Published: Nov. 1, 2017 By

It’s been many years since Melanie Yazzie made the painting that set the course of her career. But the CU Boulder professor vividly remembers the joy she felt the day she painted a blue elephant.

When she was 4 years old, Yazzie’s parents enrolled her in Montessori School on the Navajo Nation. On one of the days in class, a crisp sheet of white paper and jars of paint in bold colors were waiting on the table.

Wearing her father’s shirt—the sleeves cut off to use as a smock—she painted a picture featuring a blue elephant. When the art teacher announced to the class that lunch would be cream of mushroom soup, Yazzie didn’t know what a mushroom was, but she thought it sounded amazing and exotic.

“It made me feel tall,” said Yazzie (MFA’93), who grew up on the Navajo Nation in Ganado, Arizona. “I’ve loved making things ever since I was a child.”

Printmaker, painter, sculptor and jewelry designer, Yazzie is head of printmaking at CU Boulder. She is known for her multilayered monotype prints using soy-based inks with themes that focus on storytelling.

Photo of printmaker Melanie Yazzie in her studio

CU Boulder printmaker Melanie Yazzie

Her spacious studio in the Visual Arts Complex on campus is filled with paintings, sculptures, constructions and toy collectibles. Old wooden cabinets and cloth-covered tables hold books, art, baskets and a miscellany of objects collected on her travels that become inspiration for her work.

A Navajo woman of the Salt Water and Bitter Water clans, Yazzie draws upon an unfettered imagination, dreams and cultural symbols for her artwork. Her colorful and engaging art contains recurring motifs that include animals, plants and insects, real and imagined, and draws on her Navajo culture.

As a child, Yazzie watched her grandmothers weave traditional rugs they sold in Gallup, New Mexico. Seeing this, Yazzie realized artmaking could be more than just fun, it was also a way to make a living. From her parents, who were educators, Yazzie was inspired to teach.

She adheres to a daily exercise of drawing 30 or more images in a sketchbook. Eventually those drawings become a print or sculpture or jewelry. The tactile process of preparing to make a monotype print has become a ritual of choosing the paper; measuring, tearing it down and arranging it into attractive stacks; and then choosing and mixing the printing ink.

“It’s not about getting wealthy from my work,” she said. “My success is working with my students and helping them see the world in a holistic way.”

Yazzie travels extensively worldwide giving workshops and collaborating with artists and has hosted more than 35 international artists to work and teach at CU. Her work is held in such prestigious museums as the National Museum of the American Indian and the Corcoran Museum, both in Washington, D.C., the Denver Art Museum and the Rhode Island School of Design Museum.

Working with students is one of her great joys. Wherever she goes, Yazzie makes connections with artists and then shares those connections with her students.

“I love working with students and seeing them grow,” Yazzie said. “It’s wonderful to see that moment when they make a self-discovery. It empowers them to move forward with their work. I know that my contacts will serve as a bridge for my students. That opens their research and their way of viewing our world in a more holistic way, which is a real goal for me.”

Once joining the CU Boulder faculty in 2006, Yazzie was asked to consult on the printmaking space in the new Visual Arts Complex on campus. In 2012, when the Denver Art Museum (DAM) launched the Native American artist-in-residence program, Yazzie was consulted on how to renovate the space and then was asked to be the first Native American artist-in-residence of the program. This fall she and two Native American alumni of the artist-in-residence program collaborated on several projects at DAM called Action X Community X Togetherness.

Yazzie has had more than 100 solo and group exhibitions combined around the world and has received numerous awards. Her most recent honor is the Excellence in Teaching Printmaking Award from the Southern Graphics Council International.

“One of the most important things I’ve learned,” Yazzie said, “is even though I came from a small community in Arizona as this little, round, native person, self-confidence is really important. The lesson of finding self-confidence and self-worth has been a huge thing for me. I feel like I’m at that point where I have confidence and don’t need permission from anybody to work on a project.”

As for the blue elephant painting that started it all, it still hangs in the home of her parents.

Want more stories like this in your inbox? Sign up for the CU Boulder Today community edition.