Saturday, March 5, 2011

Elmer Yazzie, Navaho Artist

Elmer Yazzie is a Navaho Christian who has been painting and teaching about art and faith for 35 years.  The son of a reformed minister, he was born on the Navaho reservation in Shiprock, New Mexico, and is a member of the "Where Two Waters Meet" clan.  Yazzie's sixth grade teacher at Rehoboth Christian School recognized his artistic abilities and gave him some art supplies to begin him on his journey as an artist.

Throughout his school years, Yazzie continued to paint and gave away some of his work as gifts.  After high school, he attended Calvin College in Michigan where he obtained a B.A. in Art Education.  Upon graduation in 1976, he returned to Rehoboth Christian School where he began his teaching career.

Yazzie's art combines the spirituality of the Diné, or Navaho, with his Christian faith ("Diné" means "The People').  In light of this, he says that there is no word in the Diné language for "artist."  Rather, art and Diné culture are so enmeshed that to separate art, artists or spirituality from the rest of life is absurd to him. Yazzie simply defines art as "the way to live," which must be done so as to please God.

The Teacher

In his art work, Yazzie paints with handmade brushes fashioned from the yucca plant, much as native artists have done for centuries in the southwest.  "I use the male yucca to do watercolors," he says.  "I think maybe I'm the only one who uses these brushes professionally."  A Navaho Neighbors magazine article says that Yazzie

reflects on his Navajo heritage and the things he learned about the traditional elements of his culture.  “The hogan, the cradle board, the loom, and the basket all have stories and meaning for life.  It’s a combination of that influence along with the scripture and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that leads me as I paint."


Yazzie considers his artistic talents and interests to be a calling from God:  "To be blessed with talent is one thing; to use that talent to express the inspirations of God is another thing.  To understand how to explain these inspirations through word and visual imagery is humbling.  It is special to be chosen to be an artist."  Yazzie continues, "What the artist is or does has to do with spiritual work.  Artists are more like healers—our work can be therapy for ourselves and for others."

Active Body
But for many years, Yazzie didn't understand what it meant to be called by God to make art.  "I had the skill, and I had the understanding, but I didn't have a real experience with the inspiration," he says. "I think that's the critical part. I didn't totally understand what it meant to be 'chosen.' "  In 1981, while working on the first of many mural projects over his career, he began to understand: "[I was] doing it for the love of the whole project, and [I] knew Who it was for."  He continues: "You've got to recognize that when you've experienced inspiration, your work is worship. Sometimes when I paint I start making up my own songs, and I'll start to pray and talk about how I see God in the painting. I'll tell God out loud why I'm going to do this or that. This is so the Evil One can hear... I want to make him jealous."

Yazzie bases the divine calling to artists on the example of Bezalel in Exodus 31:1-11.  Bezalel was named by God to create the furnishings for the Tabernacle.  As a sign of this calling, Bezalel was described by God as being filled with the Spirit, having understanding and skill in all kinds of crafts.  Yazzie writes that "Bezalel was inspired by God to create unique works so that the people could have visual reminders of God and God's work. Inspiration took place, creativity followed, and uniqueness was the result."

Yazzie carries this concept even further with his students:

“I encourage my students to look at the characteristics of God and try to understand who He is as an artist. In Ephesians 2:10 we read that, ‘We are His workmanship created in Christ Jesus to do good works that He has prepared in advance for us.’ “Then I read the creation story and realize that everything was created with His voice except human life. It says God formed human life out of the dust of the earth. He took His hands and created us. We are His masterpiece. Each one of us is unique, one of a kind. Whether we like it or not we all have artistic characteristics within us and God wants us to contribute to the world just as Jesus Christ did. As God’s masterpiece, we too, can contribute uniquely to our world."

Yazzie's paintings range in style from "sky-scapes" of contextualized Diné elements, to more realistic images of landscapes or people.  Unfortunately, I found few in-depth explanations of his work (an exception is "Success" shown above), but there are some short descriptions offered along with this selection of his images.  You can see some of his other work here and here.  Thanks to Paul Neeley for the heads up on Elmer Yazzie!


  1. I had the pleasure of meeting Elmer Yazzie at the International Festival of the Arts in Kunming, China. We both were in the group of fine artists, exhibiting and teaching at the Art Institute there. With a gentle spirit he connected with the Chinese students at the university & the Korean artists in our delegation. He taught painting wih his handmade yucca brushes and exhibited his fine paintings. It always amazed me that I had to go all the way to China to meet a Christian Native American artist.

  2. I was blessed to meet Elmer back in 1982 on the Navajo reservation with my college group. He was still working on the mural he mentioned above. Blessings to you, Elmer, as you continue to speak to the world through your way of life.