Sacred symbols and pop culture icons merge to make a statement about American society in Ehren Natay’s painting, “Traditional Gaming.” Created as part of Natay’s one-week artist residency at Albuquerque’s Nativo Lodge hotel, the work indicts today’s obsession with passive entertainment: video, television and video games.
“Entertainment is important, but entertainment has become an obsession. It’s a distraction and escape from reality and the truths of this earth,” says Natay. “It’s brainwashing.”
At first glance, “Traditional Gaming” seems an homage to the video game Pac-Man. A closer inspection reveals ancient symbols Natay has learned through studying Pueblo pottery. Pac-Man itself, a yellow circle missing a quadrant, reminded Natay of the symbol for the bee plant, a frequent design element in Santo Domingo pottery.
“All the symbols I’ve used in the painting are sacred,” says Natay, who is of Navajo and Santo Domingo descent. “The clouds, the rainbow, the watermelon. The ghosts in the video game I’ve made into the holy spirits of the Navajo inside a kiva.”
For Natay, who in addition to painting creates jewelry, sculpture and multimedia works, the truths represented by the symbols are important and all that remains when everything else is gone. By combining these ancient symbols with the new symbols of today’s media focused society, he hopes to show the viewer what’s truly important in the world.
For a 27-year-old, Natay is articulate and thoughtful beyond his years. And since 2005, he’s been earning a living as a working artist. Growing up in Santa Fe, he comes from a line of creative individuals — his father was a draftsman for the National Park Service before moving into a liaison role between the Service and area tribes. His grandfather was a silversmith, painter and musician.
“I always thought music would be my career, and I started as a rock musician in Las Vegas,” he says. “I came back to painting as a way to pay the bills, and found myself again. I started doing jewelry when I saw a belt buckle my dad made.”
Natay’s creativity comes out in many ways. He dances with Rulan Tanjen’s Dancing Earth ensemble, teaches art to schoolchildren, and studies pottery, jewelry making and painting at the Poeh Center in Pojoaque. There, he met Fritz Casuse, a teacher and now mentor. Casuse introduced Natay to the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA) and the world of American Indian art.
“Fritz got my foot in the door,” he says. “Then SWAIA took note of me last year, asking me to create a bolo tie for their auction. I pulled it off — it was challenging but worth it.”
Indeed. The artist has been recognized for his work in sculpture, painting, jewelry, and other media by the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, the Navajo Nation Museum, Native Treasures Art Show, and at the Santa Fe Indian Market.
When SWAIA asked him to consider a new emerging artist in residency program they were piloting with Heritage Hotels at the Nativo Lodge hotel in Albuquerque, Natay welcomed the opportunity to spend a full week creating art. The hotel paid for the three resident artists’ rooms, meals and a stipend with the understanding that they allow the public to observe them creating their work. The other two artists were Jaque Fragua and Lynette Haozous.
“Traditional Gaming” took most of the week to create. Natay put finishing touches on a second work, a more freehand painting titled “The Deer Dancer,” during a live demonstration at the residency closing reception.
“It turned out really well,” said Hana Crawford, SWAIA’s Public Programming Manager. “It was more like a dialogue between viewer and audience that night, providing a different opportunity to build relationships and get to know him as an artist. He’s so open to talking about his work and his intentions. He’s a very intentional artist — so much thought goes into his symbolism and processes.”
Crawford says that Natay’s use of multiple media — sculpture, jewelry, paintings and pottery — is what caught SWAIA’s eye for this residency program. “The stunning work spoke for itself. It’s inventive and he references pop culture. At SWAIA, we pay attention to where art is going and in what ways art now is in line with and starting to diverge from traditional art. Ehren is a good example of traditional elements being retained but also being pushed forward in new ways,” she says.