'E Pluribus Unum' project visits Navajo Nation

Mike Easterling

FARMINGTON — “E Pluribus Unum” isn’t just a motto that Jerry Wellman and Matthew Chase-Daniel have chosen to focus a good deal of their artistic energy on over the last four years.

Jerry Wellman pastes photos from the "E Pluribus Unum: Dinetah" project on the outside of the Axle Contemporary mobile studio last week in Gallup.

The two Santa Feans, who serve as co-directors of the mobile art gallery Axle Contemporary, have gone around the state for the past four years shooting portraits of people in their mobile studio — a 1970 Grumman Olson step van that features a rebuilt Chevy Camaro engine and an Oldsmobile transmission. So when you consider the translation of that aforementioned and well-known Latin phrase — “Out of many, one” — it seems that Wellman and Chase-Daniel like to apply it to their choice of transportation, as well as their creative projects.

“That’s very funny,” Wellman said last week, laughing but dismissing the notion that he and Chase-Daniel had intentionally cobbled their van together in a manner that reflects the theme of their work.

For the third time since 2012, Wellman and Chase-Daniel are setting up their van in a specific community, and encouraging residents to come by and have a free black-and-white portrait taken while they hold an object that carries specific meaning for them. The portraits are printed and pasted to the outside of the van, then later assembled into an exhibition and a book.

A composite image of all those portraits serves as the lead image for the project, as it literally reflects every person who posed. The idea is to illustrate how hundreds of individuals come together to comprise a community.

The first day of the "E Pluribus Unum: Dinetah" project in Gallup last week drew several people to a Walmart parking lot to have their portrait taken.

The two creative partners began the series with “E Pluribus Unum: Santa Fe” in 2012 and followed it with “E Pluribus Unum: Albuquerque” in 2014. This time, they’re setting up in locations in and around the Navajo Nation for their project “E Pluribus Unum: Dinetah.”

After visiting Gallup, Prewitt and Newcomb in New Mexico, and Window Rock and Chinle in Arizona, the pair will be in Shiprock and Farmington on Monday, Sept. 12 and Tuesday, Sept. 13 to capture the faces of local residents.

Sometime next year, the portraits from “E Pluribus Unum: Dinetah” will be featured in an exhibition opening at the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock and in an accompanying book.

As he and Chase-Daniel began their work in Gallup last week, Wellman emphasized that the “E Pluribus Unum: Dinetah” project is not limited to Navajo residents. It is intended to include anyone who is living now in what historically has been Navajo territory.

“It has nothing to with being Navajo,” he said. “It has to do with the people living here now.”

This composite image from "E Pluribus Unum: Santa Fe" is made up from more than 500 people who posed for a portrait.

Wellman said he and Chase-Daniel were contacted by a representative of the Navajo Nation Museum about their previous “E Pluribus Unum” projects, and the idea of doing one in and around the Navajo Nation was floated. Wellman and Chase-Daniel loved the idea, and last week, they pointed their well-traveled van west on Interstate 40 and set up shop in a Walmart parking lot in Gallup.

Chase-Daniel said “E Pluribus Unum: Dinetah” is likely to be a more difficult project to complete because the previous two versions took place in urban areas, where it was easy to find a spot where people tended to gather.

“In Santa Fe and Albuquerque, it was obvious where we should set up our studio,” he said by phone. “This time, it’s a little more challenging to figure out where people congregate.”

A refurbished 1970s Grumman Olson step van now serves as the Axle Contemporary mobile portrait studio.

During the initial “E Pluribus Unum” project, Chase-Daniel and Wellman also brought with them a box of everyday items — a hammer, a screwdriver, an iron, a coat hanger, toys, flowers, etc. — that people could pose with if they hadn’t brought an item with them and they felt a connection to that item. They relied on those props much less during their second experience in Albuquerque, and Chase-Daniel said they wouldn’t be using them at all here.

“Since we’re from far away, we didn’t want to impose our ideas of what people might want to hold,” he said.

The items that people brought with them during the first day of the tour in Gallup were noteworthy, Chase-Daniel said. One man posed with frybread, while another posed with a cantaloupe harvested from that morning. Others posed with paintings, jewelry or their children.

A woman poses for a portrait in the Axle Contemporary mobile studio in Santa Fe in 2012.

Wellman recalled a particularly moving experience with a man in Albuquerque. He had just gone through the naturalization process, and he brought his citizenship papers with him. That seemed to epitomize everything the “E Pluribus Unum” project stands for, Wellman said.

More than 500 people took part in the Santa Fe project, and more than 600 participated in Albuquerque. Wellman said he was trying to avoid having any expectations about how many people might turn out for the Dinetah project.

“No, we’re just very open, and we’ll see what happens,” he said. “I have a feeling there’s going to be an adequate number of people. People really like to participate in this.”

During the Santa Fe and Albuquerque shoots, Wellman said participants typically had to wait only three to five minutes to have a portrait taken, if they had to wait at all.

“It’s self-regulatory,” he said. “When people see someone is waiting, they tend to move a little more quickly.”

Participants take a seat in the van — whose computer, lights and printer are solar powered — and have their portrait taken. Within minutes, the image is printed and handed to the subject for free. People also have the option of writing something about their experience, and those thoughts will be included in the ensuing exhibition and book.

Visitors take a look at the portraits included in the "E Pluribus Unum: Albuquerque" exhibition that opened at 516 ARTS in that city in 2014.

Additionally, every person who poses for a photograph receives a free copy of the book when they are distributed at the opening of the exhibition.

Wellman said he and Chase-Daniel likely will do one more “E Pluribus Unum” project in southern New Mexico to wrap up the series.

“I think this will be a great introduction of what it’s like to live in New Mexico in this day and age,” he said. “Some things change, and some things don’t. But I love looking at old photographs of people. I love to look at their faces. Some pose with family heirlooms, and some pose with their cell phones. And that makes me wonder — in 50 years, what’s a cell phone going to look like? Actually, 20? Technology changes so rapidly.”

Then again, undertaking such a sizable project in the back of a van that formerly was used to deliver Hostess Twinkies also demonstrates that a simple repurposing of a piece of equipment sometimes can get the job done as well as a flashy new item. Wellman said the “E Pluribus Unum” series has been one of the more enjoyable and enlightening experiences of his artistic career.

The Axle Contemporary mobile portrait studio bears the name of its latest project.

“One of the things we’ve learned is that there’s a lot of joy and a lot of great people out there,” Wellman said. “It provides us with the energy to keep going and do this.”

Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.

If you go

What: “E Pluribus Unum: Dinetah” traveling photographic portrait studio

When and where: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, Sept. 12 at the Bethel Christian Reform Church in Shiprock; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 13 on the San Juan College campus, 4601 College Blvd. in Farmington; and 4:30 p.m. to dusk, the Makers Fair in Orchard Park in downtown Farmington

For more information: Visit axleart.com