JayCee Beyale makes art at the intersection of his Navajo heritage, his long-ago illegal street art and graffiti hobby, and the Nichiren Buddhism teachings that saved him.
The Colorado Springs resident will split the bill with Peyton-based Native American artist and activist Gregg Deal in the new exhibit “Modern Storytellers” at The Modbo. The show opens with a free reception from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday and runs through Aug. 28. Masks are required and only a small number of people will be allowed in the gallery at one time. The show is part of First Friday Downtown.
Beyale, who calls himself a Navajo Buddhist (“There are very few of us,” he says), likens his work to the Buddhist symbol of the beautiful lotus flower, which grows out of a dirty and grungy pond.
“That’s where I try to present my art from, with layers of street art and graffiti, like those textures,” says Beyale, whose full-time job is managing Tees in Time, a screen printing and embroidery shop. “I try to put something like a nice portrait coming out of that mess. The world is kind of crazy right now. To see beauty in the chaos is what I try to portray with my work.”
His pieces often feature traditional figurative people from his culture. He sees Navajo people slowly losing their culture and traditions, especially in the wake of the pandemic, when many of the tribe’s elders are losing their lives to the virus, he says. With them goes a wealth of knowledge, but he hopes to slow that fade by making art that reflects what he learned growing up.
“What I have may be just enough to keep others going,” he says.
Beyale grew up in the Four Corners area of New Mexico, close to the reservation where he and his family went for regular gatherings. His parents were full-blooded Navajos, and his paternal grandfather was a medicine man, along with a few of his uncles.
“I’ve always been proud to be Native,” he says. “I’m not saying I’m extra special, but it’s a special kind of life to have. People think Native people don’t exist, or they have some knowledge of them they picked up from movies or the internet. I feel like being here in Colorado Springs allows me to educate or share with them what it means to be Native American.”
He can trace his artistic talents back to around third grade, when he developed an interest in his older brother’s street art. It took off from there and inadvertently segued him into the art he does now.
“Over the years I did more and more illegal work, like painting on trains,” he says. “But now I’m at an age where I can’t play around. I’ve got a business to run. I’ve caused enough chaos and trouble in life that I needed to calm down.”
Finding a spiritual practice went a long way to also help him simmer down before he arrived in the Springs nine years ago. Buddhism helped him get sober from drugs and alcohol and taught him to not be afraid to share his “soul” with others, he says, or to hide anything. It’s also brought him acceptance about our impermanence in the world and influenced his art.
“Graffiti isn’t permanent. It gets painted over,” he says. “Painting these people emerging from the walls of various layers of creation, that will get painted over too someday. With Buddhism, not every day is promised, but I know I’m promised the ability to help and support not only myself, my family and my people, but everyone else in the world. If I can do that by sharing stories and art, that’s what I’ll do.”
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