Northern Arapaho Artist Robert Martinez Pokes Holes in Misconceptions

The Riverton-based artist discusses his creative process and Native American representation in contemporary art.
"Directions" (2018) by Robert Martinez, airbrushed acrylic and oil on panel with raised accents. (Courtesy of Robert Martinez)

by | Mar 6, 2022 | Art & Design, Culture

Contemporary Northern Arapaho artist Robert Martinez’s Native American heritage remains a constant source of inspiration for his work.

Martinez grew up on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Riverton, Wyoming, and his work combines the historical imagery of the American West and Northern Arapaho culture with modern themes to create images that make a statement on the issues of today.

Martinez’s paintings and drawings have been shown across the country and have received critical acclaim, including Wyoming’s highest award for the arts: the Wyoming Governor’s Art Award. KHOL spoke to Martinez by phone ahead of his live painting demonstration and discussion on the history of ledger art at the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson on Sunday, March 6.

The following interview transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity. This conversation was recorded on Thursday, March 3.

JACK CATLIN/KHOL: So, you’ve been quoted as saying that the intent of your art is to “adjust our expectations on what Native and Western artwork is, and to celebrate Indigenous culture and its history.” How would you further describe your individual style and artistic direction?

ROBERT MARTINEZ: Most of the time Native art and Native artists get kind of pigeonholed in the “mainstream art game.” So, because we paint so much or create so much with our cultures in mind and we use a lot of that imagery, we’re kind of pushed to the side. There are a lot of symbols and feathers and stuff in there and they push it to one side and put it under, “Native art.” And people think that’s a lot of feathers, a lot of symbols, you know, maybe not necessarily any realistic type art.

I mean, there are all kinds of expectations when it comes to Native art. My work really tries to poke holes in that and readdress the viewer’s expectation of what Native art can be. I’ve been in places where people were like, ‘You’re Native and you’re from a reservation. Wow, I didn’t think there were any Indians around anymore.’ And then the expectations they have of meeting Native people are totally romanticized or stereotypical. And that’s due to the perpetuated stereotype in Hollywood movies and things of that nature. So, a lot of my art tends to use images and themes and humor to call attention to that and let everybody know that it’s not that way.

KHOL: Your work features an engaging combination of elements from both the past and the present. Why is it so important to have Native representation in contemporary art?

MARTINEZ: Because we have great artists. I mean, that’s just a simple thing. We have great artists and our stories have been told by so many other people from their non-Native perspective. We deserve to have our stories told by us. For example, the perpetuated stereotype of Natives on TV is usually of plains Natives. You know, everybody’s got a feather, everybody’s got a horse and they’re wearing buckskin. But if you look at a map of Europe and you see countries like Spain and France, which are so close together but such small countries and those two countries have totally different cultures, totally different dress, totally different ways of doing things, totally different languages. It was the same here in the continental Americas.

There were all of these nations. We had different dress, languages, ceremonies. We were different people. And people tend to think of us as all of one thing or kind of that pan-Indianism idea. But we’re not that. For example, the Eastern Shoshone and the Northern Arapaho shared the same reservation, the Wind River Reservation, in central Wyoming. But we are two different nations with two different languages. We have different ways of doing things, so people tend to forget that. I tend to blend a lot of past and present in my work. For example, let’s say a Native in kind of the stereotypical pose on the ground but he’s looking at a cell phone, right? People tend to forget us as being modern people. We’re still here. We still live in this modern world. And that’s what I try to point out in my art that these ideals that you might have about Native people are misconstrued and not current.

KHOL: Can you tell us about your creative process when creating, say, a new piece? What does it take to get you from that original seed of an idea to that fully realized painting?

MARTINEZ: You know, I’ll see things or I’ll have an idea or jot down a good idea. Or sometimes it just comes to me when I paint. I went to Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design in Denver, and I was taught that way through the creative process from a European perspective, which is you draw a sketch first and get your light and dark values figured out and then you transfer that to a canvas panel. You paint the canvas and then that’s your final product, but you always have this drawing. So, I started doing that and I still do some of that. I do full-color, bright-color paintings. They’re almost neon. People have said they look almost like heat vision. And those are that color because people’s first reaction is usually to think of those black and white or historical photos, those sepia-tone ones of Native people, and that kind of connotates to a dead culture or dead people. But I want to let people know that, ‘No, we’re here.’ So, I use bright, vibrant, in-your-face colors to let you know that we’re right here. We’re strong. You just don’t notice us, right?

But then I’d always have this drawing. So, I was trying to figure out what to do with my drawings or how to make them something that somebody would want to purchase. And I decided to do more research into the plains tradition of ledger art. I’m Northern Arapaho, which is a plains tribe. Our tribe was one of the first to be recognized for this type of artwork. So, in the late 1800s, as they were exterminating the buffalo and moving tribes onto reservations, plains tribes couldn’t hunt and do their traditional, what they call a winter count or a commemorative hide. It’s a painting on a hide, usually about events or a certain event that happened in that year. There are some awesome examples in museums but we couldn’t get those hides, so we would trade or we were given, it depends on the specific trade, already filled-out ledgers from trading posts or cavalry offices, things of that nature. They didn’t need them, they were already filled out. They’re just old records. So, we would draw and paint over those disregarding the background. And then it became a traditional art form, and it’s carried on today by a number of great ledger artists.

I do ledger art myself in my particular rendered lifelike style and it features lights and darks. I don’t use a lot of colors, I save that for my paintings. It’s usually just an idea that comes up. I see popular shows with a misconception about Natives and that’ll spark an idea. Or I’ll see a piece of technology that one of the members of the community is using, possibly during the powwow. And that’ll spark an idea. But it really just depends on what the certain inspiration is. Sometimes I just want to create an image that looks nice, and I’ll do that. It really just depends.

Listen above for KHOL’s full conversation with Robert Martinez.

This coverage is funded in part with an Arts For All grant provided by the Town of Jackson and Teton County.

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About Jack Catlin

Jack is KHOL's music director. He says all music is in some way connected no matter the style and his mission is to provide listeners with a unique and memorable experience each time they tune in to KHOL or see him DJ live.

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