, and we used to break into the studios at night to work, even though we weren’t supposed to,” recalled James Rivera, a Pascua Yaqui tribal member and painter who teaches at IAIA and is a 1996 graduate of the school. Even with less than stellar facilities, “It was a magical time,” Rivera said. “We were so excited about what we were doing; we’d stay up all night just to work.”
Currently, the studio arts department has about 200 students, including the 19 AFA and 71 BFA candidates who will enroll this fall. Student-teacher ratios average about 12 to one, with many classes being much smaller. For first-year students, admission requirements are not particularly rigorous, nor is there a requirement to present a portfolio. “We’re looking for students who don’t necessarily have a background in art and who maybe don’t have abundant access to higher education,” Tompkins said. “Part of what studio arts students learn is how to build and present a portfolio.”
When Grandbois first came to IAIA as a student in the early ’90s, she had little art experience and was a stay-at-home mother in her early forties, going through a divorce. “I’d done beadwork at home, but never photography,” she said. “Photography changed my life. It awakened a part of me that had been sleeping.” She went on to study photography at UNM. As a photography instructor at IAIA, Grandbois begins each of her classes by having students introduce themselves and talk about their background. “One year, we had one elder who was a flute player, and he played for us,” Grandbois said. “If he hadn’t, we wouldn’t have known who he really was.”
Grandbois also shares her own work with her students. One of her pieces is a striking photo-lithograph that features a depiction of the crucifixion printed over an early 20th-century photograph, tinted red, of three Native American girls in doublebreasted school uniform jackets. The image recalls Grandbois’ experience at government and Catholic boarding schools. “It wasn’t until my mother died and I saw photos she had of me in the same type of outfit that I remembered things I hadn’t thought of for years,” she said, like her brother being forced to carry a bucket of sand after he’d broken his arm, as punishment for speaking their tribal language. “Life in a boarding school or on the reservation is hard,” Grandbois said. “Art is how I healed.”
Rivera’s father had a similar experience at boarding school, but it wasn’t until Rivera was an adult that he asked his father where the scars on his back came from — they were the result of being cut with a penknife when he spoke in his Native
language. “My work is all about language right now, and about misconceptions and misrepresentations,” Rivera said. “I’m so light-skinned that people don’t think I’m Indian at all, and there’s a lot of, ‘How Indian are you? Do you speak your language well enough? Were you raised on a reservation?’ ”
Rivera has held various positions at IAIA, including being a “dorm daddy,” working in the financial aid office, and as an instructor. He says the rigor of the curriculum has increased since he was a student. “They’re pushing research and theory in a way that they weren’t before,” he said. “We’re preparing students for graduate school.”
Terran Kipp-Last Gun is a member of the Piikani (Blackfoot) Nation and grew up near Browning, Montana. He’s a senior at IAIA this fall, and will graduate with a BFA in museum studies and an AFA in studio arts. He plans to intern at the Smithsonian Institution (as many IAIA grads do) next summer. “Most of my artwork is talking about identity issues and my own culture,” he said. His work includes photography; in one piece, the same woman poses in different spots around a living room; she’s adorned with kitschy “Native” accoutrements, like a pleather headdress with dyed neon feathers. “My art and my curatorial work [is informed by] a Native perspective,” he said, elaborating that he’d like to make museums more aware of what kinds of tribal items should be on public display, and which ones should be repatriated.
The essential component of an art education at IAIA is its indigenous approach. “Where else are you going to find all these incredible Native artists in one place?” Rivera said. He added that an arts education at other prestigious art schools, while broad, is rooted in the Western canon, while at IAIA, the Western approach is incorporated into the curriculum, but its core is Native. Yet not all of IAIA’s students are Native American. Application is open to anyone, and the department has both non-Native American students and international students.
Tompkins is white. “I’m not the only white guy on campus, but I’m definitely in the minority,” he said. “Truly, I don’t notice it too much. When I’m teaching, I let my students know that technology is a tool, that it can add to the traditional means of production rather than take away from it.”
There are few spaces (especially in higher education) where the majority is indigenous. “It feels good to be back in a mostly-Native setting,” said Wanesia Spry Misquadace, an IAIA graduate who just finished a dual MA/MFA program at the University of Madison at Wisconsin. Though she’s best known for her birchbark canisters, which incorporate metalwork with traditional birch biting techniques, this fall she’ll begin teaching intermediate and advanced photography at IAIA.
Misquadace grew up on the Fond du Lac reservation in Minnesota. Her parents died when she was a child, and she lived in foster care and in children’s homes, both on and off the reservation. “I was thinking about cosmetology school when an IAIA poster came in the mail,” she said. “I’d always been a maker, and I knew that education was the key for me.”
“The old stereotypes and outmoded ideas about what it is to be Native still exist,” Misquadace continued. “I want my students to go out into the world and say, we’re powerful, we’re educated, and we have a strong cultural foundation.”
Clockwise from left, student Tania Larsson (Gwich’in) in the jewelry studio; student Terran Kipp-Last Gun (Blackfeet) speaking during the 2015 IAIA Scholarship Awards Ceremony; student John Herrera in the Allan Houser Haozous Sculpture & Foundry Building Opposite page, top, students, alumni, faculty, and staff making art during 2014’s Art Rush; student Charletta Yazzie (Navajo) painting during Art Rush; photos Jason. S. Ordaz
Life in a boarding school or on the reservation is hard. Art is how I healed.
— instructor Dorothy Grandbois
Student Angel Mills (Oglala Lakota) making fry bread during the 2014 IAIA Powwow; below, IAIA student Edsel Brown (Navajo) during a blessing ceremony at the Balzer Contemporary Edge Gallery; photos Jason S. Ordaz