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Arizona Artist Explores Native Identity Of His Generation

Tom Greyeyes works on a print at Arizona State University on Jan. 8 with the ...

Photo by Jude Joffe-Block

Above: Tom Greyeyes works on a print at Arizona State University on Jan. 8 with the assistance of student, Emily Lewis.


Navajo artist Tom Greyeyes.

— Mixed media artist Tom Greyeyes chose to introduce himself for his interview with Fronteras Desk first in Navajo, and then in English.

“Hi, my name is Tom Greyeyes,” he said after the Navajo version. “I’m from Northern Arizona, I was born and raised in Flagstaff, Navajo Rez.”

He means he grew up between both places, Flagstaff at times, and the town of Tsegi, on the Navajo reservation, at other times. At 23, one of the topics he thinks a lot about is how Native young people of his generation straddle two worlds.

“A lot of us are sort of in this void, between traditional and then what I guess is American culture,” Greyeyes said. “And being in that void is sometimes frustrating. And there are always conflicting views, too, conflicting values.”

In a screenprint self portrait Greyeyes did in September, a man is grasping a root with his hands, as he is being lifted away.

Greyeyes' tools of expression are diverse, ranging from wheatpastings to digital prints to spray paint.

He's comfortable working on a large scale. He has paintings and graffiti installations that cover entire walls and appear on abandoned buildings on reservations. His whimsical sculptures of found objects stand out in barren landscapes.

Greyeyes said not all of his work is intended to be political. Some of it is abstract, and explores color and design. But within his art that makes a statement, Native identity and stereotypes seem to be among the reoccurring themes.

For the past week, he has been participating in a printmaking project with four other Native artists and graduate students at Arizona State University School of Art in the Herbergerer Institute, which will culminate in an exhibition and auction on Thursday night at the Night Gallery in Tempe. His print is a critique of Johnny Depp’s depiction of Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s Indian sidekick, in an upcoming Hollywood remake.

"It is about cultural appropriation," Greyeyes said. "[Depp] is taking parts of Native culture and from what they originally meant and really distorting it."

After graduating from Arizona State University’s art program last year, Greyeyes followed his girlfriend at the time to the San Carlos Apache reservation about 100 miles east of Phoenix.

“It is a very hard place to live, it is very different than my reservation," said Greyeyes, who taught art while he was living there. “I started doing a lot of street art out there because there are a lot of abandoned, semi-burned down buildings.”

Photo by Jude Joffe-Block

Proofs of the prints that Tom Greyeyes made this week. The subject is Johnny Depp's portrayal of the character Tonto.

His outdoor works included a portrait of a young Native woman on a water tank and a grieving figure on the back of a deserted, blighted house.

One day he stumbled on an abandoned trailer and wanted to paint on it. He knocked on a house next door to ask permission, where he found a little girl and a woman.

“She was an older lady and she was like babysitting, and she was just drunk, it really stuck with me,” Greyeyes said. “I didn’t know how to react in a situation like that.”

It inspired his latest work, which he painted last week, and is now on exhibit at the Night Gallery. It is two-part painting that measures about 10 x 12 feet.

Greyeyes took this photo of his most recent painting, while it was in progress.

“The first image is a little girl, and she is sort of trapped in a 40 ounce bottle,” he said. “She is holding these little, little flowers.”

In part two, those little flowers have grown into a huge sunflower that has burst through the top of the bottle, leaving it broken. The little girl is gone.

“I am trying to insinuate that she escaped,” Greyeyes said.

The bottle represents alcohol abuse. The growing sunflowers – which grow wild on the San Carlos Apache reservation - stand for the persistence of tribal culture and values.

“Some communities, out there, especially on reservations, like the kids grow up sort of trapped in their family's alcoholism,” Greyeyes said. “I hope they have a part of their culture, some sort of values they will kind of keep, and hopefully, it will grow and manifest into something, and get them out of situations like that when they are older.”

Losing his own cultural heritage is a theme that preoccupies Greyeyes.

“I'm very worried, my generation is very different than my dad's generation, my parents generation,” Greyeyes said. “They are different than their grandparents, my grandparents. We are losing our traditional identity for sure.”

He says he has tried to find ways to connect to his heritage. He goes back to his family’s land and maintain a garden each summer. His brother raises horses in the way his father taught him. But he says it isn’t easy to find the right balance.

“I've tried to like reconnect a lot of times and sometimes I've failed, like horribly,” he said.

That sense of loss, though, may also be what inspires him to keep making art.

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