Being unique, having moments of uncomfortableness and pushing oneself has culminated into a growing business for local Navajo artist Jonas Smiley.
“I’ve always wanted to be different,” said Jonas Smiley, a multi-media artist from Tuba City, Arizona, who uses inspiration from his Navajo identity when creating art.
Smiley said he likes using numerous mediums in his work, such as woodworking and digital illustration, more recently, he has gotten into printing. Also known as “Jay Smiley” across social media, he actively posts new content of projects he is taking part in.
“I’m basically an all-around artist. I do it all,” said Smiley, “I’m most known for my painting.”
Pointing out his heritage, Smiley is proud to be full-blooded Navajo, talking about how growing up on a Native American reservation has shaped him.
“I really take a lot of my art and ideas from me being a Native American,” said Smiley, “It was ingrained into me.”
He said when he was growing up, he saw all kinds of art on pottery, rugs, and jewelry.
“I had to remember who I am. I had to remember my tribal identity,” said Smiley. “My parents always told me, “don’t ever forget your clans, that is who you are.’”
Smiley said he really started working on his painting technique about 10 years ago. Since then, his works has been shown in art galleries in Phoenix, such as Roosevelt Row, as well as Downtown Mesa.
“To this day, it’s in my work,” said Smiley, “and a lot of the designs that you see in my work, you can see also in Navajo jewelry and Navajo rugs.”
Smiley’s work, as well as other Indigenous artists, can be found at Scottsdale’s Native Art Market, which is hosted at Talking Stick Pavilions — a part of the Salt-River Pima Maricopa Indian Community.
When he was not on the “rez” with his family, he found himself traveling, said Smiley. This is how many of his works were able to be seen across the Valley, as well as New Mexico.
“There was a moment for a while, I was moving with my art,” said Smiley, “so wherever my art took me, that’s where I would be living.”
Most of his early works are what prompted him into developing his art skills.
In fact, the first time he ever used paint was 2007 in front of a night club crowd. And since then, Smiley’s live performances landed him in various night clubs throughout Scottsdale, Phoenix, and Tempe.
“One of my friends had this little setup at a nightclub in Scottsdale back in 2007,” said Smiley, “he would also have an easel and a blank canvas ready to paint.”
“One night, I was there just chillin’ and he was like, ‘Yo, I gotta be on the decks all night. There’s a blank canvas right there. You want to jump on it?”” said Smiley, “and I’m just like, ‘what?’”
“It was a 24-by-36 size dimension,” said Smiley, “and you know what? I just jumped on it.”
He said he continued to paint at his friend’s nightclub because he enjoyed the feedback and encouragement he received when performing in front of crowds.
“It kick-started the whole art thing, and I always got a good vibe from it,” said Smiley.
Smiley was born on Native American land and aims to portray his origins and upbringing, as well as his path to healing, throughout his work. He said there were a lot of challenges he faced growing up on the reservation.
“Alcohol is a huge thing here in the Native American communities. The poverty level here is just crazy. The crime rate here is crazy. The addiction problem here is huge,” said Smiley.
“It’s okay to be uncomfortable,” said Smiley, “that uncomfortable feeling has guided, inspired and motivated me to get out of those feelings and the only way to do that was through my art.”
“My work was really healing in that way,” said Smiley.
Editor’s Note: Samia Salahi is a student journalist at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications.
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