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Northern Arapaho artist Robert Martinez merges past and present at art exhibit in Cheyenne

A painting by artist Robert Martinez titled “Hatter,” which is made with airbrushed acrylic and oil on linen. 40in x 30in.
Robert Martinez
A painting by artist Robert Martinez titled “Hatter,” which is made with airbrushed acrylic and oil on linen. 40in x 30in.

Robert Martinez is a celebrated Northern Arapaho and Chicano artist with roots on the Wind River Reservation. The artist blends historical imagery and modern themes to create evocative, powerful pieces that speak to contemporary Indigenous issues and challenge assumptions of what Native people and Native art “should” look like.

Martinez is the featured artist for the 2023 Ed & Caren Murray Art Series at Laramie County Community College in Cheyenne. The series is an annual event at the college that brings new art and artists to the campus through gallery shows, presentations, workshops and public receptions. Martinez’s work is currently on display at the college until September 8th.

Martinez grew up in a family of talented beadworkers, painters, and creatives. For the artist, his work is a reflection of his rich multi-cultural heritage.

“I find that my artwork is also mixed, much like myself. So I tend to use the themes of the past and present, and I tend to use materials that are both classical and contemporary,” he said.

The exhibition includes some of Martinez’s painted works, which feature his signature vivid hues and eye-catching imagery. Martinez said the high-contrast color palette is a direct response to the sepia and black-and-white historic photographs of Native people.

“I paint in the bright colors to combat the idea that we're a vanishing and dying people – I want us to be bright and vibrant, and have you not miss us,” he said.

In addition to his painted airbrush acrylic works, Martinez also makes mixed media drawings that combine imagery of the past and present to combat outdated stereotypes. For these drawings, Martinez creates in the long tradition of ledger art – a genre of art developed by Plains Indian tribes when they no longer had access to bison hides as a result of federal government bison eradication programs.

Ledger books were full of lined paper used to record accounting transactions, and the art form is part of a long tradition of Native people documenting their history on their own terms.

“After we were pushed onto reservations and we couldn't hunt buffalo, as they [the U.S. government] were exterminating them, we would trade for or were given already-filled-out ledger books, and we would paint and draw over the text in those,” Martinez said.

The exhibit also includes three-dimensional mixed media works, which combine tin and metal and wood and glass. Martinez said the mixed media pieces speak to contemporary issues in Native communities, including sovereign nation rights, water and mineral rights, the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons crisis, and the Indian Child Welfare Act.

Martinez said one of the central messages he tries to communicate through his artwork is that Indigenous people are current and present, rather than a people existing just in the past.

“We're not just a historical fact –we're a modern fact. And we're here and we're modern, we're contemporary,” he said.

For Martinez, his work gives him opportunities to communicate and act as an educator, helping others learn about issues they might not have known about before. But the education goes both ways – the artist said he also often finds himself being a student and learning about where others are from as he travels and attends different art shows.

“There's a lot of give and take when it comes to art. And I think that's the main thing – communication between one human and another human,” Martinez said.

The artist is currently part of the touring group exhibit “Grounded” and “Our Other Brothers and Sisters” at the Nicolaysen Art Museum in Casper. Martinez is also helping to organize the first-ever Indigenous Art Market in Wyoming at the end of September in Jackson.

Additionally, Martinez’s work has been included in the permanent collections of the Wyoming State Museum, The Brinton Museum, The Plains Indian Museum at the Cody Center of the West, and the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. Martinez was also a recipient of the Wyoming Governor's Arts Award in 2019.

The art exhibition in Cheyenne will be on display until September 8th in the Esther and John Clay Fine Art Gallery, located inside the Surbrugg/Prentice Auditorium. The gallery is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Hannah Habermann is the rural and tribal reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She has a degree in Environmental Studies and Non-Fiction Writing from Middlebury College and was the co-creator of the podcast Yonder Lies: Unpacking the Myths of Jackson Hole. Hannah also received the Pattie Layser Greater Yellowstone Creative Writing & Journalism Fellowship from the Wyoming Arts Council in 2021 and has taught backpacking and climbing courses throughout the West.