For Benton Yazzie, art is a therapy which has seen him through difficulties, solitude, and mistreatment.
Yazzie, a Navajo artist who now lives in Cortez, grew up on a reservation in western New Mexico. He was isolated throughout much of his childhood and young adulthood, and struggled with alcoholism before finding his way through art.
His art now graces a wall at the Mancos Public Library, where it will hang through the month of June.
Yazzie grew up west of Gallup, New Mexico, as one of 10 children. Neither his mother nor father were present for much of his upbringing, and he was primarily raised by his grandmother.
“I was lost,” he said. “I didn’t know a lot of things. The question was ‘why.’ Because there was nobody to show me or guide me.” His grandmother was there, but there were too many of children to keep track of, he said.
He and his brothers and sisters were sent to Chuska Boarding School in Tohatchi, which was not a good experience either, Yazzie said. His feelings of isolation and solitude increased.
On summer breaks and holidays, he and his brothers drew and doodled to entertain themselves back on the reservation. It became an outlet for his emotions, he said.
“We all drew in the evening, until midnight,” he said. “We had the candlelight there – so we had no electricity, nothing, no TV, nothing. So that was our entertainment.”
Later, though, he turned to alcohol as a way to cope, he said, as did several other family members. Some of them died from addiction or substance abuse.
In 2012, he decided to make a change. He came to Cortez to attend a program through the Christian Discipleship Center and started to paint.
The art is therapy for him, but also a way to reconnect with parts of his heritage that he feels have faded. Many of his paintings focus on how he and others from his culture face a tension trapping them between two worlds – reservation life and the fast-paced modern world.
Yazzie has come to focus on textured sand painting too, something he felt was disappearing.
“That’s how I see our culture, fading out,” he said. “And also the sand painting, as well. It’s dying out, that’s why I brought it back.”
Yazzie also led a sand painting workshop at the Cortez Public Library back in January. He has a unique style, gluing layers of sand on a canvas to create a textured surface.
He lives in Cortez now, and is seeking out his purpose, he said. He continues painting and creating art, and helps out at the CDC with maintenance, in addition to teaching art classes there.
“I’m thankful for finally finding out ‘why,’ the purpose I’m here,” he said.
Yazzie gave a talk on his life, art, and struggles at the Mancos library on June 6. He will return to the library June 29 to lead a workshop on textured sand painting.