Artist Profile | Lehi Sanchez: Navajo Storyteller
Artwork: Detail from “American Gothic” by Lehi ThunderVoice Eagle Sanchez.
Lehi ThunderVoice Eagle Sanchez doesn’t have the typical artist’s origin story. For this 37-year-old Navajo painter, the money came before the oeuvre. His career began about six years ago when he was in need of college tuition; a friend of his father offered him funds, but only if he returned the favor with a painting.
Up until this point, Sanchez’s artwork consisted primarily of sketches. “When I did the painting, it turned out better than I thought. I’m like, ‘How did I do that?’” he says. “I was really surprised how much of it came natural.” He’s since found painting not only to be a burgeoning career prospect, but therapeutic as well. “I loved it because I could really express myself,” he says. “When I move that paint across the canvas, it’s really soothing.”
Sanchez’s work, similar in style to Fritz Scholder, is certainly soothing to look at, but also powerful. Warriors in headdresses with penetrating eyes. Wild horses with wind-blown manes. Buffalo in profile crafted from tree rings. Nature is an ubiquitous ally in Sanchez’s art: the Southwestern landscape acts as a backdrop, constellations light up the night, a tree takes on the curves of a female figure.
But the piece that will catch many an eye is “American Gothic” (close-up, at top), a retelling of the iconic painting of the same name by Grant Wood. Sanchez’s version asks the questions: What would America look like if not for colonization? What if Natives were able to roam free? The male figure wears overalls and a jacket, suggesting that he has been trading with settlers. Still, the patriarch in Sanchez’s painting holds arrows, not farm tools, and teepees are visible in the background.
“That piece is looking at a way to co-exist in harmony,” Sanchez says. “A lot of the youth are looking to the elders for answers about their own culture. A lot of it has been taken from us and beaten out of us through the boarding schools and assimilation, so now a lot of us younger ones are looking, like, ‘Well, what pieces are still left?’ We’re looking for that, finding that identity. The wonderful thing is: we’re going to create it.”
When Sanchez initially immersed himself in the art scene, one of the shows he attended was the Santa Fe Indian Market, an annual event that attracts thousands of artists from all over the United States and Canada. There, he mingled with members of diverse Indian tribes, an experience he’d never had before. “I realized the stories were very similar throughout Indian country,” he says. As he extended his circle of friends, he noticed recurring themes, particularly about identity: blood quantum, living on- versus off- reservation, and “how Indian” one appeared. “I really wasn’t heavily involved with the Native American community,” Sanchez says. “I was born on the rez and would go back quite often for family stuff, but I was never tied into the powwow scene. I was involved in a different way, through my family.”
Sanchez was born in the Navajo Nation. His father, also a painter, went to school on an art scholarship but ended up co-founding the Anasazi Foundation, a therapeutic wilderness program in Mesa, Ariz. The participants, many of whom are at-risk youth, learn to live off the land over the course of 50 days. At the end of the journey, the youth are reunited with their parents. Sanchez has spent ample time assisting his father with the organization and has worked with over 4,000 families throughout his life. Much of his artwork is influenced by his experiences there. “Within my culture, there’s a lot of hostility. A lot of hurt has been done. I feel like I do a disservice if I feed that hurt or hostility,” he says. “I see other families who carry that still. It’s been passed on.”
Sanchez credits his parents for instilling the importance of peace and forgiveness in him. He wants to impart that in his paintings, along with a sense of healing. The way he does that is through narrative; on his Instagram feed, images of artwork are accompanied by stream-of-consciousness thoughts and poetic musings. “The greatest teachings I ever received came through a story,” he says. “It felt like stories were one of the best ways to teach and to pass on certain principles.” Not all of the stories are easy to hear, and they aren’t the ones featured in history books. “We’ve all kept them to ourselves and on reservations because there’s a lot of hurt there,” Sanchez says. “But I hear them. I hear these stories from my people and from elders.”
Sanchez believes art is the best way he can transmit the traditions and teachings of his culture to the next generation. His hope is that youth and families can find happiness by merging traditional life ways with aspects of other cultures.
He’s also on the hunt for a new gallery to show his work and is exploring how to make his art accessible to his followers, many of whom wouldn’t be able to afford gallery prices. As if those weren’t aspirations enough, Sanchez has his sights set on a Master’s degree in business so he can further promote the growth of Anasazi.
“There was always this idea of community and working together,” Sanchez says of older Native tribes, some of which didn’t even have words for “you” or “I” but only used “we” to refer to their clans. “I like that, and I want to keep that alive.”