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San Carlos Artist CC Curley remains rooted as her art soars

Carrie (CC) Curley took part in a collaborative effort led by the vision of Lucinda "La Morena" Hinojos. The 9,500 square foot mural was commissioned by the NFL for the 2023 Super Bowl and can be seen in downtown Phoenix. Courtesy photo

“Art can tap into something… It can stop you in a moment and make you feel something.” Carrie Curley

At age 33, Carrie “CC” Curley left life on the reservation with her spray paint, brushes, and Xacto knife, intent to bring light to community struggles.

CC’s black and white painting of an Apache Woman contributed to a huge collaborative effort celebrating the indigenous people of Arizona. Courtesy photo

“You don’t know what is next, but your spirit is telling you it’s time to move on,” CC muses. 

“The Creator has opened a door, and who would have guessed it would be to Phoenix?”

A year later, Curley has adapted to the fast-paced city life and has many “beautiful projects” that keep her busy. In addition to mural work, she’s been traveling with her “creative resistance” team, creating banners for climate justice week, and participating via Zoom to support a community garden on the reservation.

Last month the San Carlos native was honored with the 2023 Dr. Eugene Grigsby Visual Artist Award by the Phoenix Center for the Arts. One of four Mayor’s Art Awards, the honor is named for its first recipient, an artist and art educator renowned for his advocacy of African and African American art and his interest in the plurality of cultures. 

“This is recognition for the work she’s done,” says Eunique Yazzie, co-founder of Cahokia, a collective of artists, designers, and social entrepreneurs.

“Being able to work closely with her, I was able to see not just her skill set but the reason she does her art.”

CC Curley, the 2023 recipient of the Dr. Eugene Grigsby Visual Artist Award. Pictured (l-r): CC’s Aunt Marcy, CC, CC’s Uncle Philip, CC’s mother Selina, CC’s cousin Mahalia. Courtesy Photo

The Art of Collaboration

“CC is a giving spirit. She is able to collaborate. She is an activist. She is a hard worker,” says Eunique, who also serves on the downtown art board. 

Eunique was born in Chinle, a part of the Navajo Nation, and moved to Phoenix in the early 2000s to attend school to become a designer. On Indigenous Peoples Day 2021, she co-founded Cahokia. Its mission is to collaborate on projects with generational impact. They often partner with Phoenix Center for the Arts, providing collaborative space and artist recruitment.

“Indigenous people have lived on this land for thousands of years,” says Eunique. “It’s important that their perspective is amplified through public art.”

One Cahokia/Phoenix Center for the Arts partnership is BIPOC Arts, a program that trains artists of different backgrounds to develop curriculum and teach others. The program emphasizes the healing and therapeutic benefits of art and prepares artists for employment in youth and elder facilities. CC is enrolled in the program and excited about its potential.

“I water my roots for the younger generation to be proud of who they are,” she says.

Earlier this year, both women took part in a huge collaborative project: a mural commissioned by the NFL for the 2023 Super Bowl 2023. The ambitious effort was led by the vision of Lucinda “La Morena” Hinojos.

CC points out that people don’t see the trials that went into creating the piece – they see only the finished work. To paint the 9,500-square-foot mural on the side of the Monarch Theater, the team used three rigs to move the artists up and down. It took coordination, coping with cold weather and clogged spray paints, and artists being holstered on a four-story rig. CC was the first artist to climb on.

“Always with prayer,” she says. “My family taught me to be confident in every space I’m in.”

The mural, a bright desert landscape, features diamond-studded mountains honoring the 22 indigenous tribes of Arizona. In the foreground is a young Apache woman, painted mostly in black and white, and dressed in a camp dress. The woman was modeled after CC’s sister.

“I paint women,” CC says. “They are the backbone of our culture.” 

During the course of their collaborations, CC invited Eunique to her home in San Carlos, to experience the Apache culture. 

“Growing up, I always thought there were vast differences—different languages, different creation stories, different beliefs,” Eunique says. “But when I was able to go into her community, I could see the similarities. I was amazed how similar we were as a community.”

San Carlos native, CC Curley—pictured with her mother Celina and partner Stephanie—was honored with the 2023 Dr. Eugene Grigsby Visual Artist Award by the Phoenix Center for the Arts. Courtesy Photo

Early Influences

Most people think of Geronimo when they think of Apache warriors. CC paints Lozan, the female warrior who fought alongside him. 

“I come from a line of praying warriors,” says CC.

Her mother, Selina, is a seamstress and designs traditional camp dresses for the young Apache women for their sunrise ceremonies. While her mother puts her prayer into the making of each dress, CC takes photos, capturing the way the fabric moves as the women walk and dance on the Earth.

CC began making art as a little girl—charcoal drawings for her family. She began painting in her mid-teens. CC was the cartoonist for the school paper at Globe High and was asked to paint her first mural there. 

In 2015, CC earned an Associates of Arts degree in Art through Eastern Arizona College. She painted a work called Apache Blue. She had a solo art show in October 2012 at Vide e Caffe in Globe, and her art was featured on the poster for the annual Apache Jii festival. The following February, Curley’s work was showcased at the Navajo Nation Museum, and in 2015 she helped artists Thomas Greyeyes and Vansler Nosie paint a water tank mural as part of the “Honor the Treaties, Water Is Life ” campaign on the San Carlos Apache reservation.

Then, for eight years, Curley focused on farming and did little painting. She served as vice president of Nalwoodi Denzhone (“Strength and Beauty”) Community, a 501(c)3 non-profit operating on the San Carlos Apache Reservation. 

The time was critical, Curley says, for making the connection to Mother Earth.

“Art is very holistic. The time was for me to learn about seeds.” 

During the pandemic, the seeds and squash the community grew were used to feed people. It’s also making its way back into the ceremonies, back to the sunrise dance.

“Everyone is praying and dancing,” CC says. “And the food is grown on the land.”

Carrie Curley spent 8 years farming on the reservation. The time was critical, she says, for learning about seeds, color and her connection to Mother Earth. Courtesy Photo

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