Reno’s annual month-long arts festival Artown is a summer staple in the Biggest Little City. Throughout July, artists, entertainers, and musicians from Reno and all over the world take over gallery spaces, stages, and public venues for weeks of artistic revelry.

One of the longstanding Artown traditions is the selection of an artist to create the poster—an image meant to visually distinguish each year’s festival while drawing on the themes and symbols of the region. This year’s poster was created by Steve Nighthawk, who is the first Native artist ever chosen for the honor.

Nighthawk is a lifelong resident of Northern Nevada, a descendant of the Northern Paiute and Shoshone tribes, and an enrolled member of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony. His career spans decades.

Steve Nighthawk. Photo: Eric Marks 

Appropriate to his name, he began his career drawing birds.

“I’m thinking back to elementary school,” he said. “For some reason or other, I was sketching birds. And it just kind of took off from there.”

Growing up on the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony reservation, Nighthawk said he never wanted for materials as a young artist, and the people around him who recognized his talent were quick to encourage him to pursue it.

Nighthawk is entirely self-taught, and works mostly in charcoal pencil and chalk pastel, occasionally experimenting with acrylic paint.

“I just picked it up talking with other artists and trying different techniques,” he said. “And there’s one thing I did find out—you never quit learning.”

Nature and the environment are Nighthawk’s main sources of inspiration—things that he associates closely with his Native culture. His images often incorporate the animals and landscapes he sees while spending time in the mountains, as well as Lake Tahoe and Pyramid Lake, two places of significant cultural and spiritual importance to Northern Nevada tribes.

“You learn something new every time you go out to go swimming or walking on the beach,” Nighthawk said. “There’s always stories that are going around, and it seems like there’s always the whole picture to draw.”

Nighthawk has been involved with Atown for years, he said, as both an attendee and a featured artist. This past December, the Artown board asked him to create this year’s poster. He spent about a month working on it.

The image features a traditional Northern Paiute woven basket with a silhouette of the Reno skyline in its center. Beneath the basket, an inter-tribal dancer is surrounded by a music staff, a Native hand drum, ballet shoes, and Western “comedy and tragedy” masks. The entire scene takes place below a picture of the Sierra Nevada skyline and a cloudy blue sky, with two red-tailed hawks circling above.

Photo: Eric Marks

Incorporating Native imagery was important to Nighthawk, not just as a matter of historical authenticity, but also as a reflection of traditional Native art styles that still exist today. 

“I paint and draw baskets, and that kind of artwork, if you will, have been here in the Great Basin for thousands of years,” he said. 

Seeing Paiute and Shoshone iconography on the Artown poster is, in Nighthawk’s words, “a milestone.” However, the other elements of the poster are meant to symbolize a meeting of cultures—a celebration of art, song, and dance all meeting beneath the Great Basin sky. 

“Artown is a really great event,” Nighthawk said. “Pulling all these people in from different parts of the country and the world, and showcasing different cultures and traditions—the list goes on and on, and I’m real proud to be part of it—even more so this year.”

Nighthawk, who is a member of the Great Basin Native Artists collective, said his goals for the future are simple: Keep making art. And he’d like more people to get the chance to make their own art—especially young people.

“I would like to see more interest given to the kids,” he said. “I don’t see much going on with the kids, as far as art instruction.”

More than anything though, Nighthawk hopes people are inspired to simply get involved with art in the area—whether through Artown or simply taking a personal interest in local artists and events.

“During during my art shows, I have more than a handful of people ask about tradition or culture, like, ‘What is this? Who is this, and where did they come from?’” he said. “And luckily, I’m able to answer most of their questions. Get out there. Support the art. Ask questions and learn.”

Artown opens today, Monday, July 1. The opening night celebration takes place in Wingfield Park in downtown Reno at 5:30 p.m., featuring Wolf Pack Taiko, Little Swan Dancers, and other local acts, followed by a concert at 7:30 p.m. by Washington DC-based folk band Scythian. Admission is free. More details here.

Steve Nighthawk will showing original work at Wingfield Park during the Artown Native American Celebration featuring Inuit music and dance act Pamyua at Wingfield Park on Wednesday, July 3 from 7:30-9 p.m.

A reception for Steve Nighthawk’s gallery work at the Sierra Arts Gallery is scheduled for Thursday, July 11 from 6-8 p.m.

Cover photo: Eric Marks

Posted by Matt Bieker

Matt Bieker is an award-winning photojournalist and native of Reno, Nevada. He received his degree in Journalism from the University of Nevada Reno in 2014, and currently covers arts & entertainment and community development in his hometown.