Theo Beatty is a 30 year old, openly gay, Hopi artist living and working in Phoenix, Arizona. When I first stumbled across his Instagram page by way of a mutual friend I was blown away. The intimacy and power of his work immediately captured my attention and after speaking only briefly, Theo agreed to this interview, allowing me the chance to gain some first hand insight into his process and sources of inspiration.
His work, often dealing with themes surrounding identity, community and the soul, offers a powerfully unique voice that honors and intimately explores the heritage and cultural landscape Beatty was raised by while at once providing something wholly personal and deeply vulnerable.
TA: Let’s start off with a little about yourself. how old are you, what are your pronouns, where are you from, where are you currently living and what do you “do” (for a living, for fun and/or for the sake of doing)?
Theo Beatty:I am 30 years young, my pronouns are anything really. I’ve been called all the pronouns at one point or another in my life so I pretty much respond to anything. Given certain groups of people I hang out with it just depends like at home I’m referred to in male pronouns, In the queer community I’m referred to by any pronoun, so it really just depends where I am and who I’m with. I am originally from Northern Arizona from the Hopi reservation. I grew up in the town of Polacca and lived a vast majority of my life on the reservation. It wasn’t until I attended university that I left. I currently reside in Phoenix, Arizona where I work on my art. I’ve resided here for almost 10 year and came with the intentions of finishing my education here. I did earn my Bachelor’s of Fine Arts from Arizona State University so my goal has been accomplished. At the moment I am “unemployed” give the current situation of things but my art work is my business so I am constantly working on something or another. For fun I usually just dance around my room or play games and read, now is the perfect time to catch up on my reading.
How and when did you first start making art? Was it a natural impulse or something you were introduced to?
I first started drawing when I was very young, my father was the one to 1st show me how to draw outside of scribbles and lines. At least that’s the earliest memory I can think of involving learning to draw deliberate subjects. I’m sure I was drawing before that but didn’t really take a conscious endeavor towards it before that other than just to have fun. I still have fun while drawing, it is a great comfort. I guess I would have to ask my parents more about it to be honest *laughing*. If I had to put an age to it I’d say 4 or 5 was when that happened.
Your artist bio says that you started selling art to tourists when you were pretty young, but lost interest around high school. What was it like selling your art at a young age and how do you feel that affected your relationship to it as you got older?
It was thrilling to know that people wanted to have something I created. In high school my priorities shifted to a pursuit of higher education. I still drew all the time but doing so for the sole purpose of selling was put out of my mind. When I got to university and college I would always take an art course alongside my core classes and such. Art is as much a part of me that if I stay too long away from it I feel like a piece of me is missing. When I start it again then I feel whole. The thrill of getting paid for what you like to do is fun but it becomes a balancing act of profit vs fulfillment. At the time I didn’t have that balance going and wasnt willing to figure it out. As I get older I still feel the thrill when people want to purchase my art works. I think my biggest fear at the moment, in relation to my work, is having it become just another product and getting to a stage where I make art not for fulfillment but solely for profit.
There’s nothing wrong with turning a profit but at this point where I’m still exploring and playing with my work I dont want go lose that momentum of self fulfillment. I am doing commissions in addition to personal work so I feel like that is some sort of balance.
Striking that balance can be difficult, but it sounds like you’re making it work for you. Higher education seems to be a theme in your life, how has academia served or challenged you as an artist?
Im trying my best at balancing. Growing up it was drilled into us that getting a college degree was the best way to make a life for yourself not only from teachers but our parents, grandparents, public speakers, tribal officials, etc. At least that’s the way I remember it.i originally did not pursuit a degree in art, I started off my academic career in the biology field with the goal to actually become a botanist. Along the way I branched out to other things while art is what kept me grounded. Eventually I made the switch to pursuit a degree in fine art. It has helped to discipline my habits, work effort, research skills, and open my eyes to other ways of seeing art and the act of creating. In an academic setting I was pushed to do things that wouldn’t normal do on my own, it helped me gain skills that help develop my work, and exposed me to people with who I could bounce ideas off of, it opened my world in a way.
Academia expanded my world and even challenged me to consider what drives me to create and why. I’m still finding those answers for myself but I encourage academic pursuits if it helps you grow. It certainly helped me.
Much of your work deals with themes surrounding personality, identity, the soul or “the self” while being directly informed by shared cultural themes. How does the relationship between the self and the collective, or the self and the other, influence your art and your process?
I think my work is about understanding your place in society with it being part of a larger collective. Your individuality is part of a greater whole and when you bring those beings together it makes a larger beautiful collective that strives for the same thing. I guess it is all based off of my upbringing and how the family functions as well as the community. We all have a part to play in our communities but that doesn’t take away from our own uniqueness and experiences. It helps build the community. That’s the way I see the idea of self fitting the larger whole in my work.
Katsinam, much like people, possess unique and diverse personalities and identities that make up a larger collective and are continually present in your work. How does your use of katsina and/or pseudo-katsina imagery allow you to play with and express themes surrounding your own identity as well as identity on a broader, social scale?
Katsinam are spirits of nature that help the people when needed bringing rain, food, and joy to the people. They were my first friends growing up, as it is for most Hopi kids, so when depicting them in my work I see them in the same manner. I try to be very respectful and remember that they are more than just images, they are living beings. So I use a version of katsinam that is recognizable as such but is stripped of specific identifiers so that it reads as something new, it has potential to develop, much like people. I use these pseudo-katsinam to represent the individual so the viewer sees the person not only as a person but as a soul or spirit that plays a purpose to the greater whole. I play with colors and markings to match the person’s personality or to establish familial bonds.
Image and other visual communication retain a lot of information that words are often incapable of conveying. What’s the value, power or benefit of visual narrative to you?
I like narrative imagery, I try to incorporate a narrative in my work. It may not be an epic tale but it is still a story. I think narrative imagery is very powerful and allows the viewer to interpret the story for themselves and what it means for them. In that way you are more likely to understand a work of art as well as appreciate it more.
What does religion or spirituality look like for you and how is it involved in your artistic practice?
For me it is just a way of living, spirituality is what you take with you into the world while religion is the actions and organization of events that reaffirm the spiritual practice. So for me, taking my beliefs taught to me wherever I go is spiritual. When I go home and am able to participate in the ritual then I am religious. So there are aspects of both in my work because I cannot really separate the spiritual aspects of Hopi from who I am as a person. Katsinam are definitely part of the religious aspect and need to be handled with respect and care. So when I do these drawings I evoke a sense of both of these elements. Mainly because when we talk of self or soul it is normally tied to something spiritual and the elements I use to convey that can be viewed as semi religious. The imagery I use is never fully secular nor is it fully religious and I try to mediate a middle ground for people to develop their own feelings and ideas about the subject when viewing my work.
I do try to set limits as to what I can and can’t do with regards for respecting my culture and religious restrictions. I feel that with the subject matter I work with I can never really pull away from the spiritual or religious elements of it since they are exactly that, to an extent.
I do the best I can.
On a more physical level, you mentioned an interest in botany and biology, how does your relationship with the natural environment inform or influence your life and work?
Whether it is birds, plants, or weather conditions there is a lot of nature predominantly featured in my work, especially with my pottery designs drawings. Whenever I need inspiration I look to nature for it.
Is there anything else you’d like for people to know about you and/or your art? Any upcoming shows or projects? How can people stay up to date on your work?
I feel like my work can be interpreted from many different views and I hope that when you do view it that you take something good from it. No current shows coming up but definitely working on a few projects I hope to share soon. People can stay up to date on my work via my Instagram @tbeattyart, it’s my primary place for sharing work at the moment. Other than that just wear a mask, wash your hands, and be happy.
Theo’s work can be found on Instagram @tbeattyart and online at tbeattyart.weebly.com