Kelvin Yazzie says that his art won’t make him rich, and it won’t make him famous until he’s dead. But since ceramics are his passion, just paying the bills is enough.
Still, by doing what he loves, Yazzie has had the opportunity to do extraordinary things.
At a Santa Fe art conference several years ago, Yazzie met Tim McCarty, director of Gallaudet University’s Young Scholars Program, which takes talented deaf students around the world to perform and give workshops for the deaf and hard of hearing. Since then, he has made several trips with the group as an adult sponsor, and this past July, he had the opportunity to travel with these young scholars to Romania.
From northern Arizona, Romania may seem worlds away. Until 1989, the iron-fisted Nicolae Ceausescu ruled Romania, denying people basic freedoms and necessities, censoring the press, and racking up human rights abuses. Ceausescu was ousted and executed in 1989 during a painfully violent revolution, where over 1,000 Romanians were killed. Although the country made a break from communism and adopted a new, democratic constitution in 1991, the people of this nation are still recovering.
All the details of this revolution are not yet public, says Yazzie, and the people here do not speak with ease or certainty about their history—or their future. The move to a free market economy has been a difficult one, and the people face gripping poverty and a low standard of living. In a country so torn by recent events, escaping politics proved impossible on a trip such as this, says Yazzie. Activities were canceled without explanation, the plumbing was horrendous, and the buildings, often gray and cheerless, were full of bugs.
But recent politics have also affected the quality of life for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. For them, life in Romania has become increasingly difficult, since government support for their programs has been drastically cut. In addition, misunderstandings about the deaf persist and people too often believe that the deaf are not capable of holding regular jobs. The laws there, says Yazzie, place needless limits on what the deaf can and cannot do.
Working with the Romanian National Association of the Deaf, the Young Scholars group traveled to six cities to raise awareness of deaf culture, giving workshops in song, dance and acting. Although the initial connections were difficult, says Yazzie, everyone soon began speaking the same language—the language of sign. Smiles, he says, became the norm.
“At first they were very stoic and didn’t smile much,” says Yazzie, “Their normal conversation looked like fighting to us. But we communicate better through gesture and body language anyway, and we find out that we are all just regular people.”
One of the greatest benefits to the program, says Yazzie, is cultural exchange. As the only Native American on the trip, Yazzie had the chance to break through other cultural misconceptions and antiquated beliefs, beliefs about Native Americans.
People still hold an image of Native Americans as living in teepees or have reduced them to people who “can’t handle liquor,” says Yazzie.
“They think Native Americans are privileged, happily living off of money the government gives them on reservations, having their every need met. There is also the common misconception that every Native Nation has a casino, making them rich.”
“They still want to touch my hair, touch my skin,” he says.
Yazzie’s presence shatters those images. Once people simply spend time together, he says, those misconceptions fade away.
The young scholars, of course, also learned a great deal about the people and the culture of Romania. “I have learned the most from all of this,” says Yazzie. “I have been given the opportunity to look at my space from a distance and come back to it with a new perspective.”
Originally from Churchrock, New Mexico, Yazzie was put into a placement program through the Mormon Church when he was nine. That program, he says, got him out of a dysfunctional situation and away from the bad cycle that sometimes exists so close to bordertowns. “If they hadn’t put me in a program, I would have been just another alcohol-related death on the rez,” he says.
Yazzie did have trouble with alcohol, though, landing three drunk driving convictions before he checked himself into a treatment center. While he was there, he says, he “saw the light.” He began his career as an artist after he got out, exhibiting his work and teaching in treatment centers, correctional facilities and at the Tucson School for the Deaf and Blind. His travels with Gallaudet University are, in some ways, a natural extension of his art, working with those who are often overlooked, and often misunderstood or underestimated. “My message,” says Yazzie,” is not to give up; we must help each other.”
For Yazzie, art is not the end product; it is a process of becoming, of creation. Perhaps art and life are not so very different. We have the ability to mold our lives and the lives of those around us by the simplest of interactions. We have the ability to leave the world a better place. “The important thing,” he says, “is to create a body of work during your life, work that can be shared with others.”