Wyoming Women To Watch: Artist Sarah Ortegon

Sarah Ortegon is an enrolled Eastern Shoshone and also is Northern Arapaho. She is number 10 in a family of 12 kids. In 2013 she graduated from Metropolitan State University of Denver with a bachelor’s degree in Fine Art with a concentration in drawing.

In August of 2013 Sarah was crowned Miss Native American, USA. Soon after, Ortegon started touring with the Native Pride Dancers, traveling and performing the jingle dress dance in the US and also in Moldova, Europe and Guatemala. In March of 2020 before the pandemic hit, Ortegon was able to perform in Times Square, NY and dance alongside the film previously created. In collaboration with Choctaw artist, Jeffery Gibson, they filmed “She Never Dances Alone,” and the film was displayed on over 60 monitors every night at midnight for several months in Times Square.

In addition, The Denver Art Museum has added her piece titled, “Home is Where the Heart Is,” to their collection and she was recently featured in the PBS Film, “The Art of Home”, which aired nationally in November 2019 on PBS.

Ortegon has also pursued acting and was cast in a play in Denver, CO in February of 2016 titled Black Elk Speaks. From there, she was cast in a musical called Sitting Bulls Last Waltz which premiered in Hollywood, California for the Hollywood Fringe Festival in June-July of 2016. Ortegon was also an extra in the BBC/NBC Sky 1 miniseries Jamestown which filmed in Budapest in August of 2016, 2017 and 2018.

Visit her website HERE

Sarah is one of five Wyoming artists selected for Women To Watch. The 2024 exhibit is the National Museum of Women in the Art's biennial exhibition series that features underrepresented and emerging women artists who create in any medium including, but not limited to, painting, sculpture, print, drawing, photography, film, digital, installation, and sound.

Wyoming will participate for the first time in NMWA’s Women to Watch exhibition, held in Washington, DC in 2024 and Ortegon is one of the five amazing and talented artists chosen from across Wyoming to be invited to submit their work. BUT, only one will be chosen to be on exhibit in a collection at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington D.C!

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Emy diGrappa:        

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.

00:38        Today we are talking to Sarah Ortegon. She is an artist from the Wind River Reservation. She's an enrolled Eastern Shoshone, and she's a multimedia artist. And in this series that I'll be doing on women artists is part of the Women to Watch 2024 New Worlds. And Women to Watch is an exhibition program that features underrepresented and emerging women artists. And this is exciting because it's going to be talking about how these women artists envision a different world, how does that look? And they invite us into their world and what they explore and how they do their art. So I want to welcome Sarah. Thanks Sarah.

Sarah Ortegon:        

01:22        Yeah, thank you for having me. I just want to introduce myself. I'm also Northern Arapaho, but I'm enrolled Shoshone. It's just the way the government has it right now, but I wanted to introduce myself in Arapaho, [foreign language 00:01:39]. So thank you.

Emy diGrappa:        

01:39        Thank you Sarah. And do you speak fluent Arapaho?

Sarah Ortegon:        

01:43        I do not. I am learning words and I am teaching them to my newborn son. Well, I'm speaking them to him in the morning, so.

Emy diGrappa:        

01:53        Oh, that's beautiful.

Sarah Ortegon:        

01:54        Yeah.

Emy diGrappa:        

01:55        I want you to tell me a little bit about your journey into becoming an artist and what inspired you or who inspired you to become the artist that you've become today?

Sarah Ortegon:        

02:08        Okay. So art started for me before elementary, I would say, because it is a quiet expression. My parents loved the fact that I was expressing myself via paper and pencil or crayons. And so I think that my mom really liked the fact that I could create on my own and not have... She had 12 kids, and so it was a way for me to entertain myself as well.

02:35        And so it started, I would say before elementary school and then into first grade, I won an art contest, and I was never really into contesting or anything like that, but it was just something fun that the teacher had all of us do, so I had to submit a drawing. It was for the front of a cover of a little book that we put together.

02:56        And then after that, middle school, I was always in art class. And then high school, art was one of my things that I always went back to. And in college I actually switched my major several different times. I can't even count the amount of times I switched my major. But somehow I always signed up for an art class. And so it just made sense for me to graduate with a degree in art. And my main focus was drawing at the time.

Emy diGrappa:        

03:27        So you always had it in your heart, just in your being, that you were going to pursue art in your career?

Sarah Ortegon:        

03:36        I didn't necessarily want to pursue it as a career, initially, it was more just like something I could never get away from. And still to this day, I know that they say a huge percentage people who graduate with an art degree, don't continue to do art. But it's honestly not something, it's innate and it's a part of me, and it's not something that I can give up on. Even though I could go sometimes a whole year without creating a piece, that doesn't mean that someone's no longer an artist, it just means that they're taking some time off for some self care and some self focus.

04:13        But I think that once you're an artist, you're always an artist. There's a different way of thinking. My husband even tells me, he says, artists think a little bit differently because they'll say one thing one day, but then their mind is busy creating and they completely forget what they need to do in the future. And so that's kind of me and has always been, so.

Emy diGrappa:        

04:37        Well that's interesting to think about an artist like that because you are constantly creating your world, and that creative process, I'm sure changes all the time. So describe to me your medium of art work.

Sarah Ortegon:        

04:53        So in college, I started doing canvas paintings and I would actually draw with dried pencil powder and turpentine, I don't know if you've ever seen that mixture, but you could get some really cold brushstrokes with pencil that way. So I started doing that, so it was black and white, and then I would add splashes of color with bead work on top of my paintings.

05:17        And from there I transitioned from drawing on canvas to actually painting on canvas. And because there's a whole kind of taboo against using pure black on a canvas, at least this is what I learned in college, I would mix my browns and my blues and I would create a sort of darker, it looks black, but if you compare it to a black color, you could tell that it's not pure black. So those are the types of things that you learn in college that you wouldn't necessarily know, I guess. I wouldn't have practiced it unless I learned it.

05:53        Now I do acrylic painting and I add in bead work into the painting, and typically I paint first and then I add the bead work because sometimes I don't know where I want the bead work to go. And it's just my process that I go through where sometimes I end up beading the whole half of a canvas and I'm like, oh, it looks cool here, and it would look terrible here. So I just use my process to inform how I'm going to add my bead work.

Emy diGrappa:        

06:24        And why bead work? How did you learn how to bead? Do you still bead, or do you just bead on the canvases that you're creating when you create a piece of artwork?

Sarah Ortegon:        

06:35        So most recently, I beaded a large portion of and I created my son's cradle board, and that took me over eight months, and I finished it when he was two months old. And so I still bead, I started learning to bead when I was around 10 or 11. My mom taught me, and that's not something that every native family passes on to their children. It just depends on where you come from, if you were adopted out or there's different variations of being a native individual or an indigenous person. Not everyone learns how to bead, but I fortunately was taught through my mom.

07:15        And after she taught me, I went on to learn different stitches from different people and watching different things like YouTube and things like that, because not all bead work is the same. And so there's different stitches that go into maybe a painting that I'm doing, if I want it to look loose, then I would do, I'm putting in air quotations, lazy stitch. And no bead work, I would say is lazy. Sometimes it could take a lot out of you as an individual to sit there patiently getting a piece of work done, kind of bead by bead. So not necessarily bead by bead, but maybe six at a time, but that's still a small portion of a painting.

Emy diGrappa:        

07:58        What inspires your art? What message do people walk away with? What do you want them to feel when they see a piece of your work?

Sarah Ortegon:        

08:06        I want them to feel that indigenous people are here and that we're thriving and that we're creating still. And it doesn't have to be, we're not a monolith type of person and we don't all create the same thing. Yet we're still expressing in our own way, our relation sometimes to the past and bringing it to the future. So that's what I want people to take away from my art.

Emy diGrappa:        

08:35        Do you consider your artwork contemporary?

Sarah Ortegon:        

08:38        I would. I remember when I was in college, I started beading on canvases in 2011. And at that time, no one was adding bead work to a canvas. And even the imagery that I do, one of the paintings I did was my husband and I had drew the back of him, or painted the back of him. And then his braid is really long, and so instead of doing his braid black, I actually made it green, and I beaded his braid green and it was a sweet grass kind of symbolizing that relation that we have back to our plants and how it's seen as a healing when you light it on fire and you have the smokes around you, it's kind of like a healing presence around you. And so that's how I see my husband, and so that's what I wanted to portray. But it wasn't of someone from the past, it was from someone currently that's in my life, and so I would definitely say that my paintings are contemporary.

Emy diGrappa:        

09:44        In your message, not just that they're contemporary, but how do you see yourself as a contemporary artist and not just as a Native American, but as a woman who is working to make herself known or to put your art out there, is that vulnerable? Does that feel vulnerable to you?

Sarah Ortegon:        

10:05        Oh yeah, it's definitely vulnerable. Recently, because as a contemporary artist, I don't just focus on one medium either. I have so many different mediums of expression that I love to get out of my body. I just danced this past week in Santa Fe at SITE Santa Fe, it's an art museum, and it's the first time I've danced in three months since I've had my son. And that was very vulnerable because, honestly, I'm not as strong as I used to be. I was starting to get back into fitness and everything and the health mindset. And when you're giving of yourself to a little baby, a child, your whole focus is on that baby, and you want to make sure that that baby's healthy, but in return, you got to take care of yourself too. I always hear you can't pour from an empty cup, and so to take time away from him, that leaves me feeling vulnerable because I hate to see him cry or anything like that, and I'm breastfeeding. And so he loves to be comforted by my presence there.

11:12        And so there's so many different layers to being a contemporary woman artist now. Tomorrow I start a mural in front of Patagonia and I'm going to have to take time away from my son, and so there's just so many different ways I think about my day where I break it up where I'm like, oh, I could come back and see him at this time, but I'm still creating in a different way, but I'm creating a relationship with my son too. So it's just so many different facets to being a contemporary woman artist nowadays.

Emy diGrappa:        

11:47        Well, and being a mom, just add that into the mix, and then it makes it even more challenging. Where are you creating in front of Patagonia?

Sarah Ortegon:        

11:56        So they have an eight foot by eight foot panel, and I had a dream. So a lot of times I get inspiration through dreams as well, or when I'm meditating, things will come to my mind. But I had a dream where I was driving through the mountains and I was in the hills before I got into the mountains, and I saw a really large old Native American doll laying on the ground, but it was like an installation in my dream. I was like, this is genius. Why hasn't anybody ever made a big, huge doll laying in the mountains in my dream?

12:32        And then as I got closer to the mountains, I saw a doll standing and the sun was illuminating the doll, and I walked away taking it as our children are our future and the dolls kind of represented our children. And so I'm going to be painting that in front of Patagonia. So that's the plan. And also recently, Mount Evans was renamed Mount Blue Sky, the Arapaho people renamed it just because of the history that we have with Governor Evans. I think he was a governor. But yeah. So I'll be painting Evans, or Mount Blue Sky.

Emy diGrappa:        

13:11        Where's your Patagonia painting going to be located?

Sarah Ortegon:        

13:14        Oh, okay. It's located in Denver. I forget what district they call it. It's not an art district necessarily. Oh, Rhino District. That's where it is, in the Rhino District in front of Patagonia. I don't know the cross streets though. I would have to go and see.

Emy diGrappa:        

13:30        Oh, okay. I was just curious.

Sarah Ortegon:        

13:31        Yeah.

Emy diGrappa:        

13:32        That's really interesting. I'm sure that after people listen to you talk, they'll be curious and want to go see how your creation ended up. And thinking about the women, mostly the women in your life or women in history that have inspired your art.

Sarah Ortegon:        

13:50        So one of the main people that inspires me to do anything is my mom. I've just seen her strength through my childhood all the way up until now. She's even helping me raise or take care of my son. So I look to her for inspiration. And as far as women, Caravaggio, I studied in Italy in 2012, so I was in college. And so I studied in Italy and I went and I saw the piece by Caravaggio. She's one of the only women in Italian history to be known as a woman artist.

14:27        But if you've ever seen one of her paintings, she painted because I believe she was raped by someone. She's painting herself chopping off his head. But the contrast within that painting is really breathtaking when you're in front of it, because a lot of the times in Renaissance, it was a softer approach to painting. Hers was light and darks everywhere and pretty realistic. I'm not necessarily tied to a realistic representation of anything, but she inspired me because she showed that from pain you could create something that's very... It's lasted through centuries. And I think that she was a very powerful woman in her time, especially in the Renaissance when there was no women representation. So that's one of the women that I look up to.

15:26        And then Frida Kahlo, she was always painting herself multifaceted. So it was Frida Kahlo and two images of her side by side, but they were completely different images of her herself. And that's where I got one of my paintings from, ideas. I painted jingle dresses dancing without me in them. So it's like they're just dancing in mid-air and there's a white background. So that's where I got inspiration from there. And so there are just different women that have, even though there's not a whole lot of women, per se, in history, I know that women have been creating since the beginning of time, even if they're not represented in museums.

Emy diGrappa:        

16:11        That is so true. And they are underrepresented. That's why I love this work that's going to be shown at the museum in Washington, because women do have that different perspective than a man. And it might be more dark and light, it might be nurturing, it has so many different forms because of the roles that women take on in life. And so I think that just you being a dancer is inspiring too. And just what you said, your dancing does inspire your artwork in some ways, and that's another form of art and expression. And do you see yourself as a dancer as well as an artist that is painting?

Sarah Ortegon:        

16:59        So I stepped into the powwow arena when I was 24, and I performed the Jingle Dress Dance in my competition for Miss American USA. But it still kind of feels in a weird way of suffocating to identify myself as a dancer, because I don't necessarily feel worthy. And it might be like, oh, don't feel that way, type of thing, but it's just the way I feel innately inside of myself. I love to dance, but I don't know if I would characterize myself as a dancer. I do perform, and it brings me joy and I hope it brings other people joy, but I don't necessarily have the perfect steps down or anything like that. So I'm going to leave it there.

Emy diGrappa:        

17:47        No, but I think that's awesome that you realize that and you're humble enough to say that because dancing is its own perfection.

Sarah Ortegon:        

17:56        Oh yeah, I would definitely say that. And after having a baby, you realize how fragile your body is in a certain way. It's very strong to have a baby, but then you're stuck in bed for a little bit afterwards and you realize that you just brought life into this world, but your body's kind of wrecked after it a little bit. Not everybody, but some people. My body was, so I went through a four days worth of birth.

Emy diGrappa:        

18:29        Wow. So you had four days that you were giving birth. Wow.

Sarah Ortegon:        

18:35        Yeah.

Emy diGrappa:        

18:36        That takes a toll.

Sarah Ortegon:        

18:38        Oh yeah, it did. I went into labor on Thursday and didn't have him until Sunday, so it was very, very hard.

Emy diGrappa:        

18:46        That's exhausting.

Sarah Ortegon:        

18:47        Yeah. Yes.

Emy diGrappa:        

18:48        I can appreciate that.

Sarah Ortegon:        

18:50        I will tell him.

Emy diGrappa:        

18:53        Tell him. Say, you know what? Don't mess with me because it took me four days to get you into this world. So just chill out there. No, that's what we have to tell your kids, especially your boys. Oh my gosh.

Sarah Ortegon:        

19:10        Yeah.

Emy diGrappa:        

19:11        Well, I think you're very inspiring to young women. How does one, you live on the reservation, well, actually you don't live on the reservation now, but you grew up on the reservation. And how do you want to or strive to influence young women to succeed, especially when they come from the reservation?

Sarah Ortegon:        

19:36        I just want to clarify that I lived my summers on the res and then I came to school in Denver. So I just wanted to clarify that, just so you know, people are like, she wasn't raised here.

Emy diGrappa:        

19:46        Oh no.

Sarah Ortegon:        

19:48        I just want to clarify that.

Emy diGrappa:        

19:48        I understand that.

Sarah Ortegon:        

19:50        So being from Denver and the res, I think it helped kind of shape me. I actually felt more confined in the city than I did when I was on the res, because I had that freedom to go and run around, play in the river, playing dirt hills, ride my bike, run away from dogs, as opposed to being in the city where I was stuck maybe in the backyard or I was stuck maybe in the basement just because my dad wanted to keep us safe and we were in the middle of the city.

20:23        So I felt more confined in the city than I did on the res. And I know that growing up on the res, you're not really about attention seeking. And I wouldn't say that that's necessarily what art is, it's just self-expression, and if somebody pays attention to you, I would say it's okay to be open to that instead of shying away from it. It's okay to express who you are. And I think that that's maybe something like a mindset that kind of holds people back because they don't want to be front and center. But sometimes if that's where life leads you or if that's where life is taking you, you just kind of accept it and you go with the flow.

21:08        And so art is a great way to express yourself and to relate to strangers that maybe see your art and maybe thought no one ever maybe thought this way, but then you see somebody's art and you're like, oh, I thought that way too. And so I would say it's more of a way to relate to people than a way to necessarily make yourself the center of attention. So that's one way that I see art, a good way of creating ties in between people.

Emy diGrappa:        

21:39        No, I think that's important to remember because I think that as I've learned from different people in tribes, it is very humbling. And to stay humble and to respect your elders and to not speak out of turn is seems to be very strong in your culture.

Sarah Ortegon:        

22:01        Yes, it is. And so even when I perform, when I remember, I'll apologize for speaking in front of elders. And so there's always that aspect. It's not holding you back, it's just holding you to a higher, not a higher platform, but a higher way of being because you're respecting people that are in your presence.

Emy diGrappa:        

22:22        It has been great talking to you, and I love your perspective. And I think that that is something that when you learn about other cultures, it's hard to walk in another person's shoes. But really talking to people and expressing, this is my culture and this is where I come from, this is how we do it different, is so important for our understanding of other people and the world in general.

Sarah Ortegon:        

22:48        And anytime I see a girl that's an artist, like a young woman or a young girl, I'll go through my stuff and I'll give her some of my stuff so that she can maybe focus on learning a new technique or learning a new medium. So I think that that's also important is to nurture the people that are in front of you that are interested in the same type of art that you're doing. So I just want to give a little shout out to Weetoo Cloud Horse. She's an amazing painter and I think she's just started high school or around that area, but I think that she could go far as well.

Emy diGrappa:      

23:25        Oh, that's beautiful, the use of that. Well, it's been great talking to you today, Sarah, and good luck with your art. I don't know if that's even the best word to use is good luck, but I wish you much success.

Sarah Ortegon:        

23:40        Thank you. Appreciate it.

Emy diGrappa:        

23:42        Absolutely.

23:57        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.