The arts – illuminating the void

The global pandemic of 2020 has devastated the local arts community. While there have been a few attempts by federal, state, county, and even tribal governments to support individual artists, the helping hand has not reached far enough.

At Twin Rocks Trading Post, we have had a front row seat from which to witness the destruction.

Economically, this disease has destroyed thousands, and the recovery will be both long and painful. Much more assistance will be necessary to resurrect the artistic traditions mortally wounded by COVID-19.

Not only has the novel coronavirus actually killed many of our friends and neighbors on the Navajo Nation, it has also done long-term economic harm to Indigenous artists living and working in the Four Corners region of the American Southwest. Their primary means of support has been devastated.

As worldwide travel contracted early last year, so, too, did our business and the associated market for local arts and crafts.

I will never forget the desperation local rug weavers, basket makers, silversmiths, and folk carvers expressed as the reality of our circumstances set in.

Looking in the mirror, I recognized that same fear in myself. To say it was frightening would be a gross understatement; it was terrifying.

As Rick, Priscilla, Frances, and I took a deep breath and began exploring strategies to cope with the abrupt changes, I researched historical articles about Depression-era art projects developed by the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA).

I learned that one of the nationwide programs administered by the WPA was known as the Federal Art Project (FAP). This undertaking was intended to ensure artists and artisans were not abandoned.

The program encouraged people to create murals, paintings, sculpture, graphic art, posters, photography, literature, and arts and crafts – paying them $23.60 a week to do so.

During its existence, the FAP established more than 100 community art centers throughout the United States, researched and documented American art and design, and was responsible for a massive body of work.

Many projects completed through the FAP have become enduring examples of important public art.

In 2019, Jana, Kira, Grange, and I met in New Mexico for Christmas. During our time together, we visited the Taos County Courthouse, where huge murals were created as part of the FAP. These are stunning paintings that make strong political and cultural statements.

The WPA’s programs lasted only about 10 years, but like the Taos Courthouse murals, their legacy has grown stronger and stronger over the years. Although there was no precedent, and presently no successor to the WPA, now would be a good time to revive the program.

Rick is an expert on Depression-era art and mentioned Dorothea Lange’s extraordinary Migrant Mother photograph as one example of notable work created during the Great Depression.

There are countless examples of WPA art that have influenced me over the years, but that photograph has probably impacted me most deeply.

While considering how Twin Rocks Trading Post could stimulate similar arts projects, I ran into a woman I knew from school. We hadn’t seen each other in years, so she asked, “What are you doing these days?”

“Art work,” I said somewhat offhandedly.

The confusion on her face was palpable. She knew me well enough to understand I had literally no artistic talent and that unless something extraordinary had happened, I would starve as an artist.

“What? In art class you could barely draw a stick figure,” she said.

“No, no, not like that,” I explained. “I own a trading post, and we work with loads of Indigenous artists. It’s like a gallery, just not as stuffy. So, I do art work, not artwork.”

She seemed relieved, but expressed concern that such an operation couldn’t possibly sustain itself in the midst of a pandemic.

“It’s a challenge,” I said, “but we’re okay. We will come out of this stronger and better prepared.”

One thing my trading post experience has taught me is that crises tend to concentrate my attention. When things are too easy, I lose focus, get careless, and let important things slip.

After we emerged from the Great Recession of 2008, I noticed our businesses had become leaner and more efficient, financially more stable.

Although that may seem counterintuitive, it’s true. While it was painful at the time, we made a lot of progress during the downturn.

While struggling through those extremely slow months, we developed stronger, sounder practices and better business and personal relationships. We also realized we all had to take care of each other if we were going to make it through, so we did.

Some may ask whether society actually needs art. Rick believes it is essential and that artistic expression is an indicator of what civilizations and individuals consider valuable.

I agree. To me, art reflects our history, and I believe the images and objects created are both necessary and useful.

Art is one of the ways we communicate with our contemporaries and is also a means of transmitting essential messages into the unknowable future. Consequently, I believe it’s worth saving and encouraging.

In the words of Thornton Dial, the pioneering African American folk painter, “Art is like a bright star up ahead in the darkness of the world... It can lead people through the darkness and help them from being afraid of the darkness...”

It is time to shine our beacons into the darkness and illuminate the void created by this disease.

San Juan Record

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