Montezuma Creek • One third of Gilmore Scott’s kitchen table serves as his studio space, his tray of paints a patch of clutter in his otherwise immaculate home.

Outside the window, an immense sky hangs over the treeless mesas of the northern Navajo Nation. But Scott is turned toward his canvas, where he is layering vivid colors into an intense, geometric pattern, which he says was inspired by a Diné (Navajo) rug weaving tradition known as Eye Dazzlers.

“When people see that style of work, they think of M.C. Escher — cool illusions,” Scott says, noting that the more modern weaving technique was inspired by the mid-20th century pop art movement. “I really enjoy playing with the colors and seeing where it takes me.”

His sky — which indeed resembles rug patterns found in galleries across the Four Corners — takes up three-quarters of the painting. It jumps out at the viewer in a kind of optical illusion, the geometric shapes bulging off the flat canvas between layers of clouds. The outlines of red rock mesas lie below.

Big skies dominate much of Scott’s work, sometimes accompanied by small human figures, hogans, coyotes or birds. Scott has been painting full time in San Juan County for the last eight years, often spending weeks on a single canvas or days on the postcard-sized watercolors he sells at shows. His next show is at the Natural History Museum of Utah’s 2019 Indian Art Market, which runs Saturday, Oct. 12, and Sunday, Oct. 13, in the Rio Tinto Center in Salt Lake City.

“People here locally are more likely to invest in an ATV than fine artwork,” laughs Scott, recalling a warning he received from an art teacher about the challenges of selling art in rural southeast Utah. “And it’s true. I understand there are other things that take more precedence.”

2019 INDIAN ART MARKET
The juried art show and sale will feature pottery, jewelry, textiles, paintings and other works from 31 artisans representing 11 tribes from across the West. Visitors can browse, shop and meet the artists.
When • 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 12, and Sunday, Oct. 13
Where • Natural History Museum of Utah, Rio Tinto Center, 301 Wakara Way, Salt Lake City
Tickets • The art show is free; a regular admission ticket is needed to visit the museum galleries. Learn more at nhmu.utah.edu.

But thanks to his willingness to travel to shows and his dedication to the work, Scott has been able to make ends meet. “I remember when I first started at my art shows, I was just at a small little table in my makeshift booth,” he says. “Now I’ve got a fancy setup of lights.”

He grew up in Blanding, studied art during his college years in Price and Logan, and toured the country as a firefighter for the Forest Service for close to a decade.

In 2010, he settled near the tiny town of Montezuma Creek and began painting full time. His wife works as a counselor at the local high school, where his two daughters are students.

Though he now describes his life as “quiet,” Scott’s time as a firefighter continues to inspire his work. His use of long shadows, he says, can be traced back to his experience surveying burns from Forest Service helicopters before rappelling to the ground.

The job also allowed him plenty of time outside, including long stints on Elk Ridge near the Bears Ears Buttes, and the land, along with the sky, is the prominent subject in most of his paintings.

“The landscape and the culture are two of the biggest things that I’m able to slowly show in my work,” Scott says, adding that he draws inspiration from traditional Diné stories, basket designs and sand painting.

San Juan County is known across the state for its high-profile political conflicts — from the debate over Bears Ears National Monument to two recent voting rights lawsuits, and Scott says he tries to stay away from political debates. But he was happy to see the county, which is majority Native American, elect its first majority-Navajo Commission last year.

“At least we’re at the table now,” he says. “Before we weren’t ... and that was so frustrating, being on your own land where you grew up and not even being invited to the dinner. You’re sitting on the outside looking in, just wishing. But now our foot is in the door.”

While politics don’t have much influence on his art, he said, the people in his community do. One of his common motifs, a female herder in a brightly colored dress, was recently included in a mural in a new Utah Navajo Health System clinic in Montezuma Creek, and his designs were incorporated throughout the building.

“The female figure with her sheep and goats on the landscape is kind of a tribute to all the weavers,” Scott says, including his mother, who wove wool rugs.

Between shows, Scott enjoys the rhythm of his days in the desert: the walk with his dogs in the morning, the full day of painting and cooking dinner for his family in the evenings. But living on the reservation has its frustrations. Scott says he wants to build a separate studio space so he can paint larger work, though it’s not possible in his current off-grid home. An upgraded solar system might allow him to move into a studio, he says, but it’s costly.

Nonetheless, Scott has seen his career gain momentum in recent years, even if he still just breaks even at some shows and sleeps in his vehicle to save money on hotel costs. After applying for seven years, he recently made it into the prestigious Santa Fe Indian Market, the world’s largest juried show dedicated to Native arts and run by the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts.

He’s been the featured artist at an Indian art market in Bar Harbor, Maine, and has shown his work in Los Angeles. Commissioned work is a more frequent occurrence as his reputation grows, and shows in Chicago and New York no longer seem out of reach. But then there’s the even more difficult struggle: getting Native American artwork to be considered fine art. “That’s another whole battle in itself,” Scott says.

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today.