Used with permission from First Nation’s Focus
By Kaleb M. Roedel
RENO — Jack Malotte walks slowly as he scans the walls filled with vibrant drawings and paintings.
His daughter, Cora, a few steps behind, cups her hand over her mouth, covering the kind of smile that precedes tears.
“Oh, my gosh, dad,” Cora says, her eyes glistening. “I remember those…”
It’s Thursday evening inside the Nevada Museum of Art’s Robert Z. Hawkins Gallery, and Malotte and his daughter are getting the first look at the museum’s newest exhibition, “Sagebrush Heathen: The Art of Jack Malotte.”
The exhibition, planned through Oct. 20 at the Reno art museum, includes hundreds of pieces spanning four decades of Malotte’s career — from his teenage years at Wooster High School to his college days in Oakland, California, to his most recent works produced at his home studio in Duckwater, Nevada, a dot of a village in central Nevada.
The exhibition’s opening celebration on June 6 was the first time Malotte — a Shoshone and Washoe visual artist who was born in Reno and raised on the Walker River Indian Reservation in nearby Schurz, Nevada — has seen a career-spanning display of his artwork in one gallery.
“I was kind of overwhelmed because there were a lot of things that I forgot about,” Malotte told First Nation’s Focus. “When Cora and I walked through looking at it all, I just thought, ‘I did a lot of work … I can’t believe I did this many things.’”
A prolific visual artist, Malotte said he creates art that connects and celebrates “the power of the land and the power of the spirituality” of Native Americans.
“It’s landscapes — the moon, lightning, the wind — it’s always been about nature with me,” said Malotte, an enrolled member of the South Fork Band of the Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone. “And when I put people in there, it’s about the spirituality of Indians with the land, connecting the two.”
An example is Malotte’s untitled profile of a Shoshone Indian — wrapped in a hawk-adorned shawl, his hair blowing in the wind, feathers floating around him — standing amid mountains and a sky glowing orange, red and blue (colors that call to mind a brilliant Nevada sunset). The work, which Malotte created in 1995, comes from his private collection.
Other works are politically charged. Take Malotte’s 1983 piece titled, “Don’t Dump On Us,” of a Native American protesting the dumping of toxic waste in the Mojave Desert. In the background, lightning flashes behind a mountain range, a military jet streaks through the clouds, and a black hawk soars above the sunset-colored scene.
MORE THAN ‘COUCH ART’
Malotte started drawing as a young child — “I don’t remember starting, it’s just always been there,” he said.
As he grew, both as a person and artist, the Reno native narrowed his focus on two areas: the Great Basin landscapes and the political issues faced by the Native people trying to protect those lands.
This artistic evolution was cultivated in the late 1970s when he got heavily involved with activists and grassroots foundations striving for environmental justice for Native Americans. Wielding pencils, paints and a greater purpose, Malotte produced graphics and illustrations for the Seventh Generation Fund for Indigenous Peoples, the Western Shoshone Sacred Lands Association and the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice.
“They were all people who wanted to make a difference and they were all working for a better future for their kids,” Malotte said. “And so that’s what I want to do — to make a difference in this world.”
“I just didn’t want to do ‘couch art,’” he adds with wry smile. “I want to make a difference.”
Whether it’s protesting nuclear testing in Nye County or advocating for the preservation of Pyramid Lake, Malotte’s artwork relays powerful messages on important issues, many still relevant today, facing indigenous peoples throughout the region.
“It’s mining and water and nuclear testing and toxic waste,” he said. “We fought these things a long time ago, but they’re still here. Still here. It never ends. They keep pushing, we keep pushing.”
Cora Burchett, Malotte’s daughter, said she’s proud that her father uses his talents as a vessel for drawing attention to injustices facing Native Americans, rather than only creating beautiful landscapes.
“I think a lot of the time, when you’re a Native artist,” Burchett said, “you’re expected to do ‘couch art’ — stuff that makes people feel comfortable; things white people would put in their houses. Dad’s art isn’t always comfortable; people don’t always want it in their house.”
“But it’s important,” she continued. “Because a lot of the time Native history and Native art is commodified and used for just ‘pretties.’ And it’s not that. Native people are so much more than that, and I think that’s what dad’s art stands for.”
To that end, Amanda Horn, senior VP of communications at the Nevada Museum of Art, said Malotte is probably “the most significant artist” working in the Great Basin today.
“The Nevada Museum of Art prides itself on being a public square, a place that brings together diverse voices, brings people from communities that maybe don’t have other places to intersect,” Horn told FNF. “This exhibition does that in spades. It celebrates an important artist in the Great Basin — and important artist, period. And what we can do is elevate that Nevada story to participate in a global conversation.”
After walking through his retrospective exhibit for the first time on Thursday, Malotte appears dazed and slightly amused.
Truth is, many of his early pieces, he’s either forgotten about entirely or vaguely remembers like a far-off memory.
“When I look at the old stuff, I remember where I was, what I was doing, how I was feeling, what I was going through,” he recalled.
But he has plenty of new memories and pieces to make. After his daily morning coffee, Malotte said he heads over to his trailer-turned-studio and sifts through his endless stack of projects — everything from sketches to watercolors to acrylics.
“Sometimes I just start putting paint down and just keep hoping something’ll happen,” he smiled.