By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily
A Northern Arapaho artist who was chosen to contribute to the 150th anniversary of Yellowstone National Park was honored – and humbled – to be a part of such an auspicious occasion.
“The Wyoming Tourism Board chose me to be one of their Yellowstone 150th Anniversary Poster artists,” Robert Martinez wrote in a Facebook post. “It was humbling to be invited to be a small part of such a historic event.”
Martinez’s signature style, portraits of Native Americans overlaid on maps or other vintage documents, is reflected in his art piece commissioned by the Wyoming Office of Tourism to commemorate Yellowstone’s milestone.
Martinez’s style reflects a unique view of history through the eyes of a man who was brought up in a multi-cultural setting on Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation.
Growing up on the reservation, Martinez was immersed in his Northern Arapaho heritage, although his lineage traces back to Spain, Mexico, Scotland, Ireland and Canada.
“Both my mother’s and my father’s family stressed that it was important to know ‘where you come from,” Martinez told Cowboy State Daily. “So they taught me our familial lines as far back as we could.”
A talented artist from a young age, he nurtured that talent, and was supported by family and teachers.
“As far back as I can remember I’ve drawn or sketched,” said Martinez. “As a young teenager someone told me, ‘If God gives you a talent, not to use that talent is a sin.’ That has always stuck with me.”
Martinez focused on his art, graduating from the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design at age 19 – the youngest Native American to graduate from the institution at that time.
Martinez likes to experiment with different mediums, but is most well known for his bright paintings and mixed media drawings.
“The paintings have an airbrushed acrylic underpainting, which I complete with oil layer glazes,” he said. “My mixed media drawings are graphite and acrylic over vintage paper documents or images, a style taken from the ledger art tradition.”
Martinez’s earliest memories of Yellowstone were from a visit there when he was 11 or 12.
“My biggest takeaway was the carloads of visitors from all over that would create traffic jams just to see a deer,” he said. “And more alarmingly, would get very close to a bull moose or buffalo just to take a picture.”
But a particular incident on this visit would plant a seed that would bear fruit later in life.
“We visited Old Faithful, and I remember visiting a native artist,” he said. “Here he was with his easel there painting and I thought to myself, ‘That would be really cool to do that one day.’ Little did I know!”
Martinez’s commissioned work for Yellowstone’s 150th anniversary depicts the Arapaho leader, Yellowcalf, overlaid on a map of Yellowstone National Park.
“Like many of his contemporaries, (Yellowcalf) was a leader during a time of great change,” Martinez explains. “Along with him are two iconic animals that are symbols of Yellowstone Park and have important connections to many tribal nations – the elk and the buffalo.”
Yellowstone Celebrating Native American Heritage
Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly has highlighted the important role the tribal nations played in this year’s celebration of the park.
“There were Native American tribal nations in this area at least 10,000 to 11,000 – probably 20,000 years prior to Yellowstone becoming a national park,” Sholly said in May, on the opening day of the Park’s 150th summer season. “And this is an important point in time for us to re-engage our tribal nations. The American public can learn the important culture of the American Indian tribes that were on these lands long before 1872.”
Martinez’s work, displayed in various locations throughout the park this summer, helps to tell that story.
“The State of Wyoming and the National Park Service invited me for my ideas,” Martinez said, “and I wanted to remind visitors that tribal people, of which there are over 27 separate nations, have a historical claim to (the region), and felt that the Yellowstone area is a special place.”
Martinez’s work has been in demand recently, and his art is becoming more visible – literally. He just completed a large public mural on Main Street in Riverton, a colorful large-format piece featuring portraits of Native Americans.
He’s been a recent fixture at art shows in Banner, Wyoming, as well as in New Mexico, and is helping to coordinate some upcoming exhibits around the West, including one in Boulder, Colorado at the Dairy Art Center.
“‘Homelands’ will feature a group of indigenous artists with historical ties to the Colorado area,” Martinez said.
The “Grounded” exhibit will feature a number of indigenous artists at the Pioneer Museum. Martinez said the exhibit will open in Lander Oct. 2, but won’t stay long.
“It’s a traveling exhibit to tour around Wyoming, the East Coast, and England, and finish in Saudi Arabia,” he said.
Martinez will be featured in a solo show at the Macrostie Art Center in Grand Rapids, Minnesota opening Oct. 7, and is also part of an exhibit at the Nicolaysen Museum in Casper through December.
“Everyone is welcome, so please come out and see the art,” Martinez said.