Patrick Dean Hubbell (Diné), who works from his family homestead on the Navajo Nation, creates artworks that reference how Diné people think about natural elements.
My boyfriend and I drive four hours from Santa Fe to Navajo, New Mexico.
Artist Patrick Dean Hubbell (Diné) meets us at a Chevron gas station in Window Rock, Arizona. Our phones lose service as we follow Patrick back to his family’s homestead about thirty minutes away.
I look out the window as we pass large, red sandstone formations. The sky is deep blue and very still.
We walk with Patrick over to a large corral with two horses. One is a chestnut with a white blaze, the second a gentle gray. The family’s other two horses are away being trained to rope.
Patrick’s mother is a certified equine therapist. She works with children who have behavioral or disciplinary difficulties.
“Some of the kids have never seen a horse in real life, but at the end of our program, they’re able to sit on top of one,” Patrick says. “I think that’s really commendable, because it’s such a huge animal, and they’ve never even been around one, they aren’t familiar with them.”
The horses walk over to the fence and prick their ears forward.
“I always believe the work that’s outside the studio is just as important as going back. So these horses, they’re really special to me as far as the time I spend with them. When I’m not working in studio or when I’m not painting, I’m here.”
In 2021, Patrick received a fellowship to construct a studio. Patrick, his father, and his brother built it here, so Patrick could center his life and work on his ancestral homeland in the Navajo Nation. This land has been in Patrick’s family for generations through his maternal grandmother’s line.
“That’s how a lot of Navajo families are set up in their homesteads. The matriarchs in the family, they’re the ones that keep the land and the homesteads intact. From there, maybe one of the daughters in the next generation will stay.”
Patrick—who exhibited at Gerald Peters Contemporary in 2022 and who will again show at the Santa Fe gallery from August to October 2023—is quick to credit his family, specifically his wife and mother, for their continuous support.
“My mom is so gracious because she allows me to work around her home. My wife and my kids are so gracious. I mean, I pretty much infiltrate every space. So this [studio] is kind of my messy room, a lot of layers happen in here, which is why it’s covered with paint.”
In the corner, a small table holds seven tubes of paint, three containers of brushes, and several plastic spoons. The dried paint rises in peaks.
Patrick opens a small plastic storage container of natural pigment.
“This is some pigment I found nearby, probably about thirty miles down the road. This is one of the ones I use a lot because it has a nice, almost coal-like sheen to it.”
The roughly rectangular studio has a central skylight. Small square windows line the top of the front wall and stretched canvases lean against a large front window. Wire shelves hold rows of white canvases, stacked vertically, like books, but also horizontally or sideways—wherever they will fit.
Several unstretched canvases hang loosely on the back wall like fabric hanging from a nail. I mention the folds and wrinkles in the material remind me of thinner fabrics or skin.
“Canvas itself, it’s very industrial, the strength of it. I think canvas is often overlooked as being something in relation to a blanket… in our Indigenous culture, making a blanket for someone is something you take on with great care and great respect for an individual.”
I look more closely at the way the canvas billows and folds around itself. I think of how, in the cold, a blanket acts as the barrier between a person and the outside world. Draping the canvas emphasizes a painting’s ability to occupy a similar role.
Patrick pulls two smaller pieces from a wire rack—a blind contour oil painting of a man with a cowboy hat and another of a man with a headdress. The faces are a swirl of color, features indistinguishable.
“When I saw paintings that have Native people in gold frames, that’s when I recognized, ‘Okay, I see something here that I want to bring into conversation, bring up-to-date.’ Also, another interesting point was some of the people I was meeting [at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago] understood that I was Indigenous Native American, but also that I had grown up with horses and cattle. They’re like, ‘Wait, so you’re Native American and you’re also a cowboy?’ I started to think, ‘Alright, I want to explore this in a project-based style of work, where it starts to unfold—it’s really a way of starting to create a conversation.’”
Patrick shifts his attention to several large paintings near the window. In these abstractions, his marks appear to hover over the colors, as though the painting is vibrating from within.
“I have this other perspective, thinking about how a painting can come to life and reference how our Diné people think about certain elements of nature, landscape, the earth, the sky.”
I ask if Patrick will talk through this thought process with one of the unstretched canvases on the back wall. He walks over to a piece with loose sky-blue lines rounding in and out of themselves like rope.
“The wind, that name, in our Navajo language is nilch’i. It has a whole history of being one of the main aspects of a person’s relationship to nature… the way I’m using spray paint as a medium, I’m thinking about how to control the air or wind, so to speak, coming off your fingertip. The pigment of the paint inside the can is just one element that records the mark you’re making. Basically drawing with air is what really stimulated my thinking about making these marks.”