Nov. 14—Editor's note:
The Journal continues the once-a-month series "From the Studio" with Kathaleen Roberts, as she takes an up-close look at an artist.
Primary strokes plunge deep into the souls of the urban figures captured in Everton Tsosie's paintings.
These Native men smile through gritted teeth, split in two and arm bump within a cityscape ravaged by Covid, drugs and alcohol.
Santa Fe's Ellsworth Gallery recently hosted the Albuquerque native's first solo exhibition in "Urban Native."
The Diné artist grew up in the International District, where crack addicts smoked in his backyard.
"My mom used to tell me to draw because I was an obnoxious little kid; I was hyper and it was to keep me focused," he said. "She'd tell me to sit down and draw a horse.
"I was always having to deal with gangs and violence, alcohol and drugs," Tsosie continued. "My mom was really good, telling me to walk by."
In school, he was the kid everyone asked to create event posters. Soon his teachers began to notice. In second grade, one dedicated a portion of the classroom as his little studio. He was already working in abstraction.
"She set up a little studio gallery, like a little show for me," Tsosie said. "I thought it was cool; I dressed up in a little suit. I sold a painting. I felt like I was already rich; it was $15 or $20."
He started college at the old TVI (now Central New Mexico Community College), taking both math and art before transferring to the University of New Mexico. Good in math, he started out thinking he would major in both engineering and art. He graduated with a BFA in painting and drawing in 2018.
"I didn't want to be in the ghetto no more," he said. "What changed my mind was I was sitting in class and hearing everyone talk about Popular Mechanics and being very sophisticated with their language. I was looking out the window and daydreaming and I just couldn't take it."
Tsosie has worked in construction jobs and at a Circle K gas station, where a cowboy encouraged his dream to go to New York, inspired by stories of the abstract expressionists Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. He bought a plane ticket in 2018 and lived in the East Village's Alphabet City for three years. He supported himself by constructing stretcher bars for an artist and working as a security guard.
"It was intense," he said. "It made me into a new person. I was totally Southwest, totally Albuquerque."
The move inspired him to paint on larger canvasses; some as big as eight feet tall. One day, the rent was due and Tsosie needed the money. He gathered 16 paintings and sold them all in a park.
He returned to New Mexico that year at the behest of his mother and the pandemic.
"I just felt like if anything would happen to my Mom, I'd rather be in New Mexico than New York," he said.
Tsosie's current work begins and ends with the fervor of energy he channels when attacking the canvas.
"The Breath-taking Voyage to the Unknown" encapsulates his vision of an urban Indian.
"Nobody knows what 'unknown' is," Tsosie said. "That word came up lately because of the Covid virus. We're in a twilight feeling. On the side is thunder; the sky's not blue, it's yellow."
A stick figure to the left bumps the figure's arm in a virus-fueled form of interaction.
"There's always this stoicism in the stereotypes" of Native people, Tsosie continued. "I wanted to portray him as being happy in a time that's unknown. I think that stoicism is why people don't talk to us. I think (we) have a fierce look."
"The Miracle in the Sun" combines issues impacting Native Americans: alcoholism, uranium mining polluting reservation water and Covid-19.
"We still don't have running water on the reservation," Tsosie said.
For him, "Vital" is a message of preparation for whatever comes next.
"I like to work with dual personalities," he said. "One being more excited than the other; when there's moments of isolation, some absurd person comes out."
Last year, Tsosie took the two-dimensional best in classification award at the Virtual Indian Market with his painting "The Last of the Pure." The work called attention to the Navajo Nation's struggle for clean water.
"In Santa Fe, it started a lot of talk and brought me more exposure," he said.
It also brought him his first online platform, where he sold "four or five" paintings.
"I got a check and was able to pay my rent," he said. "I don't have to work construction no more."
If you go
WHAT: Everton Tsosie
WHERE: Ellsworth Gallery, 215 E. Palace Ave., Santa Fe
CONTACT: ellsworthgallery.com, 505-989-7900