This article is from our New-to-Nevada series, highlighting artists who have recently moved to the state.
believe I was born to become an artist,” said Avis Charley, a painter and ledger artist with the Spirit Lake Dakota and Navajo tribes. “I’ve tried walking away from it several times, and it always pulls me right back in.”
Charley’s gift for art began when she was a child. Growing up in Los Angeles, she would often win art contests in elementary school. But times were tough. “My mom was pretty much a single parent, so we grew up really poor,” she said.
At 13 years old, she discovered graffiti art. “That was my first art community,” she said. “I remember spray painting the wall for the first time, feeling this incredible force just come over me. And ever since then, I’ve kind of just been chasing that feeling.”
It was the Native elder and sculptor Oreland Joe who initially inspired her. “I remember hearing his story, how he’s Navajo like me, and doing monumental sculptures and painting, traveling all over the world getting art commissions,” Charley said. “I was thinking, well, if he could do it, I can do it. He opened my eyes to what we’re capable of as Native people.”
In 2018, she received her BFA in Studio Arts painting at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “That’s where my world view expanded, learning the history of our people,” she explained.
It was about 13 years ago that she met Terrance Guardipee, a Blackfeet Nation painter and ledger artist. “He shared with me his techniques and gave me a stack of antique ledger paper to begin with,” Charley said.
Ledger art flourished between 1860 and 1920. Originally, it was Plains Indians who used old ledger paper or accounting ledger books to draw pictures that memorialized their bravery in battle. Later, colored pencils, watercolor paints, crayons, and other tools came from traders, military officers and others. This new style of drawing and painting reached Native prisoners of war, some of whom had fought the U.S. Army to protect the last free herd of buffalo. Incarcerated Native artists produced hundreds of drawings depicting their lives as warriors. Those drawings are now in museums across the U.S.
“Our ancestors used to paint on animal hides, and share stories such as hunting scenes,” explained Charley. “But once colonization happened, they were no longer able to hunt, or have access to natural materials. They were put on reservations or imprisoned. But they improvised and used what was available—the discarded accounting ledger books.”
Charley is among a growing number of female ledger artists. “I’m a contemporary ledger artist bringing a woman’s perspective into this male dominated art form,” she explained. “I enjoy drawing mother-daughter images because I have a 14-year-old daughter. I started this art form because my mom passed away tragically 25 years ago.”
Over the years, she has been able to heal from the pain of losing her mother. “I started thinking about the women today that inspire me,” she said. “And that’s when I transitioned to oil painting and painting contemporary women.”
Art markets such as the popular Santa Fe Indian Market in New Mexico have responded favorably to her work, and become a major source of income for her. “Within the Native art community, we have art markets throughout the year,” she said. She normally does three or four shows annually at museums such as the Autry Museum in Los Angeles, the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis, and Heard Museum in Phoenix. “The art markets are a way that I can support my family,” she said. “I travel and keep 100 percent of our sales.” She now has collectors worldwide. Her upcoming shows include the Orenda Art International in Paris, France.
Charley had been living in Santa Fe until she moved to Las Vegas in 2022—somewhat unexpectedly. “I moved out here to help family,” she said. “And have been enjoying it way more than I thought I would.” But how to connect with the local art scene? She remembered a few years back meeting Fawn Douglas, a member of the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe known for her activism and community service. “I saw that she was having an opening so I went with my daughter,” Charley said. It turned out to be a soft opening for the buildings and land of the new Nuwu Art Gallery and Community Center. Fawn was the new director.
“I was applauding her as a Native woman, just taking those big steps. And so impressed and inspired. So I reached out to her and asked if she ever has a studio space open to please let me know.” Just months later, she heard from Fawn that a space was available.
“With my paintings, it’s always applauding the different avenues we take as Native women to stay connected to our community and culture, whether through art, activism, academia, power dancing, or ceremonies,” Charley said—a timely applause in this Women’s History Month.
Images courtesy of Avis Charley. You can learn more on her website and follow her @avischarley on Instagram.