PHOTO/LYNN LAZARO: Ben Aleck shows some of drawings at the Great Basin Native Artists Collective gallery at the Stewart Indian School museum in Carson City.

In 2011, Melissa Melero-Moose, a Northern Paiute enrolled with the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe, and the founder of the Great Basin Native Artists collective, came back to Nevada after having her son.

“I really wanted my son to grow up in Nevada,” Melero-Moose said. “[I wanted him to] be with his family, and understand what community, and being around his people and our places is all about.”

Having a sense of community is important to Melero-Moose, both as an Indigenous person and Native artist. Before moving back to Reno, Melero-Moose lived in Santa Fe, N.M, and in Portland Oregon. She spent most of her time in Santa Fe surrounded by a community of artists that made her feel supported in her art. That same sense of community wasn’t readily available when she moved back to Nevada.

“(Great Basin Indigenous artists) are so underrepresented in this area as far as national and international art,” Melero-Moose said. Getting those artists some exposure and recognition is a founding principle behind the Great Basin Native Artists Collective.

Growing the collective

Before the group’s founding in 2014, Indigenous artists had little opportunity to share their art and interact with other Native artists because their only opportunities were during art shows that were few and far between.

“It was like – really?” Melero-Moose said, referring to shows that were nearly a decade apart. “Are we going to have to wait that long for us to get together, and show [our art], and interact with each other?”

The main goal of collective was to create a community and give Great Basin artists an opportunity to showcase their work, she said.

Melero-Moose started the group with artists she knew, such as Ben Aleck, an artist currently being featured in an exhibit in the Stewart Indian School Cultural Center and Museum, and artists that she knew from being involved with art shows beginning in the 1990s.

“I reached out to them and said, ‘Let’s just go out to the community’, and we did information booths at art fairs and powwows to find more artists,” Melero-Moose said. Reaching out at public events led her and the artists of GBNA to attend meetings for the Stewart Indian School, the Nevada Indian Commission and Nevada Indian Territory.

Attending those meetings introduced the group to the community. Member artists were offered a space for art shows during the yearly Father’s Day Powwow hosted by the Stewart Indian School. They hosted shows for four years and solidified the collective’s  relationship with the school.

A home for Native art

Eventually, the Stewart Indian School offered the group a permanent space in the museum.

When creating the collective, Melero-Moose hoped the artists would someday have their own cultural center, but she never imagined that they would have their own gallery.

“(The gallery space was) a dream come true for such a small collective that has been begging people for the last seven years to exhibit in different places,” she said. The gallery gives contemporary indigenous artists an opportunity to showcase their art to people who would have never seen it otherwise.

“I think that’s really important,” Melero-Moose said. “Get these artists known to the public as American artists. We have such a long tribal, American history, and … it’s not really documented.”

The goal of collective is to exhibit the works of Indigenous artists, and to talk about who they are, where they came from, and where they’re going.

“We’ve been through a lot,” Melero-Moose said, not only as artists but as generations of Native Americans. “It’s a long hard history to talk about, but our art has still maintained, and our people have still maintained.”

An online archive

In the early years of the collective’s founding, its main objective was having art shows and teaching artists the ins and outs of putting them together. In time passed, the collective also created artists’ archive in cooperation with the Nevada Museum of Art.

The archive began with posting as artist biographies and images of artwork from 20 to 30 artists regularly working with the collective. It now contains more than a thousand artists who hail from tribal areas throughout the Great Basin.

“A lot of our artists aren’t Googleable until we’ve put them onto our directory,” Melero-Moose said. Being an artist who can be found on the internet creates more opportunities, she said, and creates an opportunity for those people to become better known as traditional and contemporary Indigenous artists.

The founder as artist

Melero-Moose is one of many artists in the collective who uses her culture and influences from the surrounding environment to create artwork. Many of her multimedia pieces include willow, cattails or tule reeds.

“My tribe, Fallon, is the Toi Ticutta. (cattail eaters),” Melero-Moose noted. That influence is seen in many of her pieces, including one that makes use of dried cattail. That work has a background that invokes the dry and cracking mud common in Fallon marshes during the dry season.

“I think all of my artwork is about… just home, and this place that we’re from and has so much history. (It’s) where are ancestors are from,” Melero-Moose said.

Her pieces often start from a sketch with images that are familiar to her. They can contain magnified images of a basket texture, or a basket weave. But it’s never just a basket or the weave of the materials used, “it’s the idea of this ancient art that we do.”

An artist’s portfolio

Ben Aleck, a Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe member, has been working with the collective since its founding. A lot of his work is featured in the Stewart Indian School museum. As the museum’s design consultant, he created many of the geometrical designs found throughout the facility as well as in one of the art pieces in the current gallery.

Aleck studied at the California College of the Arts in Oakland in the 1960s and 1970s. He was there during the Vietnam War and witnessed the occupation of Alcatraz Island by Native American activists that began in 1969. That relatively recent time in history influenced his early work.

“I have some pieces that are dealing with the war in Vietnam,” Aleck said. “I lost my brother there.”

Aleck’s most recent works reflect Native American culture. His portfolio contains many images important to Native people, including eagles, basketry and images representing the three Great Basin tribes that are part of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony: the Washoe, the Northern Paiute, and the Shoshone.

Aleck’s portfolio, he said, is the beginning of his process to assemble his own solo show. And with help from Molero-Moose, he plans on creating a coloring book using some of his black-and-white illustrations relating to the Indigenous people and culture of the Great Basin.

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