Yatika Starr Fields on sharing Indigenous wisdom through life-size art

Portrait of man in front of mural background

In celebration of Indigenous culture and colour, the Tulsa artist has created a special mural for the rooftop of Soho House New York

By Landon Peoples    Directed by Jean Claude Billmaier    Photography direction by Josh Herzog    Produced by Mohammad Rabaa    Editing and post-production by JCB Haus    Colour grading by Sam Howells    Sound mixing by Bobb Barito

For many artists, storytelling – though it may not involve direct action – is as much a form of activism as marching, protesting, or lobbying the triumvirate for change. In 2020, where we saw photography and art as conduits through which to engage new voters insistent on being a part of new systems, the stroke of a paintbrush took on a larger meaning. For Native American muralist Yatika Starr Fields, for instance, creating art for Soho House New York with Bombay Sapphire wasn’t just a chance to see his work at new heights – it was an opportunity to share symbolism and motifs of Indigenous culture in ways that go beyond colour or shapes.

‘There’s a certain atmosphere within Soho House where the mural acts as a place for people to come and gather,’ says Fields. ‘They want to relax, they want to swim… And then you have a skyline and the Hudson River behind it. You have clouds that move over it. There are a lot of other things that are navigating around this wall. I want people to feel like they're being pulled into it, so that they can just float along with this mural that I created, because it opens up a new atmosphere and new space.’

Below, the Tulsa-based artist shares his techniques for using rough city walls as his canvas, his intimate relationship with colour, and why love is at the heart of everything he does.

Portrait of man standing in front of brightly coloured mural

What individual elements outside of aesthetics did you want to include in the mural?

‘We thought of it as a bouquet. I think we all have our own personal bouquets of things that are important to us. I wanted to bring something unique, then come up with a beautiful bouquet for Soho House and give my heart to an area that I’m also fond of.

‘But I also wanted to add elements of culture into it. Being a Native American artist and painter, I like to kind of look back at history. And if I can give back to that place – specifically speaking that this is Manhattan and that within Manhattan you have a past here – then hell, yeah.

‘I wanted to add a Bird of Paradise flower, because I think it’s one of the most beautiful flowers out there and I’ve always wanted to paint one. I wanted to paint the wampum shell, the quahog shell, which was from the East Coast, as it was used as currency within Manhattan from local tribes in the New York area. And it’s a shell that grows only in the Eastern Seaboard, as well. By painting those purple, white and black, I infuse [the mural] with something that’s from the East Coast, something that was used on Manhattan Island that goes back to Native identity.

‘I also added porcupine quills, which is something that I add in a lot of my public art pieces and murals, just because I think they’re good composition holders. And to establish the connection between Native aesthetics and how we create our beautiful artwork in our regalia, the band in the middle is an armband that we wear in our Osage ceremonial dances.’

Tropical flower in vase
Roof top pool shot taken from above with people on sun loungers and mural paining on back wall

Tell us about your relationship with colour.

‘A lot of my work is very colourful; there’s a lot of spontaneity in it. I like to think that the colours I choose come from my understanding of who I am within my Native American culture. I grew up with our traditional dances, going to ceremonies... We have beautifully adorned regalia that’s very colourful and meant to be worn with movement. As a painter who has grown up around that, I think I’ve gravitated towards it.

Colours can be felt, seen, and heard. And I want this mural to sing to someone – to give them new energy, light and happiness to move forward in a new direction.’

Is there a science to painting on such a rough surface?

‘The process heading into this was going to be using spray paint, but the corrugation of the metal kind of provided a challenge for me, because there are so many surface edges. When you’re spraying, you have to move your hand almost in tandem with the curves of it. If you don't, the spray paint is going to hit one section, fly off and overspray another area very easily. So, you have to move your hand in different ways to really finesse the curves of it. But after a while, I got the hang of it.’

What’s your goal as an artist whose backdrops are some of the biggest culture hubs of the world?

‘I’m trying to change the dynamics and bring in artists of colour to create not storyless murals, but stories that hold dialogue and conversation for the real truth. Cities have that and that’s what I’ve always loved. There are a lot of people in cities who need to see art and feel inspired. There's a beautiful network, and that's one of the things I love about it. It doesn't matter where [you are] in the world, you're going to find an artist.

‘As I’ve gotten more mature with who I am and what my work is, I see the need and purpose to refine that – to tell a story about who I am as an individual, who this country is as a place, and the problems that are affecting the people of my community. I think activism and art go hand in hand. Activism is an act of survival. I’m an activist by birth. I’m someone that comes from a lineage of strong individuals; Native Americans who have fought for me to be here to tell a story. These are the things that I talk about in my work. I talk about the importance of survival, and that’s going to give someone strength. Maybe I haven’t seen or met them yet, but they will see my work and feel that.’

You’ve spoken a bit about a love for your culture and art. How have you put love into the pieces and can people take love out of them for themselves?

‘Love is very unique for an individual, and how many people are on the planet is how many definitions of love we have. And I think it changes constantly from learning and mistakes, and so forth.

‘We’ve had to come through a tough year. It’s a nation and world that’s in global mourning, and we can’t forget that. We need to be loved and hold high the beautiful aspects of life. I think artists are key players in this conversation. In doing the mural, I understand that. And for each piece that I create, I’m working at 100%. There’s no piece of art or mural that’s going to be half done or half fulfilled from my ability, and from my heart, if it’s going to have my name on it.

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