Story by Ana June
Photos by Gaelen Casey
Tony Abeyta calls himself a creature of habit, but when he ticks off the list of what he’s done, where he’s been and what restaurants he frequents, it’s clear that he’s anything but.
It’s a hot summer morning, and Abeyta sits on the patio of Tune Up Café where the wait staff addresses him by first name. He asks for a warm up on his coffee and digs into a rich green salad with beets. Talking between bites, his sentences run into and over themselves, through ellipses and past dashes.
He is a contradiction embodied: bursting with energy as he muses about his art and his life, while simultaneously exuding deep peace. An air of utter relaxation. He is all at once a man at home in himself and his surroundings who is yet ready to rush off to whatever comes next. Perhaps he’ll head back to his studio to paint. Maybe work on his jewelry, something he’s been doing for only two months. Perhaps meet up with friends.
His phone rings, and he takes the call. There’s talk of going to Pecos. “Call me tomorrow,” he tells the caller. “I don’t know what I’m doing yet.” The subtext of this statement is that anything’s possible.
Abeyta was born into a family of artists in 1965. His mother, a Quaker from Pennsylvania, was a weaver and ceramicist. His father was a painter who served as a code talker in World War II.
“My parents always made things, always created,” he says. “There were always things around, like buckets of clay, and if you wanted to use anything you could.” His earliest creative memories are of building what he calls “architectural tree houses and clubhouses.”
“We made an amazing two-story underground clubhouse that was the epicenter of the neighborhood social scene,” he recounts with a mischievous smile. “And I would orchestrate things… say, ‘okay, you go steal that lumber… you bring the chips….’” He laughs.
Despite the fond memories, however, Abeyta couldn’t wait to leave his hometown of Gallup. He worked in movie theaters as a projectionist and knew there was little else he could do unless he left home. What to do was the question. “I didn’t want to be a painter, that’s not what I set out to be,” he says decisively. “I didn’t want to follow in my father’s footsteps.”
He came to Santa Fe when he was 16 to study at the Institute for American Indian Arts (IAIA). It was there that he truly began to explore his creativity. It was there that he started doing just what he had resisted. The footsteps Abeyta does share with his father, Navajo artist Ha So De (Narciso Abeyta), is limited to the medium.
“My father never really made a living at that. I didn’t even know you could live and exist as an artist. …I didn’t see any examples of that until I moved to Santa Fe,” he explains. Now, Abeyta is his own example of an artist who makes a living entirely off of his creativity.
Abeyta started exhibiting and selling his work when he was only 20, which he now says is too early. “I don’t think people should be focusing on selling and making money when they’re so young,” he says, “and I found out later that I needed to cultivate more info, knowledge, refine how I painted and what I painted.”
To cultivate the experiences he felt were so essential to his creativity, Abeyta turned to school. Following his time at IAIA he studied in France, Italy, Maryland and Chicago. “I spent a lot of time living elsewhere,” he says nonchalantly. Considering that he defines himself as a “regionalist” who brings the red cliff, canyon and sagebrush desert of his childhood into his paintings, the implication is that in order to come home to himself as a fully actualized artist, he first had to leave home.
While working on his master’s degree through New York University, Abeyta lived in Venice for two years with his then wife, fashion designer Patricia Michaels, and their two children, Gabriel and Margeaux. “It’s one of the most amazing cities,” he says almost wistfully.
Once, just past midnight, he stood on the Accademia Bridge by the light of a full moon and watched the tide come in. “I watched the canal run backwards,” he recalls. “The tide came in and backed up and changed directions, and I was standing there thinking… ‘Man, I’m here! And not there–wherever there is.”
He goes on to describe walking through the city in the fog, seeing people materialize out of the ethereal blur, the air thick as it flowed over the city in great waves. “There’s a whole plethora of things to see in Venice… there’s really great…” he stops, smiles. Words are simply not adequate to describe the wonder that enveloped him in Venice. “What a great city,” he finishes.
It was his path through the greater world, including the steps he took over that historic bridge in Venice on that moonstruck night, that helped him define his own identity as an artist.
Now, his focus is less on dodging his father’s shadow and more on supporting and mentoring his own son’s artistic vision.
Gabriel Mozart Steven Abeyta, 20, found his creative path in videography, which opened up to him when he was only 6. “He wasn’t at all self-conscious about it, like I was about my art,” says Tony. “He was just shooting footage and making these really short film–water falling, kids throwing leaves into the air–and everyone was intrigued.” Family friends in Taos bought him a little video camera for his birthday, and Gabe still uses it today.
“We’ve worked together on projects,” says Tony, “and I’m very serious when I work with him. We have a little bit of fun, but it’s a really professional relationship. I end up paying him, or helping him get some equipment.”
The projects they work on together are documentary in nature, with Gabriel filming Tony as he paints, but they are far from the simple recording of a process. It’s in the video editing that Gabriel’s artistic spirit takes over. His work melts and merges the imagery, the video running forward and back, bending time and opening up a path of creativity down which Gabriel the son leads Tony the father.
In 2008, Gabriel filmed Tony painting an installation at the Heard Museum in Phoenix. Tony used no preliminary sketches to create “Underworlderness,” a sweeping image of life rising from darkness through the “mythological realms of Mother Earth.” Instead, he let the forms guide his hand as he swept India ink washes and charcoal directly across the expanse of gallery wall. It was the largest work of art Tony had ever completed.
The resulting video is an artistic orchestration of father by son. (You can view the film by going to tonyabeytastudio.com.) The video plays forward, viscous India ink runs down the wall…then everything reverses and the ink runs back up again. Forms appear and disappear again. Tony’s hand sweeps a semicircle in ink across the white expanse…then reverses upon itself and the image dissolves again. Scene change and the forms in the painting mirror each other and fold into the middle like some animated Rorschach inkblot, with Tony’s brush dodging in and out of the frame. All the while, perfectly orchestrated music flows along with the imagery…in and out again, white and black, time moving forward, time moving back. The visual juxtaposition of Tony’s view of the Venetian canals running backward beneath a full midnight moon, the water cresting and foaming against centuries-old architecture, and the rivulets of ink wash in the video that run up the wall defying gravity is striking. Tony has modestly called himself an alchemist before, and it would seem that this runs through the blood and bond between father and son, despite their differing creative visions.
Tony might tell you, however, that such a fine alchemy owes much to good health and sustenance, and he’s quick to point out that both he and Gabe are foodies. “I’m one of those people who eats out every day,” he says. Tune Up is an almost daily breakfast destination. Harry’s Roadhouse is his Sunday morning spot. “Waking up and having a good solid breakfast, taking a run or going to the gym clears my mind. Good health helps me to be open-minded to whatever the opportunity or potential is for the day,” he explains.
His drive to seek out diverse and rich experiences is also evident in the way he approaches food. His tastes reflect his worldly wanderlust. “There’s so much to take in, to learn. Like what arugula does to a salad… yellow beets versus red,” he notes. “I love Vietnamese food,” he continues, saying that a big hot bowl of Pho is truly a comfort dish. “But I also like a good steak. And sushi, oysters, soul food… I love African, Japanese… I’m a big coffee connoisseur.”
When he does cook, he says, he makes wonderful stuffed squash blossoms and an intriguing mango pasta dish. But there’s not much space in his daily life for that. “I’m always out doing things. In my fridge you’ll find some nice veggies from the Farmers’ Market and some stuff from Trader Joe’s,” he laughs, continues, “and a lot of leftovers.”
He finishes his coffee and it’s time to get on with the day. Possibilities await, and he has jewelry to make in preparation for his exhibition at Blue Rain Gallery on the 20th of August. “I’m not designing jewelry, I’m making jewelry. I just started getting my hands dirty,” he says simply. “It’s all silver that translates the imagery in my paintings into a three-dimensional work of art.”
He sits back and thinks for a moment.
“I’m a contemporary Navajo American Indian painter, and there’s probably not a lot that is going to change me into something different,” he remarks. Then a smile stretches across his face. “But jewelry… people ask me why, why do I do it. Is it for the money? And it’s not… I’m going broke making it. No… a good friend of mine told me that creativity comes from someplace else. What we make is not necessarily ours–we are conduits. Wherever that creative energy is, we transform that into something. We can take credit for our creations, but not full responsibility for them.”
He’s serious for a moment, before adding simply and with a smile, “I’ll always be a painter but the jewelry–that’s soul candy.”
On August 20th from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. there will be a reception at the Blue Rain Gallery featuring 24 of Abeyta’s latest works. The show is part of the gallery’s annual celebration of contemporary Native American Art and runs through August 22nd. The gallery is at 130 Lincoln Avenue. 505.954.9902. www.blueraingallery.com. You can also view his work at his website www.tonyabeytastudio.com. The film by Gabriel Abeyta can be viewed from both sites.