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Indy Q&A: Paiute painter Melissa Melero-Moose on creating space for Indigenous art

Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez
Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez
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Melissa Melero-Moose describes art as “personal petroglyphs,” and hers specifically as a representation of her identity and experiences as a Northern Paiute woman who grew up in the Great Basin region.

Her abstract paintings include the textures of her ancestral homelands, with organic objects such as willows and pine nuts included on her canvases. Melero-Moose is driven by her goal to get her paintings — and those of other Indigenous artists — on the walls of galleries, museums and other spaces where their artwork has been historically left out. 

Melero-Moose approaches her new seat as a board member on the Nevada Arts Council as an opportunity to work toward her goal. She’s focused on sharing her perspective as an Indigenous person and artist on the council, which aims to enrich the arts across the state by providing grant funding, outreach programming and creating initiatives and activities for tourists and residents. 

This type of leadership isn’t new to Melero-Moose. She spent more than a decade working in tribal social services in New Mexico and Nevada while making art in her free time before she was able to devote herself full time to her art. In 2014, she created the Great Basin Native Artists collective. Melero-Moose hoped to establish an organized space that tracks Indigenous artists of the region and their artwork, making it simpler for museum curators to find them and elevate their work. 

“With my background, I knew how to do that, it was easier to dream up,” Melero-Moose, 47, said during an interview with The Nevada Independent. “Let's start a group, let's do our own shows. Let's get publications, let's write our own articles and tell our story, and that's everything — including our art, but also our culture and us as a people.” 

The collective helped design the Carson City Stewart Indian School Cultural Center and Museum, which includes a permanent gallery for art created by Great Basin artists. 

Melero-Moose said the collective’s presence in the museum is “bittersweet,” considering the troubling history of federal boarding schools. But she said the gallery is evidence of the resilience of Indigenous people and their art. 

“Indian people, even though so much of the population was wiped out, we never stopped creating,” she said. “If you want to look at our history, and specifically our art history, it always continued. So we made it past our apocalypse. We're always here, we're still here.” 

Melero-Moose, an enrolled member of the Fallon Paiute Shoshone Tribe, spoke with The Nevada Independent earlier this month in a wide-ranging interview that touched on her artwork, her position on the Nevada Arts Council, the Great Basin Native Artists collective and more. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Artist Melissa Melero-Moose poses for a portrait outside the John and Geraldine Lilley Museum of Art at the University of Nevada, Reno on July 21, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

The Nevada Independent: You were just named to the Nevada Arts Council — how do you feel about that?

Melero-Moose: I'm excited about having a spot at the table and being able to represent Indigenous and [minority populations] so that we can try and get some more representation throughout the state. 

It's my job to raise my hand and say, “Maybe we should consider this or consider that.” I mean, the whole idea of a board is to have many voices and many views. 

For me personally, I'm looking forward to interjecting my experience and my view. And whether it's art fellowships or different things that are getting passed from the Nevada Arts Council and then passed on to other parts of the government, we want everything to incorporate art in one way or another. That's our goal.

What led you to art? How did you become an artist? 

Well, most of my family is artisans in one way or another, and a lot of Native people ... I don't want to say like all Indigenous people are artists — but they are creative, making lots of regalia and different things, you know, beadwork and basketry. 

My grandma, she died before I was born. She was an artist and so there's portraits of her, so maybe I was sort of idolizing her.

But I got into it in high school and then my mom shipped me off to art school against my will. And, of course, the rest is history. 

You mentioned [in a previous conversation] art coming as a way through your identity and your culture, your community. How do all those things influence your art? 

I remember, probably in one of my first Painting 101 classes at [Truckee Meadows Community College], I wanted unique content. People were doing their bowls of fruit and their pets and I was like, what do I love? What do I want to paint? 

You spend so many hours on a piece, it has to really mean something, and so I sat down and focused on that and immediately just started doing designs, like beadwork designs, and it always came out abstract. 

I was never a very good realist. I tried for a little while and did portraits and stuff, but eventually it turned very abstract and developed from there with mixed media.

How else would you describe your art to someone who's never seen it?

I say a lot of times they’re personal petroglyphs, or they’re … I don't want to say inspired by Great Basin culture, but definitely a representation of my identity. How I'm expressing landscape, I was putting sand, I'm putting willow, I'm putting pine nuts, all these things are of the Earth. 

And so I'm also using those colors, but I'm not exactly doing landscape, I'm doing abstract basketry or a representation of Pyramid Lake, but you're just seeing tones of the lake in the landscape all over. 

Tell me about what themes you're drawn to. 

When I really started to make my work and exhibit my work, the theme was identity. At one point when I was in school, whether I was in Portland or Santa Fe, I was the only one of my kind. I was only the only Paiute in the area, so it was easy to say, “This is me, this is who I am, this is where I come from.” These are representations of that, whether it be my identity or the Great Basin landscape and culture and design. 

I was always thinking about that and always focused on making that work unique. I didn't want to be like everybody else. I have to focus on the one thing that I had going for me and that's being the only me in the world.

Could you tell me about that again, how the painting that we photographed had to do with the themes of working through your identity and that evolution?

The hiding piece. That piece is incorporating little bits and pieces and colors and sand and willow and paper, and I put paper over the willow, and that's why it's called the hiding.

When I was growing up, not being proud of who I was, I was always scared to let people know who I was. And as I grew up, it became the only thing that kept me going. I have to accept who I am and this is who I am. You know, most teenagers aren't proud of who they are until they grow up, and then you find your identity and that's what it's all about. 

All these things that you've accomplished so far in your life with the [Great Basin Native Artists] network, being on the council and your own artwork — what are your future goals, what do you look forward to working on? 

As far as the bigger picture, I mean, I'm just constantly trying to move all of the things that I'm working on forward bit at a time — my art career, the group and getting bigger shows. 

I think the ultimate goal, since I feel like everything we've done has far exceeded my wildest imaginations, is having some big museum shows that have big publications, because right now there are no Great Basin Native Artists group, like a book with all of our art, you know. I'm writing that book, but if anybody else wants to help me out, that would be great.

The more publication or high-profile shows that we can get out there will really sort of bring our underrepresented region into the spotlight for national shows and for international shows. Indigenous artwork is still sort of on the cusp and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) artwork is still sort of climbing and trying to be collected by major museums and having major shows and that would be really exciting to see it and for us to be partially represented.

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