Arizona artist Hyrum Joe is deeply connected to his Native American heritage. Inspiration for his art rises from that deep well and gives his work an authentic context. Mainly of Navajo ancestry, he also has threads of Southern Ute, Hopi, and Apache woven into his family tree. Like many of the younger generation, in earlier years he was not as interested in the past, but soon became fascinated with his rich cultural inheritance and began to use his substantial talent to share that knowledge. “I want people to remember the ways of my people,” he says.
Hyrum’s father, a well-known bronze and stone sculptor, has inspired him with family stories passed down through generations and was instrumental in sparking his son’s focus on Native American portraits and lifestyle. Hyrum, too, is adept in various mediums and produces art in oil, bronze, and graphite and watercolor. His subjects ranges from portrayals of historic events and everyday reservation celebrations to compelling portraits, all of which shape stories of a shifting Native American identity in the face of cultural and economic challenges.
Take, for instance, the artist’s Spirit of the Southern Ute Bear Dance (oil on canvas, 36” x 48”), which exemplifies the ceremonial scenes that catch Hyrum’s imagination. A sunny morning setting depicts the color and charm of a centuries-old practice among the Southern Ute tribe, and others, to celebrate the coming of summer. Once bears were seen emerging from hibernation, the dance would be scheduled. Couples wore handcrafted traditional dress and the event was open to nonnatives as well as tribal members. Bear Dance singers, as shown on the right, kept the beat by sliding wooden rasps and deer bones back and forth on a metal plate set atop an empty wooden box to project the sound. Couples moved quickly to the rhythm and entire families joined in the all-day festivities. In works like this, Hyrum does extensive research, reviews historical reference materials, and works with models to create each individual figure. Spirit is at once an homage to memory and a nod to the collective importance of ritual.
In the eloquently rendered She Dances to the Heartbeat of Her Cheyenne People (graphite and watercolor on paper, 24” x 18”), we see Hyrum’s highly developed drawing skills and his growing mastery of design elements, articulated so beautifully in the central figure’s clothing and the swirl of the foreground landscape. Note how these components are strengthened by the artist’s choice to set them against the stylized, more sparely portrayed mountains and clouds. In all of his art forms, Hyrum has the instincts of a rising star.
In an increasingly complex world, it has never been more important to preserve the beauty, ideals, and customs of the American West’s early societies. Hyrum Joe continues to chronicle his people’s experiences and feels it is “both an obligation and a privilege. It’s an honor to share their stories, the images that come to me in dreams and from my participation in traditional rituals, and to create modern interpretations of times gone by.”