As a child growing up in Arizona, Jolene Yazzie says she always liked to do “boy stuff.”
Introduced to art (and skateboarding) by her older brothers at an early age, she struggled to find women role models that appealed to her, aside from Wonder Woman, in the comics that she liked to read.
“I spent time drawing women warriors,” she told me, “and I still do.” She laughed. :”And have gotten lot of flack for it from the (tribal) men, who take offense to the fact that my warriors wear hats that (specifically), the men wore for war.”
Growing up with Dine’ (Navajo) traditions made it difficult for Jolene to break free of rigid gender expectations.
“I knew I was gay at an early age.” She explained.
Although she found herself handicapped by that knowledge, in a culture where women were locked into traditional roles, she was also profoundly influenced by that same culture she was born into; Navajo art and storytelling are at the root of Yazzie’s works.
She says that there are similarities in the telling of a narrative story in both comics and traditional Navajo art, making it easy combine the two.
“Many of the Navajo creation stories are similar to super hero stories in our current pop culture.” She told me.
That, and her talent for drawing led her to create her own super heroines; the warrior women who people her creations.
She has experimented with many different mediums in her work, using both Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Flash to make art.
She has also transferred her designs onto skateboards, and at one time even started a company, Asdzaan (“Women”) Skateboards, selling them from her studio.
Her art was featured in the prestigious Comic Art Indigene at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D. C. Her work was also featured in the publicity materials for that show.
Currently, Yazzie is living in Denver with her partner, where she is going to school to get a degree in Journalism. A decision spurred on by a friend who was a Journalist for Al Jazeera America, who she has photographed for on occasion.
“It’s difficult for me,” she said, “as I am not a writer, but I know I need those skills if I am to pursue this new passion.”
There’s no doubt that those same storytelling abilities she finds easy to transmit visually, will serve her well as a writer, and I told her so. She laughed, and said she hoped that was true,
Clearly up for a challenge, like the women she conjured from her imagination, Jolene Yazzie is an unstoppable force.
She’s been driving down to Taos weekly, to work on a mural she’s making for the upcoming Work by Women show at the Harwood Museum of Art. The day we spoke, she was nursing a bad cold, hoping she’d be over it in the next couple of days, before she came back to complete the painting.
Deeply feminist in her sensibilities – our conversation included a discussion of the sex trafficking of Native Women and girls she witnessed while living in North Dakota, to the present rise of women all over the world, taking their power back by calling out perpetrators fearlessly – Yazzie’s path continues to be lit by the Women Warriors of her dreams.
I asked her how she felt about being included in this show and she paused for a moment before answering.
“I was surprised,” she said. “I don’t remember the last time anyone asked me to be part of something like this.”
Her humility is as surprising as that comment, and stopped me in my tracks, considering all she has accomplished and all that is yet ahead of her.
As I hung up the phone, I thought to myself how lucky we are to have women like Jolene Yazzie in our midst, now, at this watershed moment for women. I felt hopeful for the future our daughters and granddaughters will soon be a part of.
For more about Jolene Yazzie and the Harwood Museum of Art’s upcoming show ( Work by Women), co-curated by Janet Webb and Judith Kendall, please visit the sites linked below.
All images c/o Jolene Yazzie/the Harwood Museum of Art