Reno – The third floor of the Nevada Museum of Art was a busy place Thursday around 4:00 p.m. Last minute preparations were underway for the opening of a first ever retrospective of the artwork of Jack Malotte. A steady procession of people climbed the stairs on their way to the usual First Thursday bash on the roof. Outside the Robert Z. Hawkins gallery on the third floor, the gathering crowd pressed me against what I thought was a wall but was actually the door of a massive elevator. The well-disguised door rose without making a sound. People wearing crisp white shirts and aprons emerged pushing stainless steel carts gingerly through the shifting maze of chatty people. Several workers carefully guided a car-sized, paint-spattered “man-lift” into the room-sized elevator having just completed hanging more than 200 pieces of Jack Malotte’s artwork. The space between people in the hallway outside the roped-off gallery became smaller with the passage of time as an expected crowd of 1,500 gathered to pay tribute to one of the most significant artists working in the Great Basin over the last half century.
The walls of two rooms are crowded with Malotte’s distinctive work in a mix of mediums. Before the exhibit was opened Thursday evening, the artist himself had not seen the entire collection in one place.
Amanda Horn is senior vice president of communications for the Nevada Museum of Art and said the museum prides itself on bringing together diverse Nevada voices and connecting them to the larger world.
Hear an audio interview with Amanda Horn.
“His work has always been so authentic and really tells the stories of not only his experience but the experience of being part of the Great Basin,” Horn said. “His work celebrates the Great Basin through landscapes, but he also uses his work as a way to communicate issues that not just indigenous peoples face, whether it’s atomic testing and environmental land rights issues, but issues that actually impact all of us. I think that that’s one of the reasons this work is so important. It’s just because it’s born from this deep authenticity, you know, Jack makes work to make it. He’s an artist, because he has to be and that really comes through the canvas.”
The number and power of over 200 Jack Malotte pieces in one place is a pleasant challenge for the senses and intellect. The gallery brims with energy.
“I think that Jack’s energy comes through in his prints in his graphics and his drawings and his murals,” Amanda Horn said when asked about the breadth and depth of the thoughtfully assembled retrospective. “And when you see how this exhibition has more than 200 works that really spanned four decades of his career, when you see all of that come together on the walls, it takes you across time and space, and you get really pulled into the depth of an artist’s life. You can see his evolution over time and different issues that he’s been interested in and concerned with, and I think that’s one of the things that makes it so special.”
Minutes before taking a private tour of the gallery, Jack Malotte smiled widely when he said he was tired from painting a mural on an external wall at the museum over the past five days. His daughter Cora was nearby and busy helping greet old friends and family. Malotte’s work often turns a Nevada landscape into a fantastical place where webs of lightning can emanate from half-imagined clouds. Huge feathers float around mountain tops having fallen from an eagle soaring above. Space and time are malleable in Malotte’s work. Growing up in Lee, Nevada near the Ruby Mountains, the places of Nevada have had a broad an indelible imprint on the artist.
Hear an audio interview with Jack Malotte.
“I spent most of my life here in Nevada,” the artist said when asked how the state’s landscape informs his art. “I’ve lived a bunch of different places in Nevada. The landscape’s always been here. I’ve hardly ever lived in the city. Here in Reno, I have. I’ve lived in like South Fork and places out in the country and now I live in Duckwater, which is, I don’t really have any neighbors. Well, I do. I know they’re there, but they never hear me. I don’t hear them. They’re about a quarter mile away on both sides, so I’m just by myself and I think about these things. I see the landscape and it … this is a different thing,” he said and then paused. “It’s more isolated than I’ve ever been before. Being out there in Duckwater.”
Even with an audio recorder running, Malotte was a natural and affable conversant given to laughter and said he has no problem spending time living alone far from population centers. He is a member of the Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone and growing up in the Elko area he saw the effects of mining on the land and water. The people of his tribe knew first-hand of the legal battles with mining companies encroaching on native lands.
Mallotte became famous for illustrations he did for the Seventh Generation Fund for Indigenous Peoples, the Western Shoshone Sacred Lands Association, and the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice. Many of the works featured in the exhibition are overtly political.
“The people that have been affected by this (mining), they’ve been my friends. I’m related to those people,” Malotte said when asked about his sense of activism. “It’s always been, it’s something I’ve always felt strongly about. I realize people have to work somewhere in the mines, or they’re providing jobs, but I just kind of think they should be more responsible in the polluting part and in the water too, because that’s, you know, we’re in a desert. And it’s even worse out there (around Elko).”
Jack Malotte’s activism and artwork merged for a while.
“It’s always been a part of, once I started thinking and seeing and running into people that are involved in that, and then it kind of tilted me towards doing illustrations for different organizations, and my artwork kind of went that way,” Malotte said. “That was at the time when I was running with a good crowd from Seventh Generation Fund, which is in California, and I was running with all those people and all those people on the board, and the people that were working there. They were all top people. I mean, they were just smart.
“They were like lawyers and judges and chiefs and just all these different people from all over Canada and all across the country. That’s who I worked with when I was doing illustrations for their magazine, for their newspaper called Native Self Sufficiency. Those are the people I was hanging with, so it made me even more … I got more educated in things,” Malotte said with a little smile. “It was all because of the people I was hanging with and running with. Because they were a smart bunch, and I wasn’t that smart” Malotte said laughing. “I was kind of like just starting to get my feel on that kind of stuff.”
Jack Malotte’s younger brother Alan drove from Lee to attend the exhibition opening. Alan said Jack drew constantly beginning in middle-school. Young Jack would oftentimes spend entire days working on a piece of artwork.
Hear an audio interview with Alan Malotte.
“Yeah, a lot of that stuff he’s got in there I seen him draw start to finish,” Alan said with a chuckle. Alan said he was excited to see the old works but even more excited to see the pieces he has never seen before.
“Some of that stuff is new to me. I never seen some of it,” he said.
Alan recalled his brother’s love of the outdoors and trips into the mountains around Lee when asked about what inspires his brother’s art.
“I don’t know its basis, but he’s always drawing landscapes,” Alan said. “He likes being out there. I used to go when we, when we were younger, we’d hike all over the place, and he’d take his sketchbook with him and he would you know, just ideas and everything and come back and then whip out a big piece of paper and have at it, and there it is, you know, it comes out. Yeah, pretty neat, just watching him do that.”
The Malotte exhibition is an act of curation that undoubtedly edifies and likely changes the artist. Amanda Horne said the exhibit will change the public.
“I think that the community will go away feeling different,” Horn said. “This isn’t about a museum of art. We really pride ourselves on being a public square, a place where all peoples can come together and walk into each other’s world and maybe be inspired by other people’s voices, be challenged to be inspired, and this exhibition does that in spades. We love celebrating the stories of Nevada and then seeing how those stories participate in a global conversation. Issues that people are dealing with here that you see across the greater West, and that’s very true in Jack’s work, especially when you look at things like atomic testing or water issues. And these are stories that resonate globally, and that’s really what we can offer as the Nevada Museum of Art is elevating these conversations that are rooted in a local and statewide identity but taking them up and helping them participate in a bigger context.”
Jack Malotte has been drawing and printmaking and making art for more than 40 years, and over that time the United States has seen five presidents, two Democrats and three Republicans. Has the nature of his artwork changed in shifting political contexts, especially in the United States today?
“I think it’s still the same,” Malotte said with a little resignation. “It’s still the same because those same issues are still here. It’s still the same I think, but the reason I do this anyway is just to see if I can make a difference. One person that changes thinking, tweak it you know, that’s just that, just one person … that’s all. I succeeded.”