The artwork is diverse: sculptures assembled from mixed media, large multi-dimensional paintings embedded with willow and pine nuts, vivid acrylic paintings on canvas, soft graphite drawings, bold pen and ink.
But the artists share a common bond. They are members of the Great Basin Native Artists, and their contemporary art on display at the Sparks Museum and Cultural Center reflects the influence of their native roots. The free exhibit is on display through Feb. 27.
The show includes the work of Ben Aleck, Phil Buckheart, Louinda Garity, Topaz Jones and Melissa Melero.
Melero, who is exhibiting several large mixed-media paintings, was instrumental in the formation of the native artists group. She was born in San Francisco, but grew up in Reno and attended Wooster High School. She dabbled in a variety of art mediums – dance, theater, ceramics, and painting — at Truckee Meadows Community College before setting out to Santa Fe to attend the Institute of American Indian Arts. She later moved to Portland where she earned a degree in psychology from Portland State University.
That educational background led to an interest and desire to put together an artists’ group. Melero had years of experience running her own art business, but also had spent time working at nonprofits.
“I enjoy doing art, I enjoy working in the community, so I sort of meshed them together when I put this group together,” said Melero, a Fallon Paiute-Shoshone who is also a descendant of the Northern Paiute in Fort Bidwell, California. She lives in Hungry Valley.
Great Basin Native Artists is composed of working Native American artists who reside in, or are originally from, the Nevada and eastern Sierra Nevada areas.
Melero has been pursuing a successful art career in Santa Fe, but wanted to return to Northern Nevada after her son was born. “I wanted him to be a Nevadan,” she said. “So we moved back here in 2009. I was doing full-time art by then, but I felt like a newcomer to Reno.”
She got a job at the Sierra Arts Foundation “and really got to know the art community well,” she said.
Still, Melero found that some things were missing in her life. She was trying to find her “own space” in the art realm, and she noticed that “there was no native anything.”
She realized she needed more interaction with native artists in the area. “I needed them around me. I needed to talk with them, be around them.”
So she started contacting native artists she knew in the area, not knowing if a group of native artists in the area already existed or not. “I thought … ‘somebody’s got to be doing this already.’ But no one was. And that was more than a year ago – December 2014.
She knew artist Ben Aleck from the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Museum, and they both were involved in the “Under One Sky” exhibit at the Nevada State Museum. Aleck had coordinated a major show, “The Way We Live,” at the Nevada Museum of Art in 2012, working to get artists together and compiling a list of native artists, “which is something our community hadn’t really had,” Melero said. There was a realization that the artists “needed each other.”
The artists collective has gained momentum in the past year. Melero estimates the group has had “10-plus” shows in 2015, both official and nonofficial. Their work has been shown at the Pyramid Lake museum, the Churchill County Museum in Fallon, and the Maidu Museum and Historic Site in Roseville, California, among other locations. The Nevada Department of Education also exhibited the work of the native artists in their hallways.
Melero created a website with a directory of the artists, including their bios, samples of their work and contact information, and she continues to track down artists to add to the list. (The website is greatbasinnativeartists.com) The group meets monthly, and Melero said she is planning a workshop in March on how to put together an artist’s packet, including an artist’s statement, images of work and other documentation.
But promoting the work of the artists group is not the only project on Melero’s mind.
“Ultimately another major goal of mine is to create awareness that we don’t have a cultural center in town,” she said. “I’m thinking of my son. … I want him to be able to go and be proud and see his culture represented, like how he can go to the Nevada State Museum and see all this history of Nevada, I want him to see his cultural history, too. And that’s something that Reno doesn’t have right now.”