Art Flourishes In Nevada

by Teri Vance


Art in Nevada is as diverse as its landscape. The white-sand playa of the Black Rock Desert serves as the backdrop to the worldwide art gathering of Burning Man, which draws tens of thousands of art lovers to the state annually. This year’s Nevada Day is a celebration of that mosaic with its Arts and Entertainment theme, featuring Burning Man founder Micheal Mikel and as grand marshals. Other founders will serve as parade dignitaries.

While the temporary metropolis is the state’s largest and most recognized artistic endeavor, Nevada is rich in art history and contemporary work.

From the sagebrush-strewn desert that inspires the National Cowboy Poetry gathering in Elko to the glitz of the casinos memorialized at the Las Vegas Neon Museum, the state is proud of its diverse heritage.

No matter were you look in Nevada, you will find art. Here is a glimpse of some of those places:


Great Basin Native Artists

Melissa Melero-Moose draws on her roots growing up as a Paiute on the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony for her work as a mixed-medium painter. But her work is not a relic of days past. “I would describe myself as a contemporary Native American artist inspired by the Great Basin,” she said. “It’s my interpretation of landscape, which can end up looking somewhat abstract.” While making a living as an artist can be difficult in any genre, Melero-Moose said she — and other artists like her – found roadblocks particular to her style. “There weren’t any venues in this area to show our work,” she said. “The opportunities never really came up.”

So, collaborating with local artist Ben Aleck, Pyramid Lake Paiute and previous director of the Pyramid Lake Museum, they created their own opportunities. After co-curating the “Under One Sky” exhibit at the Nevada State Museum in 2001 and the 2012 Nevada Museum of Art exhibit, “The Way We Live” in Reno, they created the Great Basin Native Artists in 2014 to promote artists in the region. The group is featured in a show on display through the end of November at the Carson City Culture and Tourism Authority, 716 N. Carson St. “This exhibition allows the Carson City Culture and Tourism Authority to become an informational and cultural venue — the first stop for tourists to see the contemporary impact our own residents and neighbors have on today’s art scene,” said Mark Salinas, the city’s arts and culture coordinator. “It’s an exciting opportunity to see how Native tribes translate their traditions and heritage into contemporary works.”

Ben Aleck, a professionally trained artist who has traveled much of the country, is now looking closer to home for inspiration. “I’m reaching back to my roots,” said Aleck, who now lives at Pyramid Lake after retiring as an educator in Reno. “Where I’m at now, I want to use my art to do Great Basin images.” A Northern Paiute, Aleck weaves traditional arts into his contemporary images. “I use willow to frame out some of the work I’m doing,” he said. “That comes directly from the basket weavers. It’s really soothing to go out to gather it. It’s a whole process to make sure it’s done right — when to gather it, how to clean it.”

He said his art reflects mostly environmental and cultural issues, all reflecting the central theme he’s learned through his life of travel and meeting new people. “I see things differently because of that,” he said. “I’ve learned that when it comes down to it, we’re all human beings.” The more their artwork is seen, Melero-Moose said, the more people will begin to understand its nuances and complexity. “Native American art has a certain stereotype,” Melero-Moose said. “People think of geometrics with baskets and Southwestern art.” However, the stereotype isn’t practical. “There are more than 500 tribes in the United States and each tribe has its own aesthetic,” she said. “The Great Basin Native Artists showcases our region specifically.” Her work and the work of the group, she said, serves to broaden the definition of Native American artwork to extend beyond the traditional arts and crafts. “I grew up with a lot of artists in and around my family,” Melero-Moose said. “They were bead workers and regalia makers. They were inspiring all the same, I just use a different medium.”

The group is open to artists of all mediums including visual arts, performing arts, literary arts, digital and video arts, arts and crafts, photography, sculpture, beadwork and basketry. Joyce McCauley, who was raised in Dresslerville by her parents who met at Stewart Indian School, said keeping the tradition of regalia making alive is her way of preserving a heritage that has otherwise been lost in many ways. “My father spoke Washoe fluently, but he never passed it down to me,” she said. “Sometimes, it just feels like a part of me has been taken away. “We live in two worlds. We live on our reservations, and we know our history. We do want to keep what we do have left and pass it on to our grandchildren.”

Learn more at http://www.greatbasinnativeartists.com.


Nevada State Museum


To understand the history of the Nevada State Museum, explains Bob Nylen, the museum’s curator of history, you need to first understand the history of the U.S. Mint in Carson City. It began operation in 1870 and ran until 1893. In 1899 it was converted to a U.S. Assay office that remained in operation until the 1930s. When it closed, it was put up for sale “Judge Clark Guild took a Sunday walk, picked up his mail at what is now the Laxalt Building, and saw the ‘for sale’ sign,” Nylen said. “He got upset. He could see the writing on the wall, the building was considered a blight. He had a vision right away of making it into a museum.” The Nevada State Museum opened on Nevada Day, Oct. 31, 1941. Nylen moves around the museum as effortlessly as someone in his own home. Every artifact has a story he tells with enthusiasm — from the silver tobacco box, a relic of a baseball rivalry between Carson and Virginia cities, to G.S. Garcia’s most famous saddle made in 1904.

“I get so excited and interested in history when you learn the details about the people — how they contributed, or even the tragedies — it brings it to life,”  he said. “Things just jump out at me.” He even feels a connection to the building itself. “Every day I walk up and down these stairs, I think about how this was the main staircase used to go up and down in the mint,” he said. “Abe Curry was the superintendent of the mint until 1871. His office was upstairs.” The exhibits trace the transition to cars from the horse and buggy, and some of the growing pains in between. “One of my favorite stories from the time was about the speeding laws, which were probably around 10 mph,” Nylen recounted. “Sometimes the sheriff had to chase them down on a horse to give them a ticket.” Nevada’s diversity — including Native Americans, Basque, Chinese and Latinos — is also showcased in the museum. “People often underestimate the role of the immigrants in Nevada history,” Nylen said. “In the 19th Century, we had the largest percentage of people who came here to settle.”

The ghost town and mining exhibit are two of the oldest. “They were created with such love,” he said. “So much thought went into making that basement mine be a top-level exhibit.” His contribution to that display was personal. “Those are my jeans,” he said, gesturing to the mannequin of the prospector at the entrance of the old mine. “Those have been on this exhibit since 1985 when it opened.” His pants, he said, were a small sacrifice for the good of the museum, which in turn is good for the community. “People have been lost to history. We need to bring it back,”  he said. “It might impact how we approach things now. Look at this museum, it all got started with somebody’s dream on a Sunday morning.”


National Cowboy Poetry Gathering

Meg Glaser took a leave of absence from her Washington, D.C., job to come home to help the Western Folklife Center put on its inaugural cowboy poetry gathering in 1980. They pulled artists together throughout the Western states for what was supposed to be a one-time event. “The poets weren’t even aware there were other people doing poetry,” Glaser recalled. “A lot of the energy came from the reciters being so excited to meet other people who were expressing themselves through poetry and song. The artists said, ‘We’d sure like to get together again.’” It has since grown to an annual gathering, drawing in 100-150 performers from around the world. More than 8,000 people attend the two-week National Poetry Gathering in Elko. “People are attracted to the event for different reasons,” said Glaser, artistic director for the Western Folklife Center. “There’s a lot of people who maybe their grandparents were on ranches or farms. They are drawn by nostalgia or they feel a strong connection to the experience of rural people and rural stories.”

She said some of the most popular aspects of the gathering on the hands-on workshops where participants can learn cooking, rawhide braiding, hat making and social dancing, among others. “A lot of people gravitate to those kinds of things,” she said. Organizers have created cultural exchanges with agricultural peoples in several other countries, including Australia, Mongolia, Hungary, France, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Ireland and Wales. Glaser said it is interesting to interact with the participants from around the world. At the same time, she said, there is an effort made to connect with people from urban areas as well. “Many people do not understand the challenges happening in the rural West,” she said. “We try to create conversation through paneled discussions to speak to controversial issues and allow for some cross-cultural dialogue.” During the rest of the year, outside of the poetry gathering, visitors can immerse themselves in the cowboy culture through the Western Folklife Center. The Wiegand Gallery features exhibits showcasing different folklife aspects. Regular jam sessions and dance classes are also popular. Whether it’s for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering or for a visit to the Western Folklife Center, Glaser encouraged people to stop in. “It’s a nice group of folks,” she said. “Plus, Elko is just a great town for good hospitality and a fun time.”

Learn more at westernfolklife.org.


Las Vegas Neon Museum

The Las Vegas strip is world renown for its dazzling array of neon glitz. But what happens when the lights burn out? “We collect those iconic signs of Las Vegas,” said Cynthia Warso, director of education and  engagement for the Las Vegas Neon Museum. “We collect, preserve, study and exhibit the signs.” The Neon Museum nonprofit was founded in 1996 and opened to the public in 2012. The museum features a visitors center inside the former La Concha Motel lobby. The signs are set up in an outdoor exhibit known as the Neon Boneyard. Guests view the signs as part of a guided tour. “We interpret the signs not just through a historical lens but through the arts,” Warso said. “We tell the stories of the signs. It’s a narrative experience.”

The museum collects both contemporary and historic signs as well as neon and non-neon signs. Warso said the signs can give people insight into the culture and time it was created. Some of the signs in the collection point to the first highways that came through the region. “The signs speak so much,” she said. “They show a time when middle-class America was starting to be able to access all of this adventure.” Graphic design, types of lights, typography, and other indicators help weave the story of the time and place the signs were erected. “They speak to American sensibilities and tastes at the time,” Warso said. “They reflect the trends of the region.” Las Vegas signs are in a category all their own. “Vegas is so unique in its architecture,” Warso said. “It’s that whole idea of a decorated shed. People get that sense of fantasy.”

Learn more at neonmuseum.org.