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AP Exchange: Shoshone artist’s work inspires tribal activism

June 13, 2019

RENO, Nev. (AP) — There’s an American Indian man in oversized reflective sunglasses sitting in the center of a painting. Over his shoulder, there’s a mess of dated electronics stacked under a cluttered television set. On the other side, a figure is immersed in a spiritual ritual below an eagle and a sky of billowing clouds.

The painting is a self-portrait of Jack Malotte, a Shoshone and Washoe artist who grew up on the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony reservation and has since made a career of creating prints, posters and paintings that have inspired both environmental and social activism nationwide.

“It’s what my living room looked like then,” the Reno native said of the piece entitled, “It’s Hard to be Traditional When You’re all Plugged In.” ″I was going to sweat lodges, but then too I had all these tangled cords in my home. I drew myself in between these two worlds.”

Much of Malotte’s work, now on display at the Nevada Museum of Art, is often about juxtaposition, whether it’s tradition versus modernism, or nature and technology.

“While his work celebrates the beauty of the Great Basin landscape, it also tackles important issues related to land use, natural resource extraction, militarization, and legacies of colonialism,” Nevada Museum of Art David Walker said of Malotte.

Walker called Malotte one of the most significant working artists in Nevada today.

Malotte’s depiction of himself in the 1983 “Plugged In” self-portrait is stone-faced, but the artist himself is large and jovial. He has thick silver hair and a warm smile. It’s hard to tell he harbors any bitterness at all, until you look at his work, which is often dark, biting commentary on how modern technology and military policy have had an impact on Native American culture and livelihoods.

The Nevada Museum of Art this week is opening “Jack Malotte: Sagebrush Heathen,” an exhibition that will include many of his earliest works, some of his more recent works and even a mural painted by Malotte this past week on the museum’s south wall. The exhibition runs through Oct. 20.

“I’m always trying to figure out how to mix it up,” said Malotte.

Malotte has been creating art since he was a child. He grew up always doodling, he said, and always admiring his uncle, a draftsman for the local power company in the 1960s.

Inspired, Malotte took drafting classes in high school and went on to study art at what is now the California College of the Arts in Oakland. he spent summers as a wildland firefighter, taking in rare glimpses of untouched Western landscape that later informed his technicolor skies and mountains.

“When you’re out there all the time, that’s all you think about,” Malotte said, explaining that nature was always top of mind during his youth.

It wasn’t until the late 1970s and early 1980s that his art, and his love for the great outdoors, met a greater purpose. Malotte at the time began to ally himself with variety of grassroots organizations, many of them intent on bringing environmental justice to Native American tribes: Western Shoshone Sacred Lands Association, Seventh Generation Fund and various nuclear testing resistance groups.

From campaigning to preserve Pyramid Lake to protesting toxic waste dumping in the Mojave Desert, Malotte put powerful images to the issues that continue to be hotly debated today. Many of his landscapes feature the horizons of the Great Basin.

“Jack’s work brings powerful visual representations to the vision and voices of the Indigenous rights movement. We proudly wear his work on t-shirts, and adorn our posters, publications and letterhead with his graphics,” said Debra Harry, a gender, race and identity program professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. “His work transmits our call to protect our land and treaty rights, stop militarization, and promote self-determination.”

Malotte’s style was distinct. The colors were molten, taken straight from a Nevada sunset. His media was mixed -- watercolors, ink, acrylic, whatever gets the job done. He used paint splatter, bold text, but also traditional Native American patterns and symbols, such as the eagle, moon and whirlwinds, or what he calls “that spirit that follows me.”

In many paintings, Malotte depicts environmental travesties: sewage spilling into rivers, birds of prey soaring alongside military jets, and lava-red mushroom clouds exploding in a high desert.

In other works, he depicts stark realities of daily life on the reservation. In one piece, a billboard with a Native American man drinking “Pow Wow Beer” hovers above the scene of a car crash in the desert, a tossed beer can spilling onto the roadway.

Malotte wasn’t exactly primed to be the visual voice for all Native Americans. Malotte’s grandmother used to discourage him from playing with children who were of different tribes, particularly children who were Paiute, even though the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony was made up of three tribes: Shoshone, Washoe and Paiute.

But Malotte knew better. He played down by the river with those kids, and they all grew up talking a little bit of all three languages, not knowing which words were Shoshone and which were Washoe or Paiute.

“My generation, we didn’t see ourselves as one or the other,” said Malotte. “We saw ourselves as one tribe.”

When Malotte looks at his own work, he can’t remember a lot of it. He’s produced so much of it, he’d guess thousands of pieces. And he’s still creating, as evidenced by the ink under his nails and the paint on his T-shirt.

He not sure what to hope for the future of the environment, but he’s happy in his home of two decades now, Duckwater, a community west of Ely. It’s 290 miles (466 kilometers) from Reno.

It’s wide open, but not without proximity to sites that cause him heartache. He’s only a short drive to a number of open-pit gold mines and military installations. A weapons ammunition storage facility and the nation’s largest nuclear test site are several hours away. He can see military jets flying over from his home.

“I hope we can keep it together,” he said.

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Information from: Reno Gazette-Journal, http://www.rgj.com

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