There is something very intriguing about San Carlos artist Carrie Curley. Perhaps it is the eloquent way she speaks, her voice soft yet strong. Perhaps it is her artistic mystique. Or perhaps it is because this modest artist is a rare find on the Apache reservation, being both female and a painter. And at 24, she is quite accomplished.
If you were in Globe earlier this fall, there is a good chance you have seen Curley’s work around town. She designed this year’s Apache Jii Day poster. It is a painting of a beautiful young Apache woman. That’s Curley’s cousin Maria.
In October, Curley had her first art showing at Vida E Caffe in downtown Globe. Globe Miami Times happened to be there, and the place was packed.
Like any artist’s tool, Curley’s brush is her voice box.
“[To me] creating means freedom to express yourself in any form, any way you want,” Curley says.
“I’m trying to do good for my people as an artist,” she continues. “When I pick up my brush it’s all there for people to recognize how I feel.”
Her message is clear in the painting “Usen, bi chiih’i kii,” which was on display at the October show. The piece is broken up onto four canvases fitted together. It depicts the train ride that took the Apaches to Fort Sill when they were captured in 1886. From the steam of the train arises words like “warriors,” “prayers” and “sickness.”
“It just came to my head that I show this to the people, that this needs to be recognized,” she recalls. “It had a lot of meaning to me in my heart to get that out there on canvas, the whole finished product. I cried after I was done.”
“I hope that people do remember that, the hardship that our ancestors went through, and how they were treated,” she adds. “Not all history is beautiful, but it’s history.”
Above all, her greatest inspiration is her culture. The songs, the feathers, the beads, the clothing,
the hair, the dancing – all of it. Her cousin’s Sunrise Dance, or coming of age ceremony, inspired her piece “Womanhood,” which she made last year.
Apache women are often the focus of Curley’s work, dancing at ceremonies or wearing their traditional camp dresses.
“Apache women don’t really seem to get recognized out there, I guess, as fierce, as warriors,” she says. “But there are female warriors out there in the world; I’m sure there is one in every culture. For us, it was Lozen.”
Lozen was a female Apache warrior who fought alongside Geronimo against the Mexicans and Americans in the Apache wars. She took on duties typically done by men, like firing guns and riding horses.
“It inspires me a lot… the warriors that we are,” she continues. “And I try to embrace that in art too, being as that I am a female. I try to show other young ladies to hold that spirit and be fierce.”
Her pieces “Carriers of Life” and “Journey of the Women,” which were shown with her other workat Vide E earlier this year, will be shown again in February at the Ziindi Vol. 1.2 opening art show, an all-female artist exhibition at the Navajo Nation Museum. Curley is still new to displaying her work publicly, and she was not expecting to participate.
Nonetheless, with the encouragement of her mother and friends, she submitted her work and was one of ten indigenous females selected to showcase her art.
Though publicity is relatively new to her, art is not. She has been drawing since she was young, starting with the holiday cards she made for her shima (‘mother’ in Apache) when she was little. Three years ago, she picked up the paintbrush.
“Just like anything, I was intimidated by it,” she remembers. But then she began stroking, and things simply fell into place.
These days, she draws from an eclectic collection of artists for inspiration, adoring both the aged and modern. Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo are as influential to her as graffiti artists Pose, Seven, and ’80s graffiti artist Seen, as well as her friends and fellow painters on the reservation. Often times she will tie Day of the Dead into her work, even though Apaches are not big on death, she says.
“Some people get scared by it, or they question it a lot,” she says. “But to me, it’s beautiful… We do have a lot of warriors and ancestors that we need to remember and recognize [for] what they fought for and died for.”
Sometimes a painting will take just two days to complete. The design she made for Apache Jii Day took several months. Regardless, each one is preceded with prayer and thought.
“I really have to be in that moment to paint, just feel the painting, because I do, it just comes to me,” she says.
The material matters less. The surface could be wood, a canvas, or if she’s feeling particularly spontaneous, a wall, like a piece she made on the wall by the train tracks. Typically she uses acrylic, charcoal, spray cans and paint markers. But hearing music is a must. That means having the right playlist: Erykah Badu, Mos Def, Common, Los Lobos, Navajo and Apache pow wow songs, jazz, whatever it takes to get her in a good mood and hyped to paint.
The first time she ever painted outside of her studio, her room, was during the first Poets on the Rez, a monthly poetry and music event that has been held at Gila County Community College for the last year.
“I was so nervous that night,” she remembers. “Man I was really nervous. It was the first time I got up in front of people, and I was scared, petrified of what people would think of me painting.”
But she put on her headphones and did it anyway. As an artist, Poets on the Rez became a huge outlet for Curley. The painting she created that first night now hangs in the office on campus.
The community college is where Curley also works and goes to school. She is has a little more than a semester left until she receives her AA degree in the arts, which she began pursuing in 2007. When she is not in class, she works part time as a custodian there. She is a recognized face on campus, and several of her pieces hang on the walls around the campus.
“This is like my home away from home,” she says cheerfully outside of one of the classrooms. Once, work and school took a toll on her artwork. That is no longer the case.
“Now I see a change, that art is taking over my life,” she says. “But that’s something I want.”
Although she is making a name for herself, Curley has no plans to leave San Carlos.
“I am really blessed to be here, being a Native American and being raised on the reservation. I don’t think there’s nothing like it,” she says. “The pure unique beauty, and the air, the cleanest air by far you’ll ever see… It’s a simple life, and I couldn’t ask for more.”
That said, expect to see more of her work around town soon.
This article was posted on line in 2018 and is a reprint of the original feature story published in the Winter of 2013.