I was born and raised in North Carolina. Although I was a child during the turbulent period of the 1960s, I witnessed a lot. I remember seeing signs over water fountains indicating “white only” or “colored only.” I remember black-only movie theaters and swimming pools because we weren’t allowed to go to the white swimming pool or white theaters. My father’s mother lived in Wilmington, NC. As a kid we’d travel to visit her from my home in Raleigh several times a year. Because we traveled through the heart of Klan country my parents would have me pee into an empty soft drink bottle, afraid of stopping at white-owned gas stations. Yet, in the midst of this craziness, I went to an alternative Quaker boarding school when I was 12, where I was one of 3 black kids out of a student body of 24. I was in this culturally rich, integrated, loving environment for 3 years which were the formative years of my life from ages 12–15. My first experience in a darkroom occurred at the Quaker school. My exposure to a life of service and living simply with consistency between one’s politics, spiritual practice and one’s work happened at the Quaker school. Ironically, the examples of the worst of humanity and the best of humanity were found in the same state. Both the experiences of hardcore racism and loving pacifism with a strong sense of community influence the work I do now and my art practice, which I identify as a celebration of the dispossessed.
What themes are present in your art?
I come from a tradition of humanistic, documentary photography. Traditionally, this photography is black and white and focuses on the process of getting to know people over an extended period of time and attempting to tell their story and reveal their truths through photo essays. I just did a retrospective show in December and the themes were primarily those of love, compassion and empathy –moments from everyday life that have a universal quality.
Can you tell us about the medium in which you create?
I spent 22 years shooting black and white film, which I developed in my home darkroom. Though this resulted in several gallery shows, the people I photographed weren’t seeing the work. I’ve always been drawn to street art since it first blew up in the early 80s. I spent 3 months in Brazil in 2009. During this period I spent time with artists creating art on the street. The artists in Brazil showed me work by the French artist JR, who enlarges black-and-white photographs to cover the facades of four-story buildings. This was my first time seeing how a photograph could be used as a street art medium. Upon returning to the Navajo Nation, I began to experiment with my old negatives and started placing them along the roadside on the reservation. I learned early on from roadside vendors that they appreciate having art on their roadside stands as it encourages more tourists to stop. Also, in a community with a high rate of unemployment, high rates of teen suicide and drug and alcohol abuse, I wanted to use imagery along the roadside that reflected back to the community some of the values of love and cultural heritage I’d captured during my time on the Navajo nation. Since 2009 I’ve been using large-format, wheat-pasted, black-and-white photographs adhered to roadside structures as my primary medium.
What is JustSeeds and why are collectives important?
Justseeds is a cooperative of 30 socially-engaged artists and activists scattered across north America whose work addresses themes of social justice, environmental justice, gender quality, prison reform, veteran advocacy and so on. It was an honor for me a year ago to get invited to join this group of like-minded folks advocating for the collective good. To live and work in relative obscurity on the Navajo Nation, it's important to feel connected to a larger community where ideas are shared and critically evaluated. I also appreciate opportunities for collaborating. You asked why are collectives important. A book of activist art was published recently titled "When We Fight, We Win." I'd alter that by saying when we fight together, we win.
Do you think that Arizona has a unique aesthetic voice?
No doubt. There are the cliché images of Arizona art of coyotes wearing bandanas howling at the moon or Kokopelli, but then there's the more socially-engaged art that speaks to immigration issues such as SB 1070, illegal deportation, protection of sites sacred to local indigenous tribes, water use and coal and uranium mining. Arizona is in a unique position to serve as a model for the remainder of the country with legislation regarding protection of sacred sites, immigration reform and gun law reform after the tragic shooting Tucson in 2011; however, politics and mindsets being what they are here, it provides an ongoing opportunity for activist artists to keep fighting to shed light and spread love. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice."