Robert Martinez: Turning A Paintbrush Into a Microphone

Robert Martinez was born in Wyoming on the Wind River Reservation in the small city of Riverton. His lineage is Spanish, Mexican, Scotts Irish, French Canadian, and Northern Arapaho. He graduated Riverton High School at 17 at age 19, he became the Youngest Native American to graduate from Rocky Mountain College of Art & Design at that time.

Living among the hard working people of the West and experiencing their issues deeply influences Robert's creations as well as his native heritage. Much of Robert’s current work uses the historical imagery, myths and stories of the West and Arapaho Culture combined with modern themes to create images that leave a statement. Using intense vibrant color and contrasting shades of light and dark, he paints and draws striking forms that are confronting and engage the viewer.

A strong supporter of Education and of the Arts, Robert devotes time to helping and mentoring emerging artists on his reservation in Wyoming and the western region. He gives back to the community by speaking about art topics, giving workshops, and demonstrates his style to schools, agencies and art groups.

Thank you for your time Robert! Check out his website here.

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Emy Romero (00:00):

Hello, my name is Emy diGrappa. Each week, we bring you stories asking our guests the question why. We learn about passion, purpose, and the human experience. Brought to you by Wyoming Humanities with the generous support of the Wyoming Community Foundation, this is What's Your Why. Today, we are talking to award winning Northern Arapaho artist, Robert Martinez. Robert was born on the Wind River Reservation in Riverton, Wyoming. His art is bright and vibrant, blending historic Native culture with modern day culture. Welcome, Robert.

Robert Martinez (00:57):

Hi, how are you?

Emy Romero (00:59):

Great, great. I'm doing great. I want to hear your journey to become an artist and growing up on the reservation, and who inspired you to go forth and get your arts degree.

Robert Martinez (01:14):

What would you like to hear first?

Emy Romero (01:15):

What it was like growing up on the reservation and how you grew up and where you grew up in general.

Robert Martinez (01:21):

Well, I grew up on the Wind River Reservation, it's home to two tribes, the Eastern Shoshone and the Northern Arapaho. I'm part Northern Arapaho and also Chicano. The Eastern Shoshone people now are just over 7,000 while the Northern Arapaho now are just over 10,000, and we were historical enemies and the United States placed us on the same reservation in the hopes that we probably kill each other off and they wouldn't have to worry about us. So currently, there's over a 90% plus unemployment rate, there's some alcoholism, drug use, it's a tough place to be but still, there's a great people.
We have vibrant culture, we have our ceremonies and we live in the beautiful Wind River Range, Bighorn Range with all of the majesty that Wyoming has. So I grew up in that kind of environment, I went to school, my formative years in the St. Stephens Indian School, and then went to Riverton later on, and graduated Riverton High School. Was fortunate enough to have a couple of great high school art teachers who really looked out for me, one of them helped me so much that he applied for scholarships for me. He got me quite a few actually, but I went to Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, graduated the youngest Native American with a bachelor's degree at the time at 19.

Emy Romero (02:47):

Wow.

Robert Martinez (02:48):

And since then, I've been a professional artist since 1997, but I've also worked for my tribe and worked with at risk youth here on the reservation in various positions, in addition to doing artwork.

Emy Romero (03:04):

So what makes you lean more towards your Northern Arapaho culture and heritage than to, say, your Chicano culture and heritage? Or do they equally play an important part in your artwork?

Robert Martinez (03:17):

No. I have been brought up more around my mother's family, my mother was Northern Arapaho, so I spent more time with my Northern Arapaho family. And my Chicano, my father's family is Chicano and the generation that their mother, my grandfather and my grandmother grew up in were of the generation that they didn't want to be known as one thing. They wanted to be American, so they pushed their kids to be American and not something else. You understand what I'm saying? So they didn't teach you how to speak Spanish, my other grandmother didn't teach my mother how to speak Northern Arapaho, because they wanted them to be successful no matter what, and that was their thought at the time. But as a part of that, I grew up more on the reservation and being more around Northern Arapaho people and that kind of culture than anything else, so that's what I identify with as most.

Emy Romero (04:16):

And so how do you hold onto your traditions? And what do you say about assimilation or being part of the American culture, but also keeping your roots in your Native American heritage?

Robert Martinez (04:29):

Well, that's something that Natives deal with every day, just walking down the street. There's no other people on the continent, on this continent that can say, "My ancestors have been here since nobody can remember." Everybody else says, "Well, my ancestors have only been here for four or five generations." So Natives are always aware of that fact. We have our ceremonies and cultures, but we still have to drive cars. We don't ride horses anywhere. We still live in houses. We can't live in our traditional lodges anymore. It's just the way things are, so there's always that dichotomy of living little bit in the past and little bit in the present. Natives are aware of that all the time, but it's up to each individual person. There are Natives that lived in cities all of their life and they don't know a lot about their culture, but that doesn't make you any less Native. There are Natives that live on the reservation all of their life, but that doesn't make them any less modern.

Emy Romero (05:29):

So what do you think about the argument about blood quantum that makes you Native?

Robert Martinez (05:37):

Natives are the only people in this country that by law have to prove how much of a thing that they are. They're the only people that have to do that. Nobody else has to. The only thing that's close to that are horses and dogs for blood quantum, for pure breeds. It's an outdated concept, I think. However, it does bring up a lot of questions that if you don't use something such as blood quantum, then what makes you part of the tribe?

Emy Romero (06:09):

So there's a good question, because maybe you're a half or a quarter or whatever is necessary for each tribe to be considered Native. What is it more than the blood quantum that you think makes you Native American?

Robert Martinez (06:27):

I'm not real sure. It's different for each tribe, and I think that's one of the things that it should be. It should be different for each tribe. Each tribe has its own culture. People forget that Natives are all different. All these tribes are different. If you look at Europe and you look at France and Spain, they're right next to each other, but they have a different language, they had a different historical dress, they had a different culture, they have different ways of doing things. It's the same way in the United States. Just because we are Native, quote unquote, doesn't mean that we're not different from the French and the Spanish. People tend to lump us into one group and just call us Native but that covers a whole lot of ground. It's like calling somebody European.

Emy Romero (07:13):

Well, I think that's true for whether you're in the Asian culture or whether you're Latino. Being has every Latino, Hispanic culture, they're all different, very different. They're all different countries too, just like you said, so I really agree with that. I think it just makes our perspective different because the Native Americans, there's many different Native American cultures just within the United States and you're right. They all have their own customs, their own traditions, and they're their own people in that sense. So I think it just becomes an important identity piece to talk about when you're learning about other cultures, and not just to lump everybody into one group.

Robert Martinez (07:57):

Right.

Emy Romero (07:58):

Tell me how you decided to become an artist. What did you see in yourself and what did others see in you?

Robert Martinez (08:04):

I don't know that I ever saw anything in myself. I've just been creative ever since I can remember, I've always painted, drawn, or created things. I've done it all my life, was fortunate enough, like you said, to have a few people look out for me. I think I was early teen. It was either in church or at a ceremony, but I remember somebody older than I was mentioned, and this bugs me because I can remember them saying that, but I can't remember who it was, but they said that if God gives you a gift, as like a talent, that it's a sin not to use it. For some reason, that always stuck with me, and I've carried that within me. I have a gift for creating imagery or sculpting, and I found that I need to express myself in those ways.

Emy Romero (08:57):

Well, I've been reading quite a bit about your art and what you're portraying in your artwork, and I want you to talk a little bit about that because you received the Governor's Arts Award for your visual art, and you talk about, you're trying to create a message. You're to have an expression, that when people see your art, they will feel something about what they're looking at.

Robert Martinez (09:23):

Well, that's part of it. Part of the reason I got the Governor's Award was because of my art. The other part was because of my actions, using my art to leverage opportunities for other Native artists in the state, but we can talk a little bit more about that. When it comes to my artwork right now, currently, and it's always evolving as any good artist's work should. But currently, my artwork is about adjusting expectations about what Native art is and who Native people are. So I tend to use themes of past and present similar to the short conversation we had earlier, about walking in the past and the present. I use illustrations of technology or popular music or hip hop along with historical imagery to create something that says that Natives here are not what you expect.
This is how you might have seen us, but we're not that. And that comes from the ledger art tradition. So those drawings are black and white, and they're usually on a ledger page, antique ledgers, or maps or some kind of vintage paper background, and that's one part of my art. The other part of my art is very, very bright, almost neon paintings. People have said that they look like they're almost lit from the back. And those are in opposition to black and white photos that you might see of Natives that make you think of a people or a culture that is dead and gone. My bright paintings are in direct response to that to say, "No, we're not gone. We're here, we are strong, we're vibrant, and we're not going away."

Emy Romero (11:17):

Do you think Native Americans are making a comeback in this country to have more of a voice?

Robert Martinez (11:25):

Absolutely. The census, I haven't seen the actual figures but from what I'm told, has the Native population almost doubled from the last time. The election of Deb Haaland is giving us a big voice as new secretary of the interior, high profile Hollywood series and films are being made by us about us. That's a big thing. We're getting to tell our own stories, and that's one of the things that I advocate for that I did get the Governor's Art Award for, it was leveraging things to a point where Native people can tell their own stories through painting, sculpting, beadwork, food, dance, performance, things of that nature.

Emy Romero (12:13):

I've noticed in some of the interviews that you've done, that you talk about giving back to your people. And I'm wondering, how are you doing that? How are you creating opportunities for other Native Americans?

Robert Martinez (12:28):

In 2012, myself and three other Northern Arapaho artists, Eugene Ridley, Bruce Cook, and Ron Howard formed the Northern Arapaho Artist Society. In response to the fact that we could not find any exhibit venues in Wyoming that were showing contemporary Native artwork. None. Other than commercial artistry in Jackson, but we'll get to that in a second.

Emy Romero (12:59):

Okay.

Robert Martinez (13:01):

So with our individual connections and grassroots communication, we were able to leverage, or have been able to leverage at least one to two small art exhibits within the state of Wyoming to date. Every year, we've done that. And some of those have been the first kinds of exhibits they've ever done. Also in 2014, I became a co-founder of the Creative Indigenous Collective, which is a more regional group comprised of John Pepion, Lauren Monroe, Ben Pease, Lewis and Gina Still Smoking, and Holly Young, and it's the same thing. We're trying to get more visibility for Native artwork, in particular contemporary Native artwork, in the region. And with both of those groups, we've had some groundbreaking exhibits. One of the first was the first contemporary group art show at the Wyoming State Museum since its inception in 18, I think '96. They've never had a contemporary Native art show. We had one in 2017.
The same thing with the Buffalo Bill Museum, in their Plains Indian Museum. They've never had a contemporary group art show until we did one there in 2020. We've had some other great exhibits in Montana with the same kind of groundbreaking thing, so this is just through grassroots networking. This is just through one of us making a call and saying, "Hey, how come we've never had a Native show? Let's have one." In addition to those kinds of venues getting more high profile of Native art itself, at each one of those, we give talks and do workshops and try to really point out other Native artists we know to say, "Hey, we've done it, but might look at them. They need a show too." I've also worked closely with the Wyoming Arts Council. This will be their third staff make up since I've been able to talk with them, but I've always pushed for more Native art representation. And this year, we finally got a specific Native art fellowship.
I've been asking for that forever, and it's just through talking to people, trying to get more Native art representation, and putting up, and making good work and getting people to see it is how I've mainly been giving back visibly. On the side that you don't see, I'm talking to Native artists all the time, emerging artists, people on the web, I'm answering questions. I'm giving them advice. Sometimes I'm doing workshops, sometimes I'm doing actual art classes, but I'm always out there trying to help and give back a little of the success that I've been blessed to have. When I started out as a young up and coming artist, all the older artists were very kind and giving me advice, so I want to take that model and keep that kind of tradition going.

Emy Romero (16:20):

I think that's excellent. And as I hear you talking, I'm really curious because you consider yourself a contemporary artist, and I'm wondering, do you collaborate with traditional artists, traditional Native art that is beadworking or tanning hides and painting on hides or weaving, basket weaving. There's just so many, but is that part of it is to keep the traditional alive? Or are you just really focused on more of a contemporary emerging field of up and coming Native American artists?

Robert Martinez (17:03):

Well, I think we have a labeling problem and that's all the art world really is anyway, a big labeling problem. I think any artist right now that's alive is a contemporary artist. It doesn't matter what they do. If they do historical tribal craft work, for instance beadwork or tanning hides or something like that, that may be a traditional art or a traditional way of creating something, but those people are still alive right now so they're contemporary. That's my definition. I'm sure there's, there's a bunch of curators out there and gallery people who will say the opposite, but the artwork that interests me the most, no matter what it is, it might be bead work or sculpture, or whatever, says something about today, but keeps a lot of the great stuff from past traditions. And that is historically what Native people did anyway. If you look at a lot of our beadwork, they took a lot of modern things and incorporated into beadwork, even beads. These Beads themselves are not Native, are not glass beads that we know of when we think of beadwork. They're not native to this country.

Emy Romero (18:26):

Well, and I think they really celebrate that when I've seen them put together the regalia and everything for the powwow. Bringing in beads and things that weren't necessarily traditional, but they're incorporating them into the work that they do with the head dress or just so many different things. It's really interesting.

Robert Martinez (18:53):

Yeah. We've done that forever. Take something new and incorporate into what we know.

Emy Romero (19:00):

And I think you should talk about that because what's down the road for you? How are you moving forward with the work you're doing to keep it out in front of people?

Robert Martinez (19:14):

Personally, or for everybody else?

Emy Romero (19:17):

For you, personally. For you.

Robert Martinez (19:20):

Well, I mean, I continually have ideas. I'm constantly writing those down, it's just finding the best way to put those out creatively. Right now, I'm taking a little bit of a break. I've had a hugely busy early 2021, I had some big shows this year and I produced a lot of work for them, so now I kind of want to jump and do something new for a little while. So I'm going to be trying some three dimensional work. That's all I'm going to say about it, because I don't know if it's going to work or not, but I'll still be continuing to have my certain point of view put out there through my drawing or my paintings.
I don't think I'll ever stop that, but I sure like to do more three dimensional work. I have a minor in sculpture that I don't get to flex my creative muscles with very much, so I want to try some of that, but it's getting the right tools and working out some ideas. And then of course, hopefully, there's somebody out there that likes it enough that they'll want to buy it, keep it forever. Yeah. If you're a sculptor, you don't sell your work, you run out of space real fast.

Emy Romero (20:40):

That is exciting. And when I've been reading and thinking about your career, what gave you your first real break that people noticed what you were doing? Was it a show? Was it an individual? What was the aha moment for someone who bought your work?

Robert Martinez (21:00):

I don't think there's ever been an aha moment. I think it's been a steady and hard climb to get the little success that I've had. I don't think there's ever been a big aha. I mean, if you're an artist and you're trying to sustain yourself and your family like I am, specifically just on your artwork, it needs to be seen. So getting your work out there is the key. Thankfully, everybody knows that Riverton, Wyoming is the center of the art world, right?

Emy Romero (21:36):

Right?

Robert Martinez (21:36):

No, that's about as far as you can get to the center of the art world. So actually, I do think, I think whoever it was, Al Gore or whoever, actually created the internet because without the internet or social media, I wouldn't be able to at least show my imagery to such a wide audience. And that's the great thing about today, is it's changing with technology. Older kind of gallery artist situation been knocked off its high horse. It's still struggling, but I don't know if it'll ever attain what it used to be. I think with social media, it's entirely possible that individual artists are just going to be able to sell the work directly, with some notable exceptions, because people have to see original artwork in person, so they'll always need a brick and mortar venue.

Emy Romero (22:36):

Well, I agree with you. I mean, the internet really expands your world and other people can see your work from, I'm sure you've sold pieces to people that you probably didn't even expect to because they were able to see of your work online.

Robert Martinez (22:50):

Right.

Emy Romero (22:51):

But at the same time, and when I was saying an aha moment, I wasn't thinking of someone just came upon your painting and said, "Aha," I'm thinking of how the time when you saw that your work did something for somebody, did something, touched an emotion and spoke to them. And that became like, "I'm doing the right thing. I'm doing what I really dreamed to do, and someone related."

Robert Martinez (23:24):

I've always had that. There's been things I created when I was a really young kid that people had said was awesome and they wanted it, and usually at that time, I just gave it to them. So I guess I've been blessed to have that for as long as I can remember.

Emy Romero (23:42):

Well, that's great, Robert, and to tell me how people can find your artwork, how they can find you and learn about you and your artwork.

Robert Martinez (23:52):

You can visit my website, it's martinezartdesign.com. Or you can find me on Facebook, Robert Martinez Artist, or you can find me on Instagram, Robert Martinez Artist, and all my contact information is there. If you follow me on social media, I always post the in process shots, the newest work. Something we didn't touch on though, is that I do create fine artwork and it does sell for kind of spendy prices. Well, I believe that everybody should be able to own artwork so I do also have a graphic design and merch line for people that like my imagery that can't afford a $10,000 painting. And if you follow me on social media, I'm constantly posting links to that merchandise.

Emy Romero (24:41):

That's great. I really like that, because you're right. Not everybody can afford a $10,000 painting.

Robert Martinez (24:46):

Right.

Emy Romero (24:46):

But making art available to everybody, I think is really important, so that's very admirable that you're doing that.

Robert Martinez (24:54):

Yeah. It's like I said, that gallery model is odd. I touched on it a little bit, Jackson's in Wyoming is probably the place for commercial artwork. It certainly has the biggest, the deepest pockets, I think. Well guess what? There's no Wyoming Native artists over there.

Emy Romero (25:14):

Well, we're going to have to change that, right?

Robert Martinez (25:17):

I think so. Yeah. There's very little authentic Native artwork over there as it is. Most of that I've seen the last time I made the gallery tours over there was from out of state, and there certainly weren't any artists from my reservation that I saw over there in any form, beadwork, paintings, sculpture or whatever. So yeah, I would definitely like to change that.

Emy Romero (25:42):

Well, I would love to see you do that. So anything I can help you with, just let me know. So our time is up and thank you so much, Robert. It's been such a pleasure talking to you.

Robert Martinez (25:54):

Thanks for inviting me.

Emy Romero (25:56):

We had a rough go, but we did it.

Robert Martinez (25:58):

Yeah. Thanks.

Emy Romero (26:01):

You too. Okay.

Robert Martinez (26:01):

Bye.

Emy Romero (26:14):

Bye. Thank you for joining us for this episode of What's Your Why, brought to you by Wyoming Humanities with support from Wyoming Community Foundation, and generous supporters like you. To learn more, go to thinkwhy.org. Subscribe and never miss a show.