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The Keepers of Tradition

Author: Rebecca L. Rhoades
Issue: July, 2017, Page 60
Photos by Wendy McEahern

Del Curfman works on an unfinished piece in his studio at the Institute of American Indian Arts.
Blending the Influences of Modern Society With the Ways of Their Ancestors, Artists Del Curfman and Zoe Urness Tell the Story of Today’s Native Americans

In the early 1900s, photographer Edward Curtis embarked on what would eventually become one of the most profound records of North American indigenous peoples and their traditions. His intent for the ambitious 20-volume work, known simply as “The North American Indian,” was to document Native Americans before they and their cultures disappeared. 

Zoe Urness poses in front of her photo “The Boys” in the Santa Fe home of Heather Weir.
Although unappreciated during his lifetime, Curtis’ groundbreaking sepia-tone photogravure images resurfaced in the ’70s and are now considered a masterpiece of visual anthropology. They are highly sought after by collectors and have influenced countless artists—both Native and non-Native—from traditional Western masters to contemporary portraitists and just about anyone seeking to capture on paper or canvas the spirit of a proud civilization that has been romanticized and misunderstood for centuries.

In Santa Fe, New Mexico, a city rooted in pueblo history and culture, two young Native artists—painter Del Curfman and photographer Zoe Urness—are harnessing their own responses to Curtis’ work to create powerful depictions of our nation’s tribal backgrounds and to remind people that, contrary to the late photographer’s inauthentic belief that his subjects were a “vanishing race,” American Indians remain an important part of modern society.

“Curtis was commissioned to go out into the American West and take photographs with the thought we were going to be a nonexistent culture in about seven generations or 100 years,” says Curfman, age 24, of the Apsáalooke or Crow Nation in Montana. “Now it’s 2017, and I’m here talking about contemporary issues with contemporary people, so in a way I’m combating the idea that we’re gone. I’m trying to say that we’re still very much alive and we still have a vibrant, beautiful culture.”

The Crow people hold the eponymous bird in high esteem. Legend posits that the crow once wore the colors of the rainbow, while all other animals and birds were black. He shook off his colors, which landed on the others, and he has remained dark ever since. “Spring Equinox,“ oil on canvas, 12"H by 12"W.
The recent graduate of Santa Fe’s Institute of American Indian Arts with dual degrees in museum studies and studio arts has been making a name for himself with collectors worldwide thanks to his “Vanishing” series, a play on Curtis’ own words. Highly stylized dancers, warriors, riders on horseback and runners are portrayed in vivid colors with loose brushwork, their very essence captured in an impressionistic blur of oils on a textured white background. “I’m trying to discuss the notion of time, space and movement,” notes the artist.

Some images focus strictly on the individual, “because that’s what I’m most interested in—the body, the face and our interactions with it,” Curfman explains. Others include the addition of a solid band of color inset with three gold circles. “Bringing in that contemporary element has been a very successful way to combine my figurative work with this modern-day discussion that I’m having with a vanishing culture that actually still exists—and trying to showcase that it is still here.”

Curfman’s technique of pulling the paint away from his figures creates a sense of movement, as seen in “Vanishing Series: Endurance,” oil on canvas, 20"H by 16"W.
While many of his paintings feature Crow figures in traditional regalia—oftentimes inspired by images of the annual Crow Fair powwow, which takes place each August in Crow Agency, Montana—Curfman’s work also focuses on such inanimate subjects as cars and native footwear. “I have different views and different aesthetics that I’m looking for. Native, non-Native, more traditional, less traditional. I’m always trying to expand my horizons as an artist,” he says.

There’s his “Recollection” series—colorful images of classic vehicles in homage to his father. “He’s a mechanic and a Ford man, so it was an ode to my upbringing and to his life as well,” says the artist. “Beyond Footsteps,” a collection of moccasin still lifes “is about the connection Native American people have with footwear and with Mother Earth,” he adds. “We place our value with our connection to earth—and what is most connected to the ground? The foot.” Additional series focus on animals and birds.

Collectors Richard and Janet Schmidt of La Grange, Texas, own three of Curfman’s paintings. “Even though he’s standing still, you can still feel movement,” says Richard of this commissioned piece.
“Del has spectrum in his content,” says renowned Santa Fe-based Navajo painter Tony Abeyta. “His work is never repetitive. He’s moving on to new subject matter and dealing with contemporary Native ideas.”

For now, the new graduate will be saying goodbye to Santa Fe as he takes on a yearlong fellowship with the Center for Native American Youth in Washington, D.C., but he hopes to continue using his art as a platform for discussion and to show that American Indians still exist and remain culturally significant.

For Urness, age 32, Santa Fe is where she decided to settle down and concentrate on her art after graduating from the former Brooks Institute in Ventura, California. “I had a shower curtain with a map on it, and I said, ‘I can move anywhere,’ so I pointed at it and ended up landing on Santa Fe.” She moved to the mountain town from her home state of Washington in 2010.

For his work “Vanishing Series: Motion,” 14”H by 11”W, oil on canvas, Curfman notes, “I was inspired by the dancer’s regalia as it swayed and its colors blended into the air to the rhythm of the drums.”
As with Curfman, Curtis’ photographs serve as inspiration for her artistic vision. “My dad gave me a coffee-table book by Curtis, and I remember opening the pages and thinking that I wanted to jump into them. I wanted to go back and live with the ancestors,” she says. Although her work encompasses images of Native American tribes from across the country, Urness identifies strongly with her Alaskan Tlingit heritage, having grown up performing in a Tlingit song and dance group. “There was this spirituality that came with being onstage in my regalia. It was who I was and where I came from.”

After working as a full-time potraitist, she decided to return to film photography and called upon a friend and fellow member of the Native dance group to which she had belonged to pose for a shoot. The resulting image of the dancer wearing his raven regalia and standing atop the remains of a cut-down tree catapulted Urness to the top of the Native arts scene and has become one of her most popular pieces. “I remember just feeling the setting call to me and having a vision of him on top of the tree stump,” she says. “But what I didn’t realize was the impact that image would make or the message it would send. I loved the composition, but there’s also the symbolism of Natives being forced into boarding schools and having their hair cut off or their land taken. But to me it isn’t about being negative. It’s about healing. The raven in the story comes down and blesses the land and starts a healing process.”

Photos - From left: Curfman adds some finishing touches to “Beyond Footsteps: Cheyenne,” oil on canvas, 12"H by 12"W. The title denotes which tribe the moccasin represents.

Urness’ photograph “The Boys” was shot in August 2014. “I love the way it caught them at that point where they’re not boys anymore but almost men,” says Weir.

Urness used the image to kick-start her photography project “Native Americans: Keeping the Traditions Alive.” She traveled throughout the U.S., shooting the ceremonies, dances and clothing of indigenous peoples. The works, often displayed in large scale with pieces upwards of 65 inches long, are reminiscent of Curtis’ historic images. Solitary figures, dressed in traditional regalia and depicted in grainy sepia tones, stand stoically against their natural surroundings.

This past May, Urness caught up with the young dancers for a follow-up shoot on her ranch. From left to right: Logan Cayaditto, age 9; Garrett Cayaditto, age 11; and their young sister, Kala.
“I wanted to create a bridge showing that Natives were here long ago and that they’re still here today, and I think the sepia tone drives that message home,” she says. “It also eliminates a lot of distractions so people can really see the land and the connection to the subject matter. The basic color tones really draw that unity together.”

Santa Fe collector Heather Weir was captivated by Urness’ vintage look. “I had just read ‘Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher’ about Edward Curtis, and I became fascinated by what he had done,” she says. “Then this past spring, I was at the Native Treasures Indian Arts Festival, and I saw Zoe’s photographs from across the room. They were beautiful. They reminded me of Curtis’ style.” Weir purchased “The Boys,” a portrait of Albuquerque-based Native dancers Garrett and Logan Cayaditto.

Urness relaxes after a photoshoot on her ranch in Santa Fe.
For Mark Tarrant, executive director of Altamira Fine Art in Scottsdale, Urness’ unique viewpoint and vision stands out in a crowded field. “Zoe has a spirit of energy that comes through in her work,” he says. “She doesn’t do the usual expected poses, gestures and compositions. She has strong visionary ideas, and I think she’s going to be really important.”

Abeyta agrees, adding that both young artists are in the formative stages of being part of a larger conversation about where Native American art is heading. “Del and Zoe are examples of modern-day Natives in a world of urbanity, but they still have very close ties to their community, their people and their spiritual resources,” he says. “They’re right in the middle of their creative paths, and I’m looking forward to what they’re going to produce in the future.”

Frozen in Time

Sometimes the most powerful and beautiful images come from the most challenging of situations. In 2016, thousands of Natives from across the country converged on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota to protest the development of an oil pipeline through sacred lands and alongside the reservation’s water supply.

Photographer Zoe Urness followed the movement from home—until late November when she learned of an especially brutal attack by police against protestors. “When the water cannons went off and people were being hurt, I had no other option than to grab my camera and go,” she recalls. “I had to remind myself that I am fearless with my camera. It is my weapon.”

One day, while shooting scenes of the encampment in blizzard conditions, she noticed a figure cloaked in a button blanket, a ceremonial item of her own Tlingit tribe. “It was so divine that through all the snow and all the people, I saw this man from Alaska wearing a button blanket. I had to get a picture of him,” she says. “I ran up ahead so that I could shoot him straight on, and when I basically dove in front of the crowd coming at me, the formation appeared. I couldn’t believe what was happening. I took the shot, went across the road and fell to my knees.

“To have an image that represented so many different faces, so many different people and what was going on there was a spiritual experience,” she continues. “It was confirmation to just get your camera and you will be guided. The story will be told.”

That photo, entitled “No Spiritual Surrender,” received a First Place award for photography as well as Best of Class at the 2017 Heard Museum Indian Market in Phoenix; in May, it took home a blue ribbon for Best of Preview at the Native Treasures Indian Arts Market in Santa Fe.

“I remember the moment when she walked up and said, ‘This is it, I got what I came here for,’” says renowned artist Tony Abeyta, who was with Urness at Standing Rock. “It’s an iconic photo.”

Urness’ photograph “Raven Tells His Story in the Fog,” featuring Tlingit Raven dancer Gene Tagaban, symbolizes Native Americans’ loss of land and identity but also healing.

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