Ross Chaney, the current artist in residence at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, grew up in Oklahoma. He is a member of the Osage and Cherokee tribes and overcame severe dyslexia as a child, going on to pursue a career in business. Chaney, an economic-development specialist for the city of Santa Fe, is a self-taught artist whose work appears simple on the surface, with a free-flowing sense of color, form, and line. In his renderings of people and faces he contrasts bright colors with black, expressing melancholy emotions. In his nonfigurative pieces he explores color relationships and patterns. Chaney’s sculptures are representational, but his sumi-e ink drawings and acrylic canvases are abstractions.
In contrast with many of his Native contemporaries, Chaney creates art that is not centered on anything specifically Indian. His work is conceptual, subliminal, and spontaneous. His background is in international relations and political science, interests that led him to receive a master’s degree in international relations from the Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto.
On Sunday, Dec. 15, Chaney opens his studio at MoCNA to the public and gives a talk about his process at the museum.
Pasatiempo: Do the ceramic pieces in your studio practice relate to the works on paper?
Ross Chaney: I started working at Santa Fe Clay earlier this year. The idea was to go from the ink and the paintings and then go to the sculpture. What came out of it were these masks and faces. I also made three characters with two faces or two sides to their heads. The idea is that these characters are sculpting the masks and faces because they’re trying to make them look more human.
Pasa: The paintings and drawings have less figuration than the clay. What are some of the themes informing this work?
Chaney: An immediate theme is complexity theory, or fractals, to be more specific. It’s seeing repeated patterns. No matter how in-depth you look or how far you pull out, it’s connected. They share the space even though it doesn’t seem like it when you take just one part of the whole. That’s a general theme with the community. Working in one part of the community relates to the others. It’s all a system that’s connected. So I balance out the artwork with my nonprofit and community work. The theme there is on health. But I’m mostly interested in children’s mental health.
Pasa: This interest prompted you to work with youth and help them work through grief. Is this something you experienced yourself as a child?
Chaney: It stemmed from when my parents died. My dad died when I was 14. My mom died when I was 18. He had a heart attack, and my mom had terminal cancer. It was pretty intense for a teenager to get the information, at 17, that your mother has terminal cancer. At 19, I had to figure out, in order just to stay sane, what my goals should be. I was interested in business through high school. I had gone through three semesters of college. I thought, well, economic development for tribes, because that will fund all the other programs. At the same time, what I didn’t realize until years later was that you have to process that grief that you experienced. Unresolved grief can create problems. I’ve worked with Gerard’s House, the children’s grief center in Santa Fe, since 2004 to help local kids process their grief. I work with 3-year-olds to 20-year-olds.
Pasa: You never pursued a degree in fine arts, but is art making an activity that interested you as a child, or did this interest develop later on?
Chaney: I’ve always been artistic. I grew up in the 1980s with a sense of, OK, you need to go out and go to school. That’s the avenue to opportunities. And the avenue to a job is a business degree. So I didn’t study art in college, because that wasn’t congruent with the thinking as far as this 1980s business track. Business wasn’t something my parents put me on. That was the construct of the time. I won a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, and its focus was on politics and international affairs. They wanted me to do what I’m doing now, which is go work for a municipality and be involved in economic development or policy development. I studied economic development of the region of East Asia. I went to Japan and studied business and law. I was going to a lot of Japanese gardens and shrines and admiring the artwork, but I still wasn’t taking classes or doing artwork. It wasn’t until 10 or 12 years ago that I really started focusing on the artwork as a balance between all that math and structure.
Pasa: What was it like for you at a young age having to deal with your dyslexia? Obviously it didn’t prevent you from earning several graduate degrees.
Chaney: I changed around schools a lot. The teachers determined that I had some kind of autism or severe learning disability, so they took me out of my regular classes and put me with severe learning disability children. And it just wasn’t the case. I had dyslexia and I couldn’t read and write or spell, but I wasn’t severely learning impaired. The point was, I hated school, avoided school, and did everything I could to get out as quickly as possible. I’ve spent so much time in structure, theory, and business and those kinds of cultures that I really didn’t want art school to be like that. I wanted to find out on my own and make my own mistakes. So I spent money on supplies and not on course hours.
Pasa: While tribal culture and heritage are not explicit themes in your work, are there ways in which they have informed it?
Chaney: Absolutely tribal culture has an influence, but it’s not something I’m trying to translate or retranslate. I grew up on the Osage reservation. Every summer in June there’s the I’Lon-Schka dances with the Osage. The house I lived in was right around the corner from the dance grounds. It’s a part of my memory. One thing that came out two or three years ago was having this memory of Oklahoma and being in the third grade and having Indian art education classes. We would paint these kachinas and things — nothing related to me specifically as Cherokee or Osage. I was seeing how some of those taught themes came back in some of my later work, and I thought, Where is this image coming from? Maybe it is Native iconography. How do you separate from that context of Native American art and just have a conversation as a human who is Native American and a tribal member without necessarily making the expected art?
Pasa: How would you describe your working process? Do you begin with an idea or an image in your mind to work from?
Chaney: It’s more like starting out with what you know when you begin. Maybe you’re drawing a face, or drawing a head, or a pattern. But then it’s more experimentation: figuring out the colors, the palette, and the mix. I made some basic rules early on, and one was not to be a perfectionist. If I dropped it or smeared it, let it be. And another was not to show or sell it. I wanted it to be a learning process with the material itself. ◀
▼ Ross Chaney open-studio event
▼ Studio opens noon Sunday, Dec. 15, artist talk at 2 p.m.; then studio open by appointment through December
▼ Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, 108 Cathedral Place, 505-983-1666
▼ No charge Dec. 15; then by museum admission