Hopi artist Duane Koyawena remembers the way his father painted horses: The tail always came first, then he’d move the paintbrush up and over until the body was complete, and head and snout were always saved for last.
Koyawena learned to paint from his father, Lloyd Koyawena. When he was young, he loved asking his father to commit to paper or canvas various creations and watch carefully as he obliged; Koyawena learned from observing. His art today is one of bold colors, strong lines, great detail and reverence for Hopi life. But he would end up taking a long break from art between his boyhood and now as a years-long battle with drug and alcohol addiction consumed Koyawena’s life.
He’s been sober for 11 years now, a journey he compares to painting. It’s something that takes discipline and confidence and a support network—all things he sees as integral to art making, too. The connection is one he makes in a series of public talks he gives, which he dubbed “Parallels.”
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Humility, opening oneself up to be teachable and believing in oneself are each traits Koyawena references in this series.
“For me as an artist, I didn’t think my work was capable of going anywhere when it first started, just like you don’t think you’ll ever see one year sober. Then there’s support, support in art is very vital and in recovery; so are friends and family. Then just being humble with it and giving it away. Being able to share as an artist what I’ve done and my technique, I think it’s the same as in sobriety. You have to be able to give [advice] and give it to other people,” Koyawena said.
Hopi culture also played a vital role in Koyawena’s sobriety, as it still does in his art. Around the time he began confronting his addiction he also reacquainted himself with his history, asking his godfather, uncles and cousins to tell him Hopi stories.
“A lot of people told me I had talent at the beginning, but self-defeating thoughts of not believing in myself took over. When I sobered up, my mind was a little clearer and I started to really listen and I felt like as far as culture, as an artist, a Hopi artist, I wanted to know the significance of a lot of the things I paint in Hopi,” he said. “As I started realizing and understanding the direction of Hopi life…It was like an epiphany, so as I continued to paint, I started asking still more questions.”
In the last decade Koyawena’s name has been popping up more and more around Flagstaff and the Southwest. He was one of two curators of the prequel to the Museum of Northern Arizona’s “Pivot Skateboard Deck Art” exhibit at Tat-Fu Tattoo in 2017, in which indigenous artists covered skateboards in elaborate work. An R2-D2 — constructed by Joe Mastroianni and painted by Koyawena — is a prominent feature in MNA’s current exhibit, The Force Is With Our People, which examines indigenous connections to Star Wars. His painting depicting a Hopi Night Dance in a Kiva — a work Koyawena spent six years painting — won second place at last year’s Hopi show at the museum. Koyawena also uses images from Hopi culture across a variety of media, including canvas shoes and snapback hats.
“Because of the beauty that Hopi culture has, I wanted to be able to share that beauty with a lot of people, with the world,” he said, also acknowledging that pieces like the Night Dance, an event non-Hopi people do not attend, can serve as an educational tool.
As he began pursuing art, Koyawena’s goal was to have his named listed among the great Hopi artists and ones that have been important in his life such as Neil David Sr., Michael Kabotie, Dan Namingha and Fred Kabotie (Michael Kabotie’s father).
“There is a lot of gratitude and I enjoy what I do,” Koyawena said. “I do enjoy the fact that I have a growing exhibit, I enjoy the fact that this R2 is getting out there, I enjoy the reactions that I get, not out of boastfulness, but the comments and feedback and the encouragement to keep painting.”