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Zuni artist Dennis Dewa shows where two paths lead

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Most people know A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens’ story about ghosts of the past, present and future warning a miser to change his selfish ways. Artist Dennis Dewa wants people to know the world is at just such a crossroads with climate, and the little choices we make every day will ultimately decide how our future looks.

Dewa is the second in a summer series of guest curators at ART123 Gallery, with an installation May 14 to June 4. The gallery asked local artists to submit briefs for the grant-funded program, with each one focused on a different social justice issue.

Dewa’s exhibit, “The Transition: Fossil Fuels to Renewables,” aims to show how our collective response to climate change will dictate whether our future landscape is bright or bleak.

“Every year it’s getting hotter and hotter and the storms that usually come are getting more intense,” he said. “That’s part of climate change and what’s causing it, the greenhouse gases going into the atmosphere. Fossil fuels like coal and gas emit those emissions that can also cause air pollution and lung cancer. It’s a lot that sometimes people don’t know about. That’s where I’m trying to shed some light.”

Dewa paints in an ethereal style that suggests parallel and overlapping worlds where the physical and spiritual play together. That lends itself particularly well to a mural installation meant to engage viewers in the world as it is, and the possible futures at the end of diverging paths. For the installation he’s doing a mural overhung with seven large paintings.

“On one side it’s going to be fossil fuels and on the other side it’s going to be renewable energy, like solar and wind turbines,” he said. “If we transition from fossil fuels into renewable energy, this is how it could be.”

“The underlying design on both walls of the gallery [….] on the back is going to be a silhouette of an offshore well, but in the forefront is going to be a water design. It’s going to switch onto land where there’s an oil rig sitting there but with grass coming out. There will be symbolism and design going throughout the whole gallery,” he explained. “On top of those designs, the paintings are going to come in front. All the paintings will be that same design that’s carried on the wall, so it’s going to be running through all the paintings in the gallery.”

The result is art that invites visitors to see themselves as participants. “The goal is not necessarily to hang a gallery show, but to create a more of an interactive, immersive experience,” GallupARTS Executive Director Rose Eason said. “His idea is to show the state of the climate and the environment as it is today and the industries and practices that are contributing to global warming on one wall; then on the opposite wall show what it could look like if we transition to renewable energy and make some drastic changes to our ways of life.”

One need look no further than the wildfires currently burning in New Mexico and Arizona to see the effects of prolonged drought and changing weather patterns.

“An artist’s job is to record things,” Dewa said. “I think that’s why I’m here, to record our culture and share it with the youth so they know who they are.”

Fortunately, it appears there’s an audience eager to see and hear his message. A January survey by 4H and Harris Polls found that 41% of youth think about the environment frequently, 48% do at least sometimes, and their anxiety about the environment is stronger the further into the future they think: 21% of youngsters surveyed were hopeful about the environment a year ago while 27% were worried about it; 24% are optimistic about the situation a year from now and 39% are concerned; and 28% think things may be better in 50 years, while 42% think things will be worse.

Survey respondents split responsibility for taking care of the environment about equally among business, government and individuals, and 79% agreed with the statement that “protecting the environment should take priority over economic growth.”

Not coincidentally, Dewa’s art goes back to his own roots, literally. Being raised with Zuni farming traditions that he still follows gave him respect for the land and natural resources from which city dwellers may feel disconnected.

“Our people are represented as planters and growers. Every year I’ve planted corn right outside my house – this past year it grew up to 12 feet!” he said. He and his neighbors at Zuni Pueblo grow herbs, squash and other vegetables every year, he said.  “Mostly the whole village does that because it’s part of the culture.”

Dewa sees his art as a vehicle to pass on language and culture, but also as a way to educate people about horticulture and natural resources. He hopes visitors will leave thinking about the small changes they can make – shutting off the tap while brushing their teeth, taking reusable bags to stores, even growing some of their own food – and how to take responsibility for the future.

“It’s about returning to our culture and who we used to be as farmers and people who respected the land,” he said. “Maybe if more people farmed and returned to their roots, everything would be alright and everything would come back into place.”

ART123 Gallery is open noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday at 123 W. Coal Ave. Information is available at https://galluparts.orgor (505) 488-2136.

By Holly J. Wagner
Sun Correspondent

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