It was an influential moment as an artist for Johnny Bear Contreras, sitting atop Palatine Hill in Rome, listening to the creation story of the Italian people.
“All I could think about after that story was, ‘Where is all our statuary that celebrates our Indigenous perspective and customs and traditions,’” he recalled. “‘It’s missing and I must start making all place markers of our peoples as soon as I get back.’ It’s these moments that steeled my path.”
Contreras is a sculptor and a member of the San Pasqual Band of Mission Indians, one of 13 bands in the Kumeyaay nation, and his work is among that of seven other Indigenous artists being featured from 1 to 5 p.m. today and Sunday at Exclusive Collections Gallery in Solana Beach, in celebration of Native American Heritage Month. A full-time artist since 2002, he previously worked as a journey carpenter and currently creates pieces in resin casting and aluminum. He has six new pieces being featured in this exhibition.
Contreras, 59, lives on the San Pasqual Valley Reservation in Valley Center with his partner, Christy, and has three children, Brittany, Daniel and Jeremy. He took some time to talk about his artwork, the importance of telling the stories of Indigenous peoples, and how the stories he heard from his uncles helped shape his point of view.
Q: How did you become involved in this event/exhibition at Exclusive Collections Gallery?
A: I became involved the minute I became a professional artist with my first public commission back in 1996. What I mean by that is, even with my first piece of public work, I was letting it be known that there are stories worth telling and sharing about our customs and traditions. I was a young elder, lol (that’s a “Reservation Dogs” reference). … It’s going to a great gathering of native art and souls.

Q: Why was this exhibition something you wanted to do?
A: I’ve been on this art path for almost 30 years, and I haven’t really done the gallery showings. I’ve been pretty busy with public art and private commissions, so, for me, it’s a chance to be creating multiple pieces that will take into account all of the nooks and crannies of my artist mind. This will be a chance to share with art lovers from all walks of life.
The fact that I have a deep canyon nearby and it provides lots of bird viewings. All of my family is around me as we all live on the rezy. Most of all, I love all my relations. Eyaay ahuun!

Q: How many of your pieces will be on display this weekend?
A: I have six new pieces and several versions of one, “I’m No Tonto, [F—] The Lone Ranger.” The other pieces are “Missing 43” and “California Poppies.” They were all created within the past year.
The first piece is speaking of how the Native person could literally be called “stupid” (“tonto” is Spanish for “stupid”) and it was perfectly unnoticed and recreated time and time again. Even when the original show of “The Lone Ranger” aired in Spain, they had the respect to change the Native person’s name to El’toro.

“Missing 43” speaks to the missing students [from the teachers’ college in the town of Ayotzinapa in Mexico, who disappeared on Sept. 26, 2014, after commandeering buses to go to a protest rally]. It has a special place for me because I can’t imagine what the parents have gone, and are going, through.
In “California Poppies,” I love the connection between our everyday cultural practices and nature. This is my attempt to bring the two together, featuring the beauty and strength of our Native women and the color of the California poppy.
Q: What does it mean to you to have your work included in this show, alongside other Indigenous artists?

A: “Proud” is the first word that comes to mind. Whenever brothers and sister gather, it’s going to be a good time.
Q: What is it that you want to convey/communicate through the pieces that you’re including in this showing?
A: That there is a critical path in our thoughts and intent, and to be recognized as a contemporary people who are always growing and learning. We’re not just stuck between the pages of history. Indigenous peoples have contributed to fine art for as long as recorded time, and many times it is lost and their contributions are marginalized.

Q: Can you talk about how your lived experiences have informed the way that you approach creating art?
A: I built my home and my studio on the reservation in 2004 and 2006, for the exact purpose of being an example to other potential artisans, and in the hope of inspiring some fellow Natives to get involved in the fine arts. My experiences have ebbed and flowed. Some of the stories are still culminating, working their way to the surface. Other ideas shoot to the top like fireworks. Sometimes, it’s the politics up here on the rezy that fire me up to get some work done, but it’s mostly the day-to-day grind and struggles we go through as a village that has literally always been for time immemorial. That works for me, when I feel uninspired or just kind of missing a beat. I will go to some gatherings here on the rezy and my mind will reel and I have to race back to the studio to get my new ideas on paper or clay. We have a custom here on the rezy called “singing bird,” or bird songs. It takes place at social events and, as I was told, the sound reaches deep into you as it has always done for all those who came before you, so you should feel reinvigorated and connected. It’s at this type of event that I come away feeling the best that one can feel.
Q: How did you get started as a visual artist?

A: I have always enjoyed stories from my uncles, especially my uncle Raymond Belardes and the way he always welcomed those who struggled into the sweat lodge. This detail is pertinent because it made me stop to consider the perspectives of others who were struggling from day to day, while I was moving along pretty much carefree. It made me a listener and a teller of stories. I’m a storyteller, I will elaborate on anything I can get my mind around, whether that’s celebrating life’s ups and downs, or just an abstract idea that may not have a clear definition.
Q: How would you describe your point of view as an artist?
A: Grounded in the day-to-day grind of my culture and my village. Sometimes I get some ideas from that, but for now there are way too many stereotypes about our Indigenous brethren to dispel.

Q: How would you like to see people acknowledge and engage with Native American heritage and history?
A: Ask questions of what hasn’t been taught in public schools and universities (Palomar College and San Marcos University are exceptions as they have great Native programs).
Q: What’s been challenging about your work as an artist?

A: To narrow down what to do first. Now that I’m approaching 60, it’s a race to get it all in. As far as a challenge, I’ve managed to overcome some great odds just being recognized as a practicing, Indigenous artist. I grew up in the middle of prejudice in the ‘70s, and it’s tempered me into what I am today.
Q: What’s been rewarding about this work?
A: To see the next generation engaged enough to ask questions on the topics I choose to address.

Q: What has this work taught you about yourself?
A: That I have a lot to learn, to question everything, and to continue on the path that nature provides you with. Do what you love, love what you do, and some day people will remember you for what you have done.
Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

A: That your time is limited, so be sure on who and what you spend it on. And, don’t become insulated in your work, but stay connected to the souls around you.
Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?
A: I’m a birder. I love watching all the different species we have here in San Diego.

Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.
A: A cold drink in hand and strolling along the exhibits at the [San Diego Zoo] Safari Park. Then, a dinner in Carlsbad and a sunset at the beach.
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