Born in Shiprock, New Mexico, he hesitates when asked to pronounce the name of his Navajo clan aloud, though he has known it since his youth. The problem for artist Elmer Yazzie is not secrecy, but that the language of the Dinee—the name by which the Navajos prefer to be known—is not a written one. Attempting to spell the long clause that means "Where the Two Waters Meet" is virtually impossible.

A reservation-born Native American with a mission-school education and a Dutch-American wife, Yazzie is truly an individual at the place where many different waters, or cultures, meet. A lifelong Christian in the Reformed tradition, he received his undergraduate degree in art education at Calvin College in Michigan. He accepted in a general way the Calvinist doctrine of being chosen, but until eight years ago, he had not applied it to his artistic bent.

The artist as spiritual healer

Though he has painted dozens of murals in southwestern churches since 1976 and mentored aspiring artists of all ages for 22 years at the Rehoboth Christian Reformed School, Yazzie's reluctance to call himself an artist was due, in part, to his Navajo perceptions.

"In the Navajo way of thinking, there is no word that defines artist," the 44-year-old says in a soft voice. "What the artist is or does has to do with spiritual work," Yazzie says. "Artists are more like healers—our work can be therapy for ourselves and for others. Sometimes in my own work, I have created works that influenced my life and thinking; later on, someone has come along with a very similar need."

The concept of art so thoroughly permeates the culture of the Dinee (which means "The People") that the thought of separating it from life or spirituality strikes Yazzie as ...

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Christianity Today
Arts: The Calling of Elmer Yazzie
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In the Magazine

November 16, 1998

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