Robert Martinez has had a whirlwind year.
SAGE Gallery in Sheridan included his artwork in “Creative Indigenous Collective: A Gathering Exhibition,” from June 8-July 17. His one-man show at the Brinton Museum in Big Horn opened July 10 and continues through Sept. 5. His month-long residency at Crazy Horse Memorial in the Black Hills ended July 30.
On Aug. 2, he headed into a five-day residency at the Plains Indian Museum at Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody. The gig, which he has had the last two years, offers time and space for him to paint and talk with museum goers. Into the fall, he will be in group shows across the West.
The Riverton native takes it all in with a grin and a laugh. Even when he spends a month in a motel without air conditioning.
Martinez is embracing 2021 with its non-stop calendar of events and exhibits, workshops and outreach. Last year the pandemic shut down the usual summer season of shows and art venues: a working artist’s bread and butter. Ever adaptable, Martinez didn’t wait for COVID-19 to go away. Instead, the 44 year old learned to navigate social media and Zoom sessions, and continued to forge ahead with his unique art.
‘I get a lot of questions’
Like other Northern Arapaho youth growing up on the Wind River Reservation, Martinez probably wasn’t sure what opportunities would open up to him . After attending St. Stephens Indian School — once a Catholic mission school, now operated by the Arapaho tribe with funding from Wyoming and the Bureau of Indian Education — Martinez graduated from Riverton High School in 1994. A teacher, Brendon Weaver, nudged him toward a serious art career.
“Mr. Weaver applied for scholarships in my name,” he said. “I got four full rides. I was shocked.”
The 17 year old chose Rocky Mountain College of Art & Design in Denver “because it was away from my family, but still close.” He fast-tracked the courses in three years and came back to the reservation in 1997 to start Martinez Design & Art.
But he quickly learned being a full-time artist wasn’t realistic.
“It’s a myth that somebody will find you and put you in a gallery and you will make lots of money,” he said.
After he sold his existing body of work to friends and family, “which weren’t many,” he remembers, he had to get a job. For a few years he did construction to support his family, but eventually turned to education and program management for the Northern Arapaho and a Fremont County school district. His forte: working with at-risk youth on the reservation, helping them to get a leg up on the 21st century.
While those jobs supported his family for a decade, Martinez never stopped drawing or wielding his airbrush to layer on paint. While still working for Fremont County, he was hired to paint several murals featuring Arapaho leaders in hallways and in a gymnasium.
Since giving up his day jobs, Martinez has garnered awards and kudos as his artistic profile rose. His wife, graphic artist Veronica Martinez, joined in the home-based business in 2003 and brought her native Mexican imagery to the design company and for clients, like Wind River Hotel & Casino.
Robert Martinez won the 2019 Governor’s Arts Award for visual art. Also a recipient of a Wyoming Arts Council visual arts fellowship, his paintings and re-envisioned ledger art were among those featured in a 2018-19 biennial exhibit, “Land and Body,” at the University of Wyoming Art Museum.
“4 Arapaho Leaders,” one of his signature ledger paintings, was purchased in 2015 by the Smithsonian Museum for its permanent collection. A facsimile of an 1885 Arapaho Census Ledger provides the backdrop for this artwork and records the tally of indigenous people on the reservation: 883. The Arapahos now number more than 10,000.
That motif — the ledger paper, old map or document — has become one of Martinez’s signatures. “I wanted to use the background,” he said.
The method references historic ledger art. After the slaughter of bison and the removal of tribes to reservations, Plains Indians like the Northern Arapaho resorted to used ledger paper to report or commemorate an event, such as a hunt or battle, according to art historians. It was more record than art. The paper was accessible and cheap, unlike the no-longer-available buffalo hides or linen canvas.
“I believe an artist evolves,” Martinez said, “pushes the limits.”
Barbara McNab, curator of exhibitions at the Brinton Museum, noted that Martinez certainly has. “It’s a very contemporary perspective by a Northern Arapaho,” she said of his art. “The work is powerful. He has an unusual color palette.”
Non-native artists mostly present a romanticized image of Native peoples, Martinez said, depicting them as out-of-date and without a future. In a word, dead.
Martinez takes a different tack and offers the perspective of a modern Northern Arapaho. For him, this means pairing clashing colors, like bright yellow with a pulsing blue, or a deep purple with brick red. By overlaying his very realistic portraits with these vibrant colors, Martinez wants to challenge the prevailing picture offered in galleries and museums.
“Even (photographer) Edward Curtis jazzed them up,” he said, referring to the iconic sepia-toned photographs. Such images typically feature a stoic or sad Indian looking off into a faded past. Martinez takes issue with that point of view, choosing bright acrylics and oils for his bigger-than-life portraits.
“Some people think Indians and they think teepees, feathers and horses,” Martinez said. Instead he offers up family, hip-hop artists, rocket riders, roller-skaters, Army soldiers, casino operators, women boxers, philosophers, cell phone addicts and Captain Native American.
He’s excited about public art commissions he has received, he said, which offer an opportunity to share this more nuanced vision of Native American life. This includes one from Montana State University. He is painting two 9’ by 9’ murals, each featuring a strong contemporary Native American woman. While at Crazy Horse Memorial he was working up drawings: one of an engineering student. It portrays a confident young woman, a roll of drawings tucked under her white shirted arms, a hard hat secure to her head, eyes that do not turn away from the future.
“If you are looking at a painting of a person and they are looking back at you,” Martinez said, “there’s some communication there.”
To get people’s attention, he wears interesting hats. It’s hard to forget him: long black hair curls down his back, a tidy beard graces his lower face, brown eyes challenge. There is that soft voice that makes you listen. Here is a man firmly embedded in Wyoming, with a mixed heritage of Arapaho, Mexican, Spanish and Scotch-Irish.
“I don’t really look native,” Martinez said. “I’ve got the beaded hat, the long hair. I am kind of pudgy, pretty light skin. I get a lot of questions. Are you the artist? Are you Native American? Most of the public is so conditioned by stereotypes (of Indians), through Hollywood and the media.”
His very contemporary art has no place for so-called romantic images that harken back to some “good old days.” And it’s people he is most interested in, not landscapes, though an occasional deer or raven wanders into view.
Even as museums and collectors purchase his work, Martinez has not put aside his commitment to give back to the community. His art also seeks to build communication and appreciation between non-Natives and Indigenous cultures.
To that end, Martinez has been involved with Wyoming’s move toward including Native American perspectives in the state’s mandated core curriculum. Buffalo Bill’s Native Education Outreach Specialist Heather Bender featured him in one of the teacher talks for this more inclusive approach.
“His talk was called ‘Adjusting Expectations,’” Bender said. “That’s him in a nutshell. He lets you see that Indigenous people are part of the here and now. He understands the importance of giving voice and having agency, especially for yourself. He was really good at communicating with teachers.”
Advocating for Native Americans has been a central part of Martinez’s life. In 2012 he co-founded the Northern Arapaho Artist Society with Ron Howard, Bruce Cook, and Eugene Ridgebear, with support from First Peoples Fund. He also encouraged the Wyoming Arts Council to offer Native Arts Fellowships, the first of which were awarded this year.
When you walk into a Martinez exhibit expecting to see another elegy to the passing of Native Americans, you are going to be disappointed. These are not dirges for a dead people, not cut-outs or stereotypes. He asks you to look into their deep eyes, to let them look into yours.
“It’s like raising your hand in a room and saying ‘I am here,’” McNab said.
In the video produced by the Plains Indian Museum as part of Wyoming’s Education For All initiative, Martinez summed it up: “My hope is we find a better understanding of each other. Feel free to reach out.”