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Two Sides, One Story

A spiritually and ethnically diverse heritage informs the art of Jason Blue Lake Hawk Martinez

by Erin Pihlaja on May 15, 2013


Martinez in the art room where he teaches. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

The beginning of a pattern of dualities began in his life, says Jason Blue Lake Hawk Martinez, when he was 1 year old and his parents split up. The dissolution of the union between his full-blooded Taos native father and first generation Scottish-American mother marked an extended period in Martinez’ life when he spent his time between the Taos Pueblo in Taos, N.M., and New York state.

The trips were both fun and difficult for Martinez. Not only was there some of the expected emotional duress for a child of separated parents; his father had served in Vietnam and come back with an addiction to opiates. There were good visits and not-so-good ones, when his father struggled with his illness. Still, he found a “richness in the landscape and culture” of New Mexico that shaped his life and work permanently. The trips became bonding experiences for him and his mother, and he also grew close with his native family members and their way of life.

Dualities “play a big role in my art,” he says. “Black and white, night and day, fear and joy.” His most current body of work is a series crafted in gouache and acrylic pens that Martinez calls “neo-mythical.”

The pieces are, at first glance, whimsical. But deeper look reveals an undercurrent of displacement, vacancy, and fear. Vivid colors play off of stark, focused black-and-white. Nature, via birds, horses and other animals (often skeletal remains), fight for space with robots and machines. Clouds are often white objects, rendered fluffy by way of strong, curved black line. At other times they are hard, jagged shapes similar to the crude pixels of 1980s Atari games. There is depth, but also simplicity. Pottery and pueblos; Christian churches and Hindu gestures; rainbows and rocket ships.

In the artist statement on his website, Martinez says: “My works are a union between the sappy sweet and the grotesque. I am interested in dualities. I am illustrating a narrative of my heritage, spirituality, and the Clown persona. My visual world is laced with references to my (Tiwa) pueblo culture and contemporary pop symbolism. I am attempting to compose a beautifully twisted fairy-tale landscape of apocalyptic neo-mythology and identity reclamation.”

The sacred Taos clown, Martinez says, symbolizes a balance between black and white. It plays a “significant role in different dances and prayer life, and is a trickster and shaman in one.” He adds, “It’s a role I’ve played my whole life.”

Martinez received his formal art training at SUNY Purchase College and later at the University of Albany, but his fascination with art began much earlier. He recalls going to the Museum of Modern Art with his mother around age 4. “I saw this Kenneth Noland powder piece, it was color pigment dropping on an egg-like form. I asked my mom, ‘Is that art?’” When his mother answered that it was, Martinez declared, “I want to be an artist.”

Prior to graduate school, Martinez says that his work was “narrative,” and influenced by street art. During his graduate studies he shifted into abstract painting “to work out color issues.” At UAlbany, he says he was fortunate to gain the ear and advice of his favorite artist, Peter Saul.

“I showed Saul works I hadn’t even shown to my other professors,” Martinez recalls. “He told me, ‘You should just do it. It’s great.’”


Martinez in the interfaith chapel at the school where he teaches. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

“There is an energy that I want to put out there, to share with people,” he says. “There is always some conflict in pieces. I find joy in color, but [the pieces] are also slightly disturbing—the world is slightly disturbing. Between reality and fantasy, the lines are really blurred there for me.”

Martinez draws on both his Native American roots and his upbringing in Christian schools and religion. He is a spiritual person—an ordained minister—who has meshed his views and beliefs into a personal faith system that constantly plays out in his work.

“Each mark is like a bead,” he says of the drawing process that happens at the end of each work. “The line is a meditative, repetitive process. Bead making is like a prayer.” Martinez references Tiwa works, along with African and Hindu people, who use the presence of beads in their art.

“We’re all universally connected,” he says. “I do see the paintings as mystical—it seems weird to say that, it seems cheesy, but it’s what I think. For me it is about internal conflict, trying to reclaim culture, identity, and childhood. There is an environmental and social struggle.”

Some of the imagery in his works could be perceived quite literally he says, but he also hopes that the viewer makes their own interpretation. “The Kosa clown speaks to mirroring and being a mirror to world,” he says. “I see my painting as a reflection—the painting is a mirror.”


Kiva Birds, 2013.

Martinez’ works make many references to an apocalypse, which to him equals change. “There’s a change that humans need to undergo,” he says. “The Blue Star Kachina [a figure from Hopi mythology] will dance over the pueblo at the end of the world. It’s a beautiful yet terrifying vision of what’s to come.” In the piece, Omega: An End to the Story, two children dance with bags on their heads, with cartoonish faces drawn on them.

“The children could be the horsemen of the apocalypse, or just dancing kids,” Martinez says. “Maybe it’s a beautiful ending to a horrible story or a horrible end to a beautiful story.”

Martinez’ personal story has been unfolding for just under four decades. He hasn’t been back to New Mexico in 15 years. “I am the ferrel Tiwa child living in New York,” he says. “I’m trying to basically reclaim my stake on the pueblo, here. It’s tradition in the pueblo to be a story teller. I try to carry on that tradition by carrying on the story.”

Martinez teaches art at the Doane Stuart School in Rensselaer to children ages 3 to 18. “I’m a perpetual middle-schooler,” he jokes. “I love teaching and I love kids. Studio time is play for me, it’s great to teach the students to explore and play.”

He lives a fairly quiet life with his wife and daughter in Rotterdam, and he is excited for two upcoming shows that will feature his work. The first is called Whimsicality and opens in July at Albany Center Gallery. The second opens in September 2014 in Virginia at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley. Martinez is one of 35 artists chosen from thousands to exhibit in this show that will travel across the United States until 2018.

“I’m at peace with myself, with God, and the world around me,” he says. “I’ve learned to accept the tumultuous times and the moments of fear and anger, to let it go to move through it like water.”

Not that it’s been an easy journey for this uprooted pueblo child. He laughs, “It’s taken me 37 years to get there.”