Diné Artist Melanie Yazzie’s Fruitful Artist-Farmer Collaboration

Diné (Navajo) artist Melanie Yazzie’s multimedia collages in the group exhibition, agriCULTURE: Art Inspired by the Land, at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art (BMoCA), evoke an imaginary world whose story has been told via an ancient-seeming pictographic language.

The backgrounds of Yazzie’s panels are mostly dark and gestural, providing a dynamic setting for the combined objects, textures, and materials. Yellow is dominant, especially a pale yellow that creates depth in the simple, white cut-outs of flowers. A rich, buttery yellow describes gardening tools and crockery. 

Other objects appear here and there: most notably, bees, butterflies, birds, and foliage are represented in a sketchy, minimalist style. Text shows up randomly and, in a sense, is rendered inscrutable or at least redundant in contrast to the richer pictorial language of the works. Small structures that resemble homes, modest cottages, interrupt fields of otherwise organic forms.

The artworks in the exhibition are, in fact, both a chronicle of Melanie’s wintertime partnership with Colorado bioregional farmer, Krisan Christensen, and also something far more timeless: the infinite cycle of birth and death and of land and lives at times fallow and, at others, fertile. The story is occasionally interrupted by serendipitous events that ever so briefly halt the turning of the wheel–events like the creative partnership between Melanie and Krisan. 

Melanie and Krisan were one collaborative pair among eight (pairs of) artists and farmers whose work was featured in agriCULTURE, which was presented by BMoCA and the Longmont Museum. The curators of the exhibition were Jane Burke of BMoCA and Jared Thompson of the Longmont Museum along with guest lead curator Jamie Kopke. Their core goal was to highlight practices of area farmers that touch on pressing contemporary issues such as anthropogenic climate change, land rights, cultural heritage, food access, and more. The exhibition was organized at several venues, including the museums, with site-specific installations at select farms.

Their core goal was to highlight practices of area farmers that touch on pressing contemporary issues such as anthropogenic climate change, land rights, cultural heritage, food access, and more.

Farmers and artists devised their respective co-endeavors. Melanie’s collages, for instance, were inspired by her visits to Wild Wellspring Farm, Krisan’s queer, woman-owned and operated farm in East Boulder. The two worked together over the course of mid-winter of 2023, a season regarded by Diné culture as one of abeyance, creativity, and sharing, including the sharing of stories. 

The time spent on the farm with Krisan returned Melanie to her childhood in Northeast Arizona on the Navajo Nation. There, she frequently visited her maternal grandparents who were sheep farmers and also cultivated squash, corn, and other produce. Those memories coalesce with her creative exchange with Krisan and are apparent in the many references to the flora and fauna of both Northeast Arizona and Colorado’s Front Range. 

The featured photograph of the artist working on the collages reveals a fascinating stage in her process. Fully and partially completed collages–all relatively small–are mounted on the wall of her studio in a kind of asymmetric tiled or mosaic arrangement. Perhaps juxtaposition is rooted in formal relationships between the individual collages? Or, possibly, symbolic associations emerge as artworks interact? Whatever the guiding principle, Melanie continues work on incomplete collages, augmenting, enhancing, and furthering connections between objects and materials. Importantly, when the works were installed in agriCULTURE, BMoCA displayed them according to the artist’s unconventional overall composition. This makes for a viewing experience that encourages a holistic assessment as well as a perusal of the individual works.

Meanwhile, Krisan, whom Burke explained “has developed her own artistic practice, making ceramic fermentation crocks,” contributed several ceramic pieces. The crocks, which were arranged by the artist-farmer herself, fall into a linear order based on, says Burke, “the seasonal cycles on the farm.” They function as a sort of epilogue to Melanie’s panels, but that’s not the only role of Krisan’s earthy, variously shaped ceramic crocks.

Whatever the guiding principle, Melanie continues work on incomplete collages, augmenting, enhancing, and furthering connections between objects and materials.

Melanie’s shorthand pictographs representing Krisan’s ceramic pieces appear here and there in the collages as simply rendered, flat, yellow forms. When paired with the gardening tools, these simplified representations speak directly to the labor and fruits thereof of the farmer and the artist. In particular, the crocks, like the panels, symbolize several things: from harvest and the subsequent preparation for winter, which in Diné culture takes on significant, ritualistic import, to preservation–of food, of traditions, of stories, of relationships.

Melanie’s collages are composed as one might arrange freshly harvested produce. Organic forms and colors are interrupted by hard-edged, geometric, and, one assumes, human-wrought structures. The latter are reminders of the interventions, both positive and negative, of humans in the natural world. 

Indeed, above all else, agriCULTURE was conceived of as not only an investigation of local farming and artistic practices relevant to the unfolding environmental crisis but also as a dialogue about possible solutions, especially local ones. In the microcosm of the exhibition, Melanie’s pictures are a testament to the abundance of the collaboration between farmer and artist. In the larger world, they suggest possible remediations. 

Indeed, above all else, agriCULTURE was conceived of as not only an investigation of local farming and artistic practices relevant to the unfolding environmental crisis but also as a dialogue about possible solutions, especially local ones.

Besides her mixed media collage work, Melanie is a printmaker, sculptor, and painter. In terms of both form and content, she draws frequently from her Diné heritage, following a Diné adage, “walk in beauty.” She is compelled by a desire–or imperative, really–to function as “an agent of change” through her art and her teaching; she is currently Professor of Printmaking at the University of Colorado Boulder. She has traveled extensively–for instance, in the Pueblos of the Southwestern United States–and elsewhere such as the Arctic, New Zealand, and rural Russia. Beneath her travels is, among other things, a desire to explore, she explains, “Indigenous cultural practices, language, song, story-telling, and survival.”

Melanie has exhibited her artwork in numerous group and solo exhibitions in the US and abroad. She is represented by Glenn Green Galleries in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her panels for agriCULTURE and Krisan’s ceramic pieces can be viewed along with that of several other collaborative pairs: Yumi Janairo Roth with Mark DeRespinis of Esoterra Culinary Garden, Desert ArtLab: April Bojorquez and Matt Garcia with Andre Houssney of Jacob Springs Farm, Patricia Rangel with Kena and Mark Guttridge of Ollin Farms, Anthony Garcia with Laura Allard-Antelmi and Richard Pecoraro of MASA Seed Foundation, Adán de la Garza also with Krisan Christensen of Wild Wellspring Farm, Dylan McLaughlin and Jessica Zeglin with Helen Skiba of Artemis Flower Farm, and Esther Hz with Erin Dreistadt and Jason Griffith of Aspen Moon Farm.

agriCULTURE: Art Inspired by the Land is open until October 1, 2023 at both the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art and the Longmont Museum. Guest lead curator Jamie Kopke comments, “The artists in this exhibition hold up a mirror to us all. Through these collaborations they have sought to share the many stories the farmers—and thus the land—have to offer.” She urges visitors to the exhibition to muse and then act, “As you wander the gallery and hold these strands, what vision will you choose to weave?”

© Debra Thimmesch (8/10/23) Special for FF2 Media

LEARN MORE / DO MORE

Check out the museum’s website for more information about agriCULTURE: Art Inspired by the Land. It is on view from June 8th until October 1st, 2023 at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art.

Learn more about Wild Wellspring Farm.

Keep up with Melanie Yazzie on Instagram and check out her University of Colorado Boulder faculty page.

Visit Glenn Green Galleries for more of Melanie’s work.

CREDITS & PERMISSIONS

Featured photo: Melanie Yazzie with her work. Image courtesy of Wes Magyar.

Bottom photo: Melanie Yazzie’s work inspired by Wild Wellspring Farm. Image courtesy of Wes Magyar.

Debra Thimmesch is an art historian and critic, activist, independent researcher and scholar, writer, editor, and visual artist. She mentors graduate students in Art History and is attuned to current endeavors to radically rethink and reframe the study and pedagogy of Art History. Her work has appeared in Art Papers, The Brooklyn Rail, and Blind Field Journal. Her BA in art history is from Wichita State University; master’s and doctoral work in art history: the University of Kansas.

Tags: agriCULTURE, Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, Ceramics, collage, Debra Thimmesch, Indigenous Artists, Jamie Kopke, Jane Burke, Jared Thompson, Krisan Christensen, Melanie Yazzie, Printmaking

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Debra Thimmesch is an art historian and critic, activist, independent researcher and scholar, writer, editor, and visual artist. She mentors graduate students in art history and is attuned to current endeavors to radically rethink, decolonize, and reframe the study and pedagogy of art history. Her work has appeared in Art Papers, The Brooklyn Rail, and Blind Field Journal.
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