5 Plain Questions: Melanie Yazzie
Released October 2021
Total: 49:07 minutes
[5 Plain Questions theme music begins, plays in the background]
[00:00:06] Joe Williams: Hello, and welcome again to another episode of 5 Plain Questions, a podcast that proposes five questions to Indigenous artists, creators, musicians, writers, movers and shakers, and culture bearers; people in the community that are doing great things for their communities. I’m Joe Williams, your host for this conversation.
I’m the director of CANAA, the Native American programs at the Plains Art Museum. My goal is to showcase these amazing people in our indigenous communities from around the region and country.
I want to introduce you to Melanie Yazzie. Melanie is a Dene artist and a Professor of Art Practices and Head of Printmaking at the University of Colorado in Boulder Colorado. Her works belong to many collections such as: The Denver Art Museum, Anchorage Museum of History & Art, the Art Museum of Missoula, the Institute of American Indian Arts, the Kennedy Museum of Art and the Rhode Island School of Design Museum. She has exhibited nationally and internationally and in countries such as, New Zealand, France, Russia, Canada, Estonia, Northern Ireland, Korea, China, United Kingdom, and Australia. She is known for organizing print exchange projects that connect communities across the world.
Now, the print exchange she’s put together is something that I’ve heard of for years but I’ve never made a connection that there was Melanie that actually does this. She makes prints, sculptures, paintings, does surface design and jewelry design. And we first connected at the onset of the Summer of 2021 with the Oscar Howe Summer Art Institute. She was a printmaking instructor, and the way she was able to connect with the students was really something to see. And she brought out the energy and excitement of these students for the printmaking process, and they really looked forward to working with her. And I think that’s what makes her so interesting, is her ability to connect with youth, and to really bring out these artistic intentions within the youth that maybe they didn’t know that they had. And so, it was really quite a sight to see. So! Let’s jump into this interview with Melanie.
[5 Plain Questions theme music fades out]
[00:02:09] Joe: Melanie Yazzie, thank you so much for joining us at 5 Plain Questions.
[00:02:13] Melanie Yazzie: Thank you so much for having me.
[00:02:09] Joe: Oh this is great. It’s really an honor to have you with us. Um, would you be able to introduce yourself, tell us a little bit about your background, and where you’re from.
[00:02:24] Melanie: Yeah I’m um, let’s see, I’m Dene Navajo. I grew up in North Eastern Arizona, and I always get nervous about this because it’s always strange to introduce yourself, but I think um. I’m a child of 2 parents who were into education. Both of my grandparents on my mother’s side only spoke Navajo, and on my dad’s side, my grandmother spoke Navajo and English, and I think it’s a lot of um, that I guess my Navajo culture and that experience from my grandparents that has shaped my parents, and in turn, shaped me into who I am.
[00:03:14] Joe: And who are your biggest influences? Well, before we jump into that, can you talk a little bit about what type of art you do, and your processes?
[00:03:26] Melanie: I think when I was younger, I used to do a lot of drawings and sketches. I guess I think all of us as young artists began with doodles and making little things. I was always interested in that. And as I got older, when I went into high school, my sophomore year in high school, I went away to a Quaker boarding school outside of Philadelphia and it was the first time that I saw printmaking. And my roommate during my sophomore year had these etchings and I just- I felt the paper, I smelt the ink, and I just I was really interested in what that was. And I didn’t let myself take an art class until I was a senior in high school and when I took the class my art teacher – her name was Caroline Luce – and she was just like, “you’re so interested in all these different things that we’re doing in the art class,” and “how come you never took an art class before this?” and I said “Well, my roommate was Haynes Sprunt, and she just made these beautiful drawings and etchings that were just incredible and I don’t make art like that or I don’t draw that way.” And my teacher said “you know you should never judge yourself by anybody else. Everybody has their own way of making art, and you clearly enjoy creating things,” and she said “I just wish you would have found your way here sooner.”
And I think it was that initial conversation and realization that there was this feeling inside me that I loved just making things, and specifically, I was really drawn to printmaking. So, to this day, I make prints, I do screen printing, etchings, lithography, and all the processes that are involved with each of those methods. And then I’ve expanded beyond that into painting, sculpture works. Yeah, it just goes on and on. And I think because I’ve chosen this life as an artist, I’ve given myself permission to explore a lot of different mediums.
[00:05:52] Joe: And I think that was evident this summer during the Summer Art Institute – the Oscar Howe Summer Art Institute.
[00:05:58] Melanie: Yes! Oh my gosh. I hadn’t heard about it before and I was invited, and drove there from the Denver area, and I just was- I- and it’s strange, I almost felt like I could be one of the participants. And I dreamt that ‘ah… I wish there was something like this when I was growing up that I could have applied for or gone to,’ and how exciting for all these young native students to come together with other people with the same passion or interest. And even though I was teaching, there was still this sort of fear of like, you know, they’re gonna want to hear this old lady? And am I gonna have anything to offer?
But it was really quite welcoming to be there, to see where they were at in their paths, and to encourage them. And what I think was also really beautiful about the experience was that they were ready to hear all the information we were giving them. They were ready to challenge themselves to try these new things, and to put their stories into the work. I think it took so many years for me to get comfortable with who I was and how I am in this world. And with a lot of the young people at the institute, it just gave them a place to be themselves, and I think that was such a beautiful gift that the institute has and does is that people could come and be themselves and are with like-minded people, and I wish- I think, if I had that when I was their age like where where would I be now? Yeah, so, I love that program.
[00:07:54] Joe: So, can you talk a little bit about your biggest influences?
[00:07:58] Melanie: You know, when that question is asked to us as artists, I think when you’re starting out you have this idea of these big artists in the world that you want to be influenced by, but I realize when I’d look at different artists there was sort of a longing for a connection to home when I would look at some of the work. Like some of the work that I looked at was like Mark Rothko had big spaces of color and I responded to the color, and the large canvases, and I felt a sense of landscape, and home, and emotion. A lot of the artworks that inspired me were, my – I guess when I would see them – in the initial feeling that I would get from them, and it was really a lot of abstract expressionists that I was drawn to when, you know, when I first started to think I understood something about art. And it was really the feeling that I got in my gut.
As I grew into making art more, I started to realize that the artists that really inspire me were my community – like my grandfather, Tom Baldwin, he found like old Coke signs and Pepsi signs to use to make doors on our sheds, and he used found wood to build the corral, and the shed was made of- You know, he had his own way of building things and it was really just out of found objects. And there was something in the way the light would come into the corrals, or I would see the lines in the corral, or in the sheds, that really inspired me and brought comfort. And you know, knowingly or unknowingly, it was his process of finding everyday objects, putting them together to build something that was necessary. And I didn’t see it as strange that we had a barn door that was made of a Coca-cola sign.
And my grandmother, Thelma Baldwin, is a traditional Navajo weaver, and I really believe that she taught me about studio practice because when she went in to weave, there was this whole process of rolling up the mattresses if we were staying at my grandma’s house in the sleeping bags. Because we all slept in one big room, we would get the whole room sort of ready for the day, and then when it was time for her to weave, people left her alone. They said, “she’s working. She’s doing her weaving so you have to be quiet,” and she would lay out a sheepskin and we’d sit on it, and I would help her with yarn. But it was this sort of an honoring of she needs quiet. She needs her own space. And you went there, and she would weave for hours, and I would just hear her with her tool hitting the yarn, and just sitting with her, and being in that for me was like this really special place and space that I had with my grandmother, and smelling her skirts, and smelling the yarn…
But I think it was that repetitive time when she would go to work that I started to realize: it’s important to give yourself time and space to do something. And when we speak about studio time with artists, it’s this whole idea of honoring that time, scheduling it, putting everything aside to really focus on whatever it is you’re going to be creating – whether it’s a quilt, a painting, a drawing – and preparing yourself to be in that creative space.
So, again, it’s my grandparents’ community members… Musicians really inspire me. I think I’m really inspired by the music of the nineteen thirties. Cuban music from the nineteen thirties. I don’t know, there’s something really rhythmic about that that really inspires me. My high school art teacher. I think a lot of times we forget that our art teachers are some of the people that first inspire us, and my high school art teacher was Caroline Luce and she taught me printmaking, and taught me that I shouldn’t compare myself to other artists, that I should practice this time to come in on the weekends, to work in the studio, and I volunteered to be a studio monitor and clean the shop, and it started to teach me about respecting tools and space. So, I’d go in there to clean up after the week of art classes and I just – the light in the room, and scrubbing out the sink… And I remember one of the times I scrubbed the sink out and she had come in and she was like, “Wow, you really cleaned it!” And I said, “Well I love this space, and I used this little razor to scoop out all the paint, and I wanted a really beautiful space for all of us to work in.” And I just remember the look that she gave me was the same look that I would get from my grandmother when I would do something good. Not really saying anything but just this look of approval, with no words.
So I think those… Again, it’s the people closest, the land, the animals, in which we grow up at times that I look at when I make my work, and that helped me move forward with my practice. But it’s taken a long time to get to that place, I mean, because not everything was really positive. There’s a lot of good and bad in the world, and a lot of that exists in our communities, but the moments when I could be outdoors and be in a good space… those are things that I look back on and help me when I make my work.
[00:14:08] Joe: That sort of moves us into the next question of how have you developed your career? College, post-college.
[00:14:16] Melanie: Um, I think when we’re young, we are always asked, “What do we want to be? What do you want to be when you grow up?” and I remember when I was really young, I thought I wanted to be a veterinarian. And I think when we had to go visit a veterinarian, when our Saint Bernard had cancer, he met with us to tell us you know you have to do this. And my parents said “It’s your dog. You guys are gonna have to decide.” And I thought “Oh my god, that’s so difficult!” But I remember the vet met with us, and said, “It’s got a cancer in the leg, and with some dogs you can remove the leg, and they can get around with three, but this is a Saint Bernard, and it would make its life really difficult.” And I think that whole dilemma of choosing how to handle this animal that we love’s life really made me think, “Oh, I thought a vet was helping and doing all this, but these are difficult choices to make!” And so I thought “I can’t – I don’t think I can do this.”
But I always made artwork, and I always was inspired by things I could make and give to people and as I- When I went to high school, in that art class at the Quaker boarding school, our art teacher took us to portfolio day in Philadelphia, and I remember meeting with different art schools, and being so excited that you could choose a career in the arts. And I remember I met with some recruiter at Kansas City Art Institute, among others, and I thought “That’s somewhere close to home… Maybe I could go there!” And I remember after that day, I called my parents and said, “I know what I want to do! I want to be an artist, and I want to go to this Kansas City Art Institute!” And at the time, my parents were like, “What? We’re spending all this money to send you to this Quaker boarding school,” and “You can’t just go to an art school,” and “If you go to that, do that, you’re going to have to find your own way. You have to pay it yourself. We’re not going to help you.”
And I think a lot of times with – and I don’t know if this is true or not – but it’s just been my experience that I think that within native communities that we’re brought up in this beautiful way, that our people are just so creative, that it comes instinctually to a lot of us that we are able to create beauty, that we’re able to make things that we see the world in this way, that this is how we’re brought up. And somehow, because we have that beautiful gift, I’ve witnessed and seen that we don’t think we’re special. That we don’t see art making as a career because we’re all artists. That’s just what you do. So you need to choose something that you can do to make money. But in our communities art isn’t that choice.
So, anyhow, it was my own little theory that they were just like, “No, don’t do that.” So I thought I would become an English teacher. And to rebel after high school, I went and lived in Mexico for a year, and thought, “Maybe I’ll research this part of my history,” because my grandfather’s father was supposedly Mexican, but he never claimed him. There’s this always-quiet history in our family that no one spoke of, but I knew that that was part of our heritage. So I went to Mexico, learned Spanish – like there’s a whole long drama with this story that I’m making it short to try to answer this question – but I went to Mexico, I lived there for a year, I learned to speak Spanish fluently. So when I came back to start undergrad school, I thought, “Okay I could be an English teacher and a Spanish teacher. I’ll go into that.” But I always took art classes. And I loved them. And I realized, at a certain point, I needed to make a choice for myself, for my future, to go with art. And so I joined the honors college when I was, I think maybe a sophomore junior in college, because I really wanted to work with professors.
I remember at some point when I was at the boarding school people were talking about going to college, and how you choose your classes in school, and something that stuck with me was some students were saying, “Make sure that you sign up with all your classes with professors. They’re the recorded people who run the programs. And you know there’ll be a bunch of classes at a state school, or at any colleges you’re at, but find the people who are the actual professors.” And I didn’t really understand that, but when I got to school I looked at the roster and if it said “staff” or “adjunct,” I just looked for a professor and signed up for a class. And I think it’s because of that that I then felt somehow I tripped into really learning from the top people in the field, or the ones who were taking it very seriously. And it was in those classes that different ones spouted out moments of information that helped guide me in my career.
Granted, it wasn’t all that positive. Some of them were very… pretty bad. But it taught me how to be- how to have a tough skin, and it also pushed me to really go after what I loved. So if I was discouraged – which I was discouraged often by different professors – I felt like, in a weird way, that they were challenging me. Instead of like beating myself down and thinking, “They really don’t want me here,” I thought, “Woah, this is a challenge. I need to rise to it,” when my classmates are like “No, they really don’t like you.” But I was just determined to make it work. And I think because of that determination, and loving art making, and studio time, I surpassed, I think, what some of my professors thought I was capable of.
I also was really shy. It was really hard for me to speak during critiques and to explain what I was doing. I think I had this problem that my voice would shake or my leg – which turned into what now people tell me is like a sewing machine leg. I just was so nervous. But I slowly began to get over being nervous, because I remember one of my art teachers said, “Ms Yazzi, you haven’t come to any of the critiques for class. You just come and see me during office hours.” And I said, “I can’t speak in the class, like I’m terrified of the critique, and I just- It’s really hard for me.” And he said “Well, it’s part of the artist’s path to speak about your work. And if you’re choosing this, you’re gonna have to talk in front of a group of people. And if you want to pass this class, you need to start coming to critiques.” And I thought “Oh, I need to pass a class.” So I started going to critiques, and then I would just like psych myself up, and try to get brave. But it was hard. But now, I think I’m at a point where I can speak in a lot of different situations, and that sewing machine leg doesn’t happen anymore. I think sometimes I do get nervous and my voice is strange, but I just think, “Well. Ah. I’ve been invited here to speak or I have to speak about my work,” and I have to acknowledge that I get nervous sometimes, and then just try to get through it.
[00:22:28] Joe: You said “sewing machine leg,” and I was trying to imagine what that was, and then I started to move my foot, and I was like, “Oh yeah, yeah.”
[00:22:34] Melanie: Yeah! You stand there, and your muscle in your leg or whatever just starts to shake. Or you try to- try to- try to speak like that, the stutter starts to happen. Or you speak about something, and like something you know, and somehow you can’t think of the words, or I would just speak in front of a group of people when I was in undergrad school, and I would just feel these tears welling up in my eyes, and they’d be like, “Are you okay?” and I’m like, “I don’t know.” Like there’s nothing in my eyes, but then I’d be crying, and I would just be like “Oh my god, like- What?” And then, I just sort of stop and then walk out of the room, and one of my classmates would come out and be like “Are you okay?” and I said, “Ah, I’m so mad at myself. I don’t know why like I- I don’t know why, but this happens.” And so, I would sort of clean myself up, go to the washroom, wash my face, then I’d go back in the classroom and then they would talking about somebody else’s, and then the teacher would be like, “Are you ready?” and I’d be like “Ah yes.” Then I would go.
But those are my early years. So it’s funny when people talk about like, “Well, how did you develop your career?” I’m like, “Oh my god, I was a disaster in the beginning!” but I loved it so much, so I just kept trying. And I think when I talk with young artists, and they ask me, like, “What should I be doing?” And I say, “Just practice talking in the mirror. Try to talk at different times when there’s questions asked to just ease yourself into becoming comfortable with speaking to a group of people.” I said, “I know it sounds crazy, but that’s one of the hardest things to learn for some of us that are really shy.” I know it comes really easy to other people, so when it comes easy for other people, I tell them, “Try to think about what you’re saying. I know you can speak freely, but sometimes when you’re just talking and talking, you’re not really thinking about what you’re saying. So listen to what our elders say in our community, like sometimes it’s good to be quiet, and then to form your thoughts, and then say something.” So- I don’t know. I’m starting to go into my talks that I do with my students in class when we have critiques. This moment would be- One of my friends would be like, “Oh my god, you just went into teacher voice.”
[00:24:58] Joe: But I think that’s a great point. You know so many of us who come from Native communities, we’ve sort of grown up listening to our elders and those older than us, and you know it’s appropriate for us back home not to speak over the elders.
[00:25:15] Melanie: Right.
[00:25:15] Joe: Obviously. And so when we transition to the University setting, it’s hard for us to speak up because I was the same way – very quiet and very shy. And I think that’s a thing that I’ve seen quite a bit in our schools.
[00:25: 31] Melanie: Think that part isn’t spoken about enough, and it’s hard to recognize that. So when I’m working, and it’s not, I don’t- For 6 years, I taught at the Institute of American Indian Arts at Santa Fe, and we talked about this a lot. And in some of my classes we would- I would have my students meet me downtown near the plaza, and we would go to a coffee shop, and I would put the students in different places on the plaza to talk with different people. We would also go to a restaurant, and I’ve assigned them to be at different tables in the restaurant, and I tell the restaurant, “My students are from the Institute, and we’re gonna come in for coffee,” and I just want them to be comfortable with being downtown because a lot of my students grew up on the reservation and hadn’t really had that experience, and hadn’t, like you know, been out to really order coffee on their own. They could do it as a group, but I would say, “We need to get you to a place where you’re comfortable,” because I would say, “Oh, I was downtown doing this,” and they were like, “We haven’t gone down there.” And I said, “well you should! There’s a bus that takes you down there.” But there was this sense of fear, and so I thought “How can I… like… make it more comfortable?” And I thought, “Well, we’ll do it as a class assignment.” We’ll go down there and they’ll order coffee, and just sit at the table by themselves, but we’ll be there as a group. And then I would just go around the room, and I’d say, “You’re gonna order coffee but you’re also gonna do your drawing assignment.”
And the restaurants that I work with, they were really nice about it, and they helped the students. And then the students sort of took ownership of the Plaza area, or downtown, where there’s a lot of tourists, and a lot of people who are not from there. So it just feels different, so part of my practice at times was to make them comfortable, and to say, “You can be in all these spaces,” because I think a lot of times when we come from our communities, we’re comfortable in those spaces and when we come out of them and go to college or go to a city, we feel like we don’t belong, or we feel this weird – I think some people say – imposter syndrome. So I say let’s figure out ways to train our young people how to erase that imaginary boundary by making a routine, or finding places that you feel you fit. And I think those are survival skills, and those are things that I had to train myself to do as I, you know, have succeeded in the world. I think a lot of times people think it’s like, “Oh, take this. Do this.” And I’m like, “Uh, learn how to order coffee in a shop and not be afraid.” It sounds simple, but it’s terrifying when you come from a community where there are no coffee shops.
Like I grew up. We hung out at the trading post and the post office. And at the post office there were people selling burritos, or navajo tacos in a truck, and like, you knew everyone, so it wasn’t scary. But somehow when you go into a city, you know, I think when I went to my first coffee shop with a friend of mine who liked coffee, there are all these different ways or things to order the coffee. And I was older, but I was like, “I don’t know what venti, grande, like- what? Half-caf?” I was terrified by just ordering the coffee until someone explained a lot of it to me, and I tried different ones. I started to understand it. And I think one of the things that can help our young people succeed is to learn that you can learn how to do a lot of these things, and not everybody just knows how to do them.
And when I tell young people, you know, they say, “Oh, I’m intimidated by this, or that,” and I said,” You know what? If that person from the city, or that place, came to the rez they would get lost. They wouldn’t know how to siphon water out of a container for the horses. They wouldn’t know how to chop wood. They wouldn’t know all these other things. And the way that you feel in this space is how they would feel there. And everybody would be staring at them on the rez because they’d have a different car. They’d be in a different place. They wouldn’t know how to order different things.” I would say, “It’s the same thing, but we just don’t get a lot of those people in our spaces, but we’re in this space. We can learn how to be here.” And when you’re comfortable in your own skin, when you’re comfortable learning how to be in different places, it makes it easier to go to your class to learn something, and to feel that you have the right to be in that place.
[00:30:24] Joe: How do you seek opportunities? And how have those opportunities maybe presented themselves differently over the years?
[00:30:31] Melanie: Yeah, I think when I was starting out as a young artist, I heard about all these exhibitions and projects that people would be doing to become known. And a lot of those opportunities came to different people who knew how to network, and who knew how to do that… whatever it is that this question is. Like certain people know how to do it. A lot of people get overwhelmed, or shy, and don’t know how it works. And so, it’s one of the big reasons in the printmaking community that I do print exchanges. I invite a lot of people to make a print about a theme or a project that is important to us. And if the edition is twenty, and we have fifteen artists, all the artists make fifteen prints, everyone gets a print from everybody else, and then I find a collection or exhibition places for the other five sets. And it begins to get people exposure.
I always try to put known artists, and beginning, unknown artists, in the project so that it can begin those young people’s paths to getting these exhibitions, and getting put into collections. I’ve been doing it for over 20 years now, and it really has broadened the scope of how a beginner can get out into the world. And people who are in the field, I tell them, “there’s a reason why they have openings and artist talks. It’s so that you can get to know the artist – that when you go to the opening you see who runs the gallery, you get to see what style of work the gallery collects or wants in their artist stable, so then you can see other people’s work and you might be like, “Hey! That’s sort of like what I do!” So you get to know them, and you just build this community, and it just takes some time and work. But I would tell my students, it’s about making the work, but it’s also getting to know the community. So go to those events, get to know the people, meet other artists – maybe you form a group and you make an exhibit happen. It’s very hard to get a solo exhibit when you start out, but if you band together with your friends, and you have somebody who can write a proposal for an exhibition and you approach a place, they’ll want to exhibit a group of people who can organize themselves.
I think part of succeeding is following through. I think, a lot of times, I tell young artists – and this is native and non-native – you have to meet your deadlines. Make sure to meet your deadlines. Don’t over promise and get sidetracked. If you have a deadline to do something, make sure you do it. Because it’s that stereotype of the flaky artist that really catches up with us. So, I just say, “Write it down, get a calendar book, so that you know what’s happening, and that’ll help you move forward.” And when people see that you can meet the deadlines, and that you’re not flaky, then other opportunities will continue to come because people want to work with people who are organized, and who show up, and help out, and contribute.
Those are all the things that we grew up doing at home with ceremonies within our communities. The ones who came early to help out, who stayed late to clean up, those are the – it’s the same in the art community. If you do those same things in the art community, you offer to help hang the exhibit, paint the walls, you offer your good heart, and good ways of interacting, people see that and they’re like “Wow, I want to- I think I want that person in my exhibit,” and “Oh, and the group of friends… Out of the five, these three showed up, cleaned up the space, painted the walls, hung the work. Those are the three we want.” And it’s always funny to me when people form a group thing and they’re like, “Oh, but only these people were invited to something else…” and I’m like, “Well, aren’t they the ones who painted the walls? Aren’t they the ones who stayed afterward to clean up? Did they deliver the artwork to the people who purchased the work, and talk with them, and were at the opening, and talked with people?” And they’re like, “Ah… yeah,” and they say, “Well, nobody told me to do that.” And I said, “When you were growing up, did they tell you to clean up?” I said, “It’s all stuff that we already know, but I think, at times, sometimes people think we’re supposed to be told these things.”
And I think, a lot of times, it’s just being helpful. So, that’s one of my biggest things to people is when you’re seeking different opportunities, start by being helpful. Start by showing interest in what’s happening in the art community. If you’re showing interest, and if you show up, and are there, it’s more than likely that you’ll be invited to something. But if you’re not showing up, and not participating, then it’s harder for those doors to open for you.
[00:36:15] Joe: I think that’s a great point. You know, we always talk about in the community: good mentors. We always talk with good mentors. But it’s also on the young ones to be good mentees.
[00:36:27] Melanie: Yes, exactly. It’s so true. I think a lot of times people think you have to become like the seasoned artist to make a difference. And a lot of times, like in my classes at the University of Colorado, Boulder, I tell my students, “So much of what you’re going to learn in classes, or in your undergrad career, are going to be from your classmates. You’re going to learn from each other about studio habits, about who you can trust, about who you can depend on. Like I’m here, and I’ll help you – that’s my job! But you’re going to learn people skills from your classmates. You’re going to learn who can be a leader. You’re going to be learning all these interpersonal… Um, I don’t know… Ah, what’s-?
[00:37:16] Joe: Certainly interpersonal skills.
[00:37:18] Melanie: Thank you! Oh my gosh, see, I was- When I was talking, I started imagining, “What is- like- What am I trying to say?” Yes, interpersonal skills! How to interact with people! I think that’s a huge skill that happens in classes, and we learn from each other as young people, as artists, as just people in a community. When you’re in college, that’s what you learn. And it’s funny because at times when I speak to people who come from families that say, “Oh, I don’t think college does anything to help people.” And I said, “It actually does! Because you’re reading different things that people around the world are reading, different authors, you learn that in a liberal arts program. You learn about history from different perspectives, and when they go to class and they ask you, “What do you think about that?” you learn how to speak your mind from the research you’ve done. And it helps you interact with people.
Those then in turn, when you get out of school, you’re able to be a leader, or have those skills of working with the community of people. You’re not putting yourself in the role of “I’m going to do construction and they just can tell me what to do.” When- and there’s nothing wrong with doing construction work, I’m just using it as an example – but there’s something about the college experience that teaches you how to work with other people, how to do research, how to speak your own mind, and it makes you a well-rounded thinker on a lot of different levels. And when people are interviewing people for different jobs, I’ve often heard that those people who have an art background think creatively, think in a different way that they can solve problems that maybe somebody who just did science, somebody who just did business, they don’t have that creative way of seeing the world.
And so, I think a lot of times when people speak down about arts, I say, “You know what? An artist can solve a lot of different things. We can study up something within the sciences, or within business, and we can add our creative touch to it. And that’s what a lot of companies are looking for. They’re looking for somebody with a creative way of solving a problem, and a beautiful way of putting it into the world.” It’s amazing how often I’ve heard from different students who have an art background, but go into business or science. And then when they’re in the field, I say to them when they come back, I’m like, “How’d you… What made you succeed?” and they’re like, “You know what? It was my art. I learned how to talk to people passionately about my research. I learned how to talk about how this artist did this, and then I applied it to business, I applied it to this field, and it really… it awoke everybody’s attention, and it wasn’t boring. It wasn’t something that nobody wanted to hear. And I heard that my boss said, ‘Wow, that’s exciting that you know how to talk about all those different subject matters.’” And I say to people, “That’s college!” That’s what college does, is it gives you sort of an even playing field that you can say, “I know who this writer is, and I know about that, and I know that affected our community because of this,” and that’s impressive!
So, I say to people when they say,” College isn’t important. I don’t want my kid to do that,” I’m like, well, I think you should think about this other thing. There’s something to be said about a good liberal arts program and education. It just does these things that are hard to explain, but when you meet people who have it, and really have done it for the passion of doing it, it’s noticeable. And when you meet an artist, and you put us to a task… It’s so wonderful to see how we run circles around the others.
[00:41:43] Joe: What would you say to the eighteen to twenty-two-year-old that’s listening to this conversation?
[00:41:49] Melanie: Oh… It sounds so easy, and you hear it so often but ‘believe in yourself.’ I think it’s the hardest thing to do is to feel that you matter, and that you can make a difference. But it starts with believing that you matter, and that you can make change with your efforts, and with who you are and where you’re coming from. And that’s for everyone. Everyone has their own story, their own history to bring to the world, into our communities, and not many of us are exactly the same. So, I say that all the time to young people, like really, believe in yourself. Because I think so often we think that we’re not special, that we’re not this-or-that, but everybody carries this special thing inside of them, and it’s your self-worth. Having joy in things that you’re passionate about is wonderful, and how can you bring that forward, and find a community that has an obsession with certain things that you’re doing.
Hopefully, they’re productive things. Because then… and ‘productive’ I mean, you might have a book club. You might have… Maybe, bike racing is your thing. There’s a community in that. And you can find your community, and they can support you, and you can do things together. But anything that you have a passion for, there are other people who may have that same passion, and you can come together and form a group to help support each other and help witness each other’s gifts. Crocheting… I don’t know. Anything. Look for other people and find kinship, and family sort of relations, in those groups that you can form that will push you forward to succeed.
I think a lot of times as young people; we think we’re alone. I tell people, if you can, unplug from the internet, go for a hike, go take an art class, go out and do something that means that you’re going to interact with other people so that it reaffirms- and there’s something in movement. There’s something in walking, and being outdoors that I think is honestly healthy for us. And oftentimes when we’re young, we think it’s so uncool to be walking somewhere, to go to take care of ourselves, our mind, and our bodies, and that’s part of a lot of our traditions is to do those things, and it seems so basic that we forget. So, I like to tell young ones, “Think about taking care of yourself, knowing that you’re valuable, even though in some of our situations, we’re not being told that by our immediate families. You have to learn to find it and value it for yourself.”
Again. It sounds easy. But it’s one of the most difficult things to accomplish, but you can do it. If you find your passion in… whether it’s cooking, whatever that is. Find that thing. Do it. And then find other people who do it, and you’ll find a community, and you can create a different type of family of support.
[5 Plain Questions theme music fades in, plays in the background]
[00:45:31] Joe: Melanie, that’s great. Thank you so much.
[00:45:33] Melanie: Thank you! And I hope- I don’t know. Somewhere, I hope somebody’s getting little nuggets of information that will help them with all of this. I think if people did this when I was younger, I would have been listening to all of them.
[00:45:52] Joe: No, this was great. A lot of what you’re saying is resonating so much, and what’s really great about this podcast, it’s picked up at a lot of universities. And so, a lot of young people are listening to it, which is really nice. Really exciting.
[00:46:07] Melanie: That’s great. Well, I hope that everybody just has a beautiful day, and I know we’re sort of in this pandemic thing, and I’m telling people, “get off the internet!” and we have to do Zoom meetings, and do things remotely, but you can still go for a walk. You know, you go on a walk on your own, and heal yourself by being outdoors and giving your body movement.
[00:46:33] Joe: I think that’s so important. I think that’s so important.
[00:46:36] Melanie: It’s crazy. I remember once I was really, really sad, and I said, “I don’t want to do anything,” and I remember this woman I met, she said, “Then go for a walk.” I’m like, “Ugh, there’s nowhere to walk.” and she said, “Just. Go for a walk.” And I remember tying my shoes, and then going for a walk. And somehow, during the walk I forgot about stuff. I thought, ‘oh it’s hot,’ and then my body’s hot, and then I thought- I don’t know, somehow it just put me into the state of mind of thinking of how I was feeling, and it released so much. And it was just a walk. But it was powerful. So, go for a walk, everybody.
[00:47:22] Joe: And that does it for this episode of 5 Plain Questions. I want to thank Melanie again for her time, and sharing her story with us. This last summer, during the Oscar Howe Summer Art Institute 2021, we were- This was the first time we’d worked together, and seeing her interact with the students was a joy. She’s this ball of light and energy that the students responded to so well. When they were really excited to take her class, and we were all excited to work with her, she was so much fun and engaging. It was really great. So, being able to connect with her again to do this episode was something I’ve really been looking forward to. And so, I’m so happy we were able to do it. So, I’m really hoping that I get to see her again soon, work with her, and be able to continue on the good work that we were doing last summer.
Melanie, thank you so much for this. And again, I look forward to seeing you and your husband next time.
More importantly, I also want to thank you for joining us and spending your time listening to what I feel is a very important story and perspective from our community. So, please join us next time as we speak with another incredible person.
I’m Joe Williams. You can find me on CANAA, that’s C-A-N-A-A. Creativity Among Native American Artists on Facebook. Or at the plainsart.org website. There you can see our programming, our past videos, and these podcasts. If you have any suggestions for someone for me to interview, please find us on Facebook, and message me! I’d really love to hear from you. Well, that’s it. You take care. And we will see you next time.
[5 Plain Questions theme music fades out]