This series of regional paintings depicts only a few of the numerous sacred sites of Native American tribes living in the Southwestern United States. Over many years, I traveled to each site in New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado and made small oil pastel sketches of each one, then did the larger oil paintings later in the studio. Some sites were on Indian reservations, others on land that is now publicly owned. My expenses for travel and art supplies were funded by a grant from the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation.
My original grant proposal was to gain access to little-known, remote sacred Native American sites as my source material—yet I soon discovered this was a bad idea.
Because these sites had traditionally been considered sacred for hundreds, even thousands, of years, I figured there must be a good reason—one based on the same esoteric principles of geomancy as Chinese feng shui. In that system and in a similar Tibetan one, certain locations exist in which the energies of earth, wind, and water combine harmoniously to create a confluence of balanced forces—an energetically uplifting “power spot.”
Whether or not this was true for the sites I chose, my thinking was flawed. First, in the native worldview, all of Mother Earth is sacred. (Although a Navajo friend did admit to me that some sites are more sacred than others.) And the second problem is that by publicizing these sites, I would be doing Native Americans a disservice. They desire to protect the sites and keep them private, but my painting series might create interest and curiosity, drawing tourists or adventurers who would trespass in restricted areas.
As a result, I revised my original list of sites to include only those that can be seen from a distance, without trespassing on sacred ground; those that are now on public land; and those generally known to the public.
I used archival materials for these paintings, including Belgian linen canvas and Old Holland oil paints. While on location, I did small oil pastel sketches and took photos, which I later used as references for the large works in oil painted in my studio. Sometimes I used a technique of multiple thin glazes, instead of more direct painting, and built up layers to create a luminous effect. My obligation to do justice to the sites and the reverence native people felt for them subconsciously influenced my painting style, which previously had been a bit more abstract. The sacred sites paintings ended up more in the realm of heightened realism. I became very detail oriented to accurately portray the landscape formations, so each labor-intensive painting took 2 to 4 months to paint, and Spider Rock at Canyon de Chelly required 7 months.
For some of the paintings in the series (Corn Mountain, Wheeler Peak, Sleeping Ute Mountain, Mount Taylor, and Shiprock), I completely re-envisioned the light, the color, and the atmospheric effects, based on my 24 years of living in New Mexico and witnessing countless stunning skyscapes. If I hadn’t played around with the light this way, I would have been stuck duplicating the flat, bleached-out daylight of my photos—or else camping at each site to wait for Nature to produce a memorable skyscape.
The paintings in this series (from top to bottom and left to right) are:
1. Spider Rock (home of Spider Woman) at Canyon de Chelly is located on the Navajo reservation in northeastern Arizona. Canyon de Chelly is believed to be one of the heart centers of the world. Cliff walls of multicolored layers (ochre, sienna, pale beige, and rust red) enclose the canyon. For this trip I planned to drive through the canyon, but when I arrived, park officials said the river was too dangerous after the spring rains. No private vehicles were allowed in the canyon—only the ‘Shake and Bake’ open-air tour bus. Because I’d brought my dog, I was limited to driving around the canyon rim. Though disappointed, I soon realized that I had no choice but to paint the entire canyon from an "airplane" view. As you stand on the canyon’s rim, you can see tiny openings dotting the high cliffs, caves the Navajo built centuries ago to provide shelter from enemies and flash floods. Spider Rock, a red sandstone obelisk towering more than 800 feet high, is the home of Spider Woman, who is honored as a deity among the Diné (Navajo People). (1997-98, oil on linen, 30" X 70”)
2. Corn Mountain (Dowa’ Yallane’) at Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico, is called Dowa’ Yallane’ in the Zuni language. Only a single path leads up the eastern side of this mountain. Once a village was located on top. At various times, the Zuni also used the mountain as a place of refuge. When the floods came, the Zuni moved up there for safety. Sometimes they relocated to the mesa for protection against Apache attacks. In the 1500s, when Francisco Vásquez de Coronado conquered the Zuni village, and later during the 1680 Pueblo Revolt, the Zuni escaped to Corn Mountain. (1997, oil on linen, 40" X 50”)
3. San Francisco Peaks, near Flagstaff, Arizona; one of the four sacred Navajo mountains (West). That day, dramatic cloud formations hovered over the mountains. My photos turned out well, and all that remained was to capture the moment in paint. (1998, oil on linen, 40" X 50”)
4. Buffalo Mountain, now on public land near Waldo, New Mexico; the mountain is considered sacred by the Santo Domingo Pueblo. In the right light—just after dawn—and from a certain angle this mountain looks exactly like a charging buffalo. Buffalo Mountain, originally on Santo Domingo land, is considered sacred by that tribe. Now the land is privately owned. For roughly two years, residents of the village of Cerrillos and the surrounding areas, along with the Santo Domingo Indians, fought against the J. R. Hale mining company, which wanted to rezone the land and blast the mountain with dynamite to turn it into a gravel mine. Opponents of the proposal said it would destroy the quality of life for miles around, reduce property values, and decimate a major landmark. The final showdown with J. R. Hale took place at the Santa Fe County Courthouse, in which both sides presented speakers. The mining company had a paltry showing of non-local workers paid by J. R. Hale to fill seats, and their arguments consisted of their dependence on mining to make a living. The opposing side had environmentalists, historians, local business owners, public health and safety experts—you name it—topped off with an appearance by the Santo Domingo Tribal Council, whose members filed in wearing blue work shirts and silver and turquoise jewelry and concha belts. They were introduced by a young Santo Domingan who said, “You don’t realize what a big deal this is. These guys never go anywhere!” And the Force was with us—we won. The mountain was safe, for a while. Years later, though, I heard that mining interests were still trying to get control of this mountain, so the battle will go on.(2003, oil on linen, 50" X 38”)
5. Sacred Pools of Sedona (Seven Sacred Pools), Northeastern Yavapai tribe in Arizona. Only four pools appear in this painting, and even that is stretching the truth. In reality, just two or three pools are visible at a time unless the viewer is floating twelve or fifteen feet in the air, looking down. I imagined that aerial perspective by splicing together photos of each pool and then working from the montage. (2002, oil on linen, 50" X 38”)
6. Blanca Peak, Colorado; one of the four sacred Navajo mountains (East). The day I visited Blanco Peak, the lighting was perfect. I didn’t have to invent anything. What you see in this painting is exactly how Nature played it. (2001, oil on linen, 40" X 50”)
7. Hesperus Peak, Mount Hesperus (known as Dibé Nitsaa - Big Mountain Sheep; ceremonial name is Bááshzhinii Dzil - Jet Mountain), in the La Plata Mountains near Durango, Colorado; one of the four sacred Navajo mountains (North). I first saw Hesperus Peak from a great distance, while driving west on Route 160. Night had fallen on the surrounding countryside, and the sun’s dying rays lit only the mountains. I pulled off the road and made a thumbnail sketch of the unearthly pinks and blues but was too far away to get a decent shot without a telephoto lens. The next morning I drove closer to take photos. Everything looked completely different under the bright sun. This painting depicts the lighting in my first glimpse of the mountain. (1998, oil on linen, 36" X 54”)
8. Shiprock (Tsébit’a’—“The Great Rock with Wings”), Navajo reservation, New Mexico; on top of which the Navajo culture hero Monster Slayer killed the evil Monster Bird. There were so many outstanding views of this unusual rock formation, I didn’t know which to choose. In the end, I didn’t paint a closeup or one that reflected the mythology around the rock. Instead, I focused on my own first impressions: a sea of waving grasses, windswept clouds, and a shape on the horizon that really did look like a sailing ship. (2004, oil on linen, 45" X 50"
9. Mount Taylor (Tse’-pina/Kaweshtima, “The Woman Veiled in Clouds”), New Mexico: one of the four sacred Navajo mountains (South); also sacred to Laguna Pueblo. And the Anasazi (whom the Navajo called “the Ancient Ones”) regarded Mt. Taylor as sacred. By auspicious coincidence, in my alternate life as a freelance copyeditor, I edited a book by Paula Gunn Allen, a writer and UCLA English professor who hails from Laguna Pueblo. During one of our phone conversations, she mentioned that Mount Taylor is considered a feminine mountain by Native Americans, yet Anglos had given it a male name, after U.S. president Zachary Taylor. Around that same time, I also edited a book on Kwan Yin, the Buddhist goddess of compassion. In it, the author mentioned people having visions in which they were told to imagine Kwan Yin bathed in gold, rose, and lavendar light rays. I thought that perhaps these delicate colors symbolized a feminine essence, so I used them in the painting of Mount Taylor, to overcome its masculine name and reflect its Native American heritage. (2001, oil on linen, 36" X 50”)
10. Wheeler Peak (Taos Pueblo—New Mexico) (2005, oil on canvas, 50" X 40”)
11. Nambe Falls (Nambe Pueblo—New Mexico). According to some Nambe Pueblo residents, because this site is open to the public, it is not considered sacred any more; however, another tribal source said that religious ceremonies are still held there. The legend connected with the waterfall is that Nambe Falls was created by the tears of an Indian maiden grieving for her lover lost in battle. (2008, oil on linen, 50" X 40”)
12. Sleeping Ute Mountain (Ute Mountain Ute tribe—Colorado) is located near Cortez, Colorado. The mountain resembles a Ute chief lying on his back, with his arms folded across his chest. Ute Peak (the chief’s elbows) is the highest point. The mountains were considered sacred by the Weeminuche Ute band and are still deemed so by their descendants, the Ute Mountain Ute tribe. Certain locations in the mountains still play a role in Ute ceremonies. The “Sun Dance Ground” is located between the chief’s knees and Horse Peak (his ribcage). A 3-day Sun Dance is held once a year over the chief’s heart. I felt that this absolutely needed to be a nighttime painting. In this view, the lights from Cortez are reflected in the Totten Reservoir. While painting, I worked from daytime photos of the mountain, then added a cosmic skyscape with as many stars as would be visible through a powerful telescope. (2001, oil on linen, 32" X 50”)
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