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This artist is Navajo, but don't call his work 'Native American art'

Artist John Feodorov in his West Seattle home
KUOW Photo/Marcie Sillman
Artist John Feodorov in his West Seattle home

John Feodorov is Native American. And he’s an artist. But don’t call his work “Native American art.”

“Not everything I want to say needs to be adorned with beads and feathers,” he says.

But Feodorov is always conscious of his Navajo heritage.

“That’s the lens I see the world through,” he says. “I think it would be not only disingenuous but also absurd to not acknowledge that.”

Feodorov was born in suburban Los Angeles, the son of a Caucasian father and a Navajo mother.

After his parents split up when he was 10, Feodorov lived with his mom in Whittier, California.

“When I was a little kid,” he says, “we went to the Navajo Club. She’d dress me up, I’d sing and dance. It was an urban cultural survival thing.”

Unlike the other Navajos he met in L.A., Feodorov’s family were Jehovah’s Witnesses. That, plus his mixed-race heritage, set the boy apart from his peers.

“I was all contradiction, you know? And I think that really screwed me up.”

[asset-images[{"caption": "Navajo Land, a painting by John Feodorov.", "fid": "134063", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201702/navajo_land_1_300.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Courtesy of John Feodorov"}]]By the time he finished high school, Feodorov had rejected his Jehovah’s Witness faith. He says he replaced religion with art. He didn’t have much formal training, nor strong family support, but Feodorov pursued art to explore both his own identity, and some of the pressing political issues of the day.

Feodorov has maintained those dual pursuits over the past four decades.

He writes on his website that his work explores the “longing for spiritual (re)connection that can be easily exploited by charlatans, corporations and political forces.”

Although he doesn’t use much in the way of traditional Navajo imagery or design, Feodorov’s cultural heritage infuses much of his visual art — from paintings of his grandparents’ traditional hogan adjacent to a uranium mine; to a mixed media piece called “Cultural Appropriation,” that features a page from a beading how-to manual; to a series of paintings collectively titled “Emergence,” which depict imagery from the Navajo reservation.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Emergence, a painting by John Feodorov.", "fid": "134064", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201702/emergence_7_300final.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Courtesy of John Feodorov"}]]While he may not work in traditional Native idioms, Feodorov is critical of non-Native artists who appropriate those designs in their own work. Now an art professor at Western Washington University’s Fairhaven College, Feodorov says students often ask if it’s okay to borrow imagery from other cultures.

“I can’t understand the artist that needs to do that, you know?” Feodorov says. “Many people approach me, and say, ‘I wish I had a culture.’ Just turn on the TV!”

Even after 40 years making art, the question of cultural identity is still top of mind for Feodorov, in his roles as teacher and artist.

For him, art isn’t merely about self-expression, or social criticism. Feodorov knows it sounds a little hokey, but he hopes art can be a bridge between communities. In the current political climate, he says, we need to find common ground.

“Not to try to preach,” Feodorov says, “but to find commonality, so art is not just a conversation piece for the privileged.”