“We will see the light of day again.” – Michelle Tsosie Sisneros
See “Tsikumu Pin,” a new mural by Tsosie Sisneros, at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center
Tsikumu Pin, the highest peak in the Jemez Mountain Range, is a sacred space to the Pueblo People of New Mexico. The peak and surrounding land was burned in a forest fire nearly a decade ago. “Tsikumu Pin,” a new mural by renowned contemporary native artist Michelle Tsosie Sisneros (Santa Clara Pueblo), shares a moment in time before the devastating fire.
Under a shimmering moon, the deer and rabbits have gathered in their innocence, unaware of the despair and sadness to come. Sisneros speaks of this painting as her Kee (ke-e), Tewa for “strength through adversity.” For many years just a sketch, the completion of this large-scale mural has become Sisneros’ own testament to healing and a profound expression of native artwork. A reminder to treasure little moments and seek strength from sacred places where the spirits of animals, people and the earth connect.
Michelle Tsosie Sisneros is a contemporary artist of Santa Clara, Navajo and Laguna descent. Inspired by her famous relatives, painters Helen Hardin and Pablita Velarde, she is primarily a painter but also creates innovative accessories, apparel and painted shoes. Her painting style is abstract with surrealist influences, yet her subjects are drawn from traditional Native American themes and include Pueblo women, clowns, deer and landscapes. Sisneros has overcome great adversity in her own life, including alcoholism and an abusive husband, and she says of her work, “I paint now from my soul. The images I paint are from the people who touch my life in a profound way and the Mother Earth I live on.”
Check out the interview below to read more about Sisneros’ work, influences and inspiration for her new large-scale mural “Tsikumu Pin.”
It’s not a one-word answer. I don't know how the pandemic has impacted others, but I’ve gone through many phases. For me, my mother has always represented wisdom and strength. My mom is now in her eighties and anxiety can cause her to have panic attacks, so I have to navigate with her very carefully. When she’s worried about the rising COVID numbers or the political and social unrest, I've learned to take the time to talk through things with her while listening more than talking. I always tell her I am not a Pollyanna and I get everything that's happening in the world – I'm affected deeply by it too.
However, just like her, I have the strength to get through anything and she thinks about that and shifts back into a space where she's comfortable. She doesn't get to see her friends, but she's safe, she's got family, a beautiful home and her cats – all the things she loves. She starts to think about those around her who don't have all those things and counts her blessings even though it's a tough time. I've been counting my blessings, too, and realize I’ve actually been through much worse in my life. Nothing in life is stagnant. Things always shift and change. I know deep in my heart that it may take a few years, but we will see the light of day again. That’s where my head's at.
Please share more about yourself and your path to becoming an artist.
I'm a Native American Indigenous woman (Santa Clara/Navajo/Laguna Pueblo) and I believe the thing that strengthens me and makes me who I am is Santa Clara Pueblo. I was primarily raised on the Navajo reservation and lived some years as an urban person growing up in Chicago where my dad went to school, but landed on Santa Clara Pueblo when I left high school and it’s home to me.
My relatives Helen Hardin and Pablita Velarde are phenomenal, well-known artists. They left a mark on who I am, both good and bad. I always had a gift of artistry. I don't think you cultivate your gift until you get older. In my younger years I experienced a lot of alcoholism in my life and with family members. I didn't want alcoholism to be my path, but it most certainly ended up that way.
I became a mother very young. I was almost nineteen years old when I had my son and was in a terribly abusive marriage. I tried really hard to grow up, but I just couldn't and my mother was far away in Minnesota. At this time, I was living at Santa Clara Pueblo, stumbling through my twenties, a doorstep away from being homeless. I was so far gone. You don't know, you just don't know how to get out of those kinds of situations when you’re young.
In my thirties, something clicked in my head. I realized I had to find help and, interestingly enough, I went back to Navajo country to an alcoholism treatment facility there. And that's where I started to close the door to all of it. I knew that was the end of it and never went back. Because of my recovery, I needed more structure than I needed art. I got into criminal justice and law enforcement. I was a police officer for the Santa Clara Pueblo for many years. I went to the Federal Law Enforcement Academy, went to college and received a degree in criminal justice.
It would take a good many years for me to start dabbling again in my artwork. I started painting on the kitchen table again, I took pottery classes, jewelry classes, all kinds of things, but painting was always the gift. I have a real strong sense that whenever life is negative the Creator won't allow you to create the things that you really want to. Finally, when I was stable and left my previous career behind, I was ready for my gift, for my art.
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What's currently inspiring your work?
Like most artists, everything I do is driven from the heart and soul – it's unexplainable. When I was younger, I wanted to become a Native American fashion designer. I’m now in my sixties and three years ago I thought you know what, you’re never too old for your dreams and time really has no limits. I set aside things I was comfortable with and started a new journey. I had stacks of drawings that I wanted to develop into clothing. I paint on shoes. I create fabric from my paintings. I made my clothing designs as important as my paintings – it’s been so fulfilling.
Please share the story of your extraordinary new piece “Tsikumu Pin.”
The inspiration for this mural came from tragic fires that decimated sacred canyonlands on Santa Clara Pueblo nearly ten years ago. About a month before the fire, my husband went fishing near Tsikumu Pin. It's absolutely beautiful land, there are trout ponds, beaver dams, just like one of those photos from National Geographic. My husband was enjoying the quiet morning and looked up over the ridge when an enormous buck appeared. The buck meandered over near my husband and, as fast as he arrived, he disappeared.
I believe the buck was the Creator saying farewell to all we had known – blessing the land we honor so deeply. I decided to paint beautiful does with their young fawns in a moonlit night sky to honor the sacred mountain.
Mother Earth is cyclical, we've seen it over the billions of years she's been alive and, when we look at our life here on earth, we’re not meant to see the difference in our lifetime, but we know things will go up and we're in the land of milk and honey, and then drop down, like the down we're experiencing now.” This mural is my Kee (ke-e). In Tewa, Kee means, “strength through adversity.
It amazes and enlightens me how as an artist I see my work one way and people viewing it or hearing its inspiration can interpret its meaning in a completely different way. When Monique Fragua, Vice President of Commercial Enterprises at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, read what inspired the piece, she wrote to me and explained how for her the piece symbolized the pandemic and human hope for healing. Just as the fire decimated our sacred canyonlands, the pandemic has also destroyed everything for us, yet knowing healing will eventually come brings hope and peace.
New to our store, Holiday Cards featuring Michelle Tsosie Sisneros' new mural at IPCC, "Tsikumu Pin"
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