Navajo artists open new exhibition at San Juan College gallery

Gloria Emerson, Michael Billie offer contemporary work

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
Artists Gloria Emerson and Michael Billie check on preparations for the opening of their "Color Me Opinionated" exhibition on Thursday at the Henderson Fine Arts Center Art Gallery at San Juan College.

FARMINGTON — Gloria Emerson and Michael Billie have formed a mutual appreciation society when it comes to each other's work. Each artist quickly defers to the work of the other when it comes to discussing their "Color Us Opinionated" exhibition that opens today at San Juan College.

It's not hard to see why. The contemporary, sophisticated styles the two Navajo artists work in complement each other, and they both openly acknowledge their work is likely to have only limited commercial appeal locally. Their philosophical similarities also make them a good match.

"I don't think my work is great, but a lot of it is a reaction to the environment and socio-economic processes," said Emerson, whose work includes acrylic paintings, drawings and sculpture.

"Truce -- Three Bowls" by Michael Billie is part of the "Color Us Opinionated" exhibition opening tonight at San Juan College.

Many of the statements she makes in her work pertain to life on the reservation, she said.

"We've been very inconsistent about caring for wildlife and the biosphere," she said. "Of course, that's prevalent throughout the world, not just in the Four Corners."

Billie's work is more abstract. He works primarily in encaustic and mixed media, and has been experimenting lately with what he calls "woven rock" pieces that also employ resin. Billie pours the resin, pinches it into place as it solidifies, places rock bowls on the resin then tops the pieces with horsehair bundles. The pieces also sometimes include melted wax.

"The thing I love about it is you can see into it," he said. "The resin is more translucent."

"Mechanizing Earth Mother," left, and "Number 45" by Gloria Emerson are two of the artist's acrylic paintings featured in the "Color Us Opinionated" exhibition opening tonight at San Juan College.

Emerson and Billie have been friends for several years, becoming acquainted when Billie was running the N.A.T.I.V.E. art project for the Farmington nonprofit organization Capacity Builders Inc. The project is designed to help Navajo artists market their work and maneuver through the business side of the art world.

Billie recommended Emerson's work to Hannah Weston, the manager of the Henderson Fine Arts Center Art Gallery at the college just a few weeks ago. Coincidentally, Weston said, the artist originally scheduled to show his work at the gallery in March had just cancelled his show, leaving an opening. Weston already was familiar with Emerson's work from her participation in the "Between the Earth and the Sky" exhibition at the gallery in May 2016 that featured five Native artists.

Artist Gloria Emerson says many of her pieces take years to complete and are statements about the environment or life on the reservation.

Weston quickly extended an invitation to Emerson to fill that void, but Emerson said the invitation caught her unprepared, and she didn't think she had a big enough inventory to fill the gallery. She asked Billie to share the show with her, and the encaustic artist agreed.

"I had my works stored (at home), and I occasionally pull them out and study them and refine them," she said. "But I only had three weeks' notice for this show."

"Tl'izii bi Ts'stiin (Goat Head)," a sculpture by Gloria Emerson, is featured in the "Color Us Opinionated" exhibition opening tonight at San Juan College.

Emerson expressed regret over the fact that she didn't have more time to produce new work for the show. She said some of her pieces have taken years to complete, including one — "Guernica in American" — based on the Sand Creek Massacre in southern Colorado in 1864 in which a Cheyenne-Arapaho village was destroyed by a U.S. Cavalry unit. She said the painting was inspired by the work of Acoma Pueblo poet Simon Ortiz. A related piece, "Guernica in America (1884)," draws inspiration from Picasso's work.

"When I was very young and going to college, I came across some of the modernist artists, and it really affected me," she said.

Weston said she was grateful the two artists agreed to do the show, noting their humility and explaining their work is likely to find an appreciative audience in the form of many of the students who take art classes at the college and pass by the gallery each day. The challenging, eye-catching nature of many of the pieces should encourage more than a few of those students to study the work, she said.

"I really like Michael's encaustic (pieces)," she said. "It always looks like something's floating on top of his work. And I like the statement Gloria makes with her work. She doesn't make art just to make art. It always has a purpose."

Artist Michael Billie discusses his work with Henderson Fine Arts Center Art Gallery director Hannah Weston on Thursday.

An opening reception for the artists is planned from 5 to 7 p.m. today at the Henderson Fine Arts Center Art Gallery on the college campus, 4601 College Blvd. in Farmington. Their work remains on display through March 23. Call 505-566-3464.

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