By Jean Merz-Edwards
Visiting with us from her home studio in San Francisco, California, mixed-media artist Geralyn Montano (Navajo/Comanche) shares thoughts on the current social and economic climate in the Bay Area. A graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute, Montano uses provocative imagery inspired by personal experiences that relate to feminist and cultural themes in her work. She currently works as a teaching artist at Creativity Explored, a nonprofit organization that helps artists with developmental disabilities.
What is the cultural and social climate like in the Bay Area now?
In San Francisco, it seems like everything has come to a cultural standstill. Places like museums are closed, and businesses like the San Francisco Art Institute are going under. There’s also not a lot happening with art, dance or music. People have cut out all socializing. It was hard in the beginning. The first weekend the parks were full. But everybody is now accepting that they must shelter in place. Everyone is on edge and nervous, yet, at the same time, they’re friendly. We are finding this virus and economic collapse to be a common thread in our lives.
How is the Native art scene in San Francisco these days?
When I moved back here around twelve years ago, there wasn’t much happening. I got connected with the Indigenous Arts Coalition, but they have since dispersed and moved around in a way that I don’t have contact with them anymore. A lot of Native American artists have moved out of the Bay Area because of how the dotcoms have driven up housing costs.
The San Francisco Arts Commission offers a Native American grant. Before Kim Shuck (Cherokee Nation) left last year, she did some amazing things with the Native American arts community through the San Francisco Arts Commission. She had an all–Native American art show, [The Continuous Thread], and she was involved with the city getting them to take down the sculpture Early Days. It represented racist stereotypes: A Native American man down on the ground gazing up toward the conquering European figures of a missionary priest and a vaquero (Spanish cowboy). When the city removed it, they had a ceremony at night for the Native Americans who live in the Bay Area. There was a light show with filming on the walls in the place where the statue had been.
Have you found any specific coping mechanisms beneficial through the so-called lockdown?
It’s me and my chihuahua. I take her out once in the morning and once in the evening. I journal, especially if I cannot sleep. I listen to music, read, and listen to audiobooks. Lately, I’ve been listening to Albert Camus’s The Plague. It’s an existential novel about human resilience in the face of a horrific pandemic—the plague. He talks about rats, because the rats brought the plague. I sketch in my sketchbook, and it’s been filled with images of dead rats. Embracing fear has been beneficial to me. It’s a great coping mechanism.
Where are you able to continue you work with members of your community?
Another thing that helps reorient and stabilize is my job. I work for a place called Creativity Explored where I teach art to developmentally disabled adults. Since the building closed, we continue to work with the artists remotely. Their heads are spinning, because they don’t understand what is happening. I can imagine how scared they are right now. I call them for emotional support, and I’ve just started doing some mail art project with a few of my students. It’s like the exquisite corpse practice from the Surrealists. I draw half of something and mail it to them, and they draw something and mail it back to me. The center has a gallery and the works will probably be exhibited after it opens back up.
I also like to volunteer with organizations that center around women’s issues in relation to Native American culture. I went through a domestic violence course when I lived in Seattle
and then answered their phones. I started reading on human trafficking and sex trafficking and found out it was happening on Native reservations. I created a whole series around this theme. I worked at a trafficking shelter in the Bay Area doing an art workshop. I just did a talk at the university for the Global Women’s Rights Forum at USF (University of San Francisco) about the series, the issues in the Native community, and how it relates to the missing and murdered Indigenous women. I consider human trafficking modern colonization.
How is the situation affecting your creative process?
At the beginning of the shelter-in-place order, my creative process came to a standstill. I was disoriented … always checking the news or on my family. Then we had the economic collapse. Talk about existential experience. I started thinking, What am I doing all of this for? Does making art matter? People are out of work and hungry and getting sick. Now I’m doing better. We are all connected. I refocus on things that I enjoy and am grateful for what I have.