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asket Memory, the current show by Melissa Melero-Moose (Northern Paiute), is a collection of paintings that participate in abstraction, without being defined by it—paintings built up on physical objects embedded in their surfaces: pine nuts, willows, and in one piece, bullet casings. Tactile abstraction. The objects are gathered, glued to the canvas, and then worked over in a series of acrylic washes—as many as 40 or 100—in a process that could almost be called sedimentary.

Melero-Moose, based in Hungry Valley—a quiet, suburban swatch of tribal land about 15 miles of downtown Sparks—earned a BFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico and a bachelor of science in psychology and fine arts from Portland State University in Oregon. Her work was recently exhibited at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., as part of the show The Land Carries Our Ancestors, featuring work by contemporary Native American artists, and she also has work in the permanent collection of the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian Institution.

I had the opportunity to talk to Melero-Moose about her paintings in a wide-ranging conversation that touched on color, process, tradition, and the complications of gathering. Below, my comments on the work are in italics, and Melero-Moose’s comments follow. They have been lightly edited for flow and clarity.

“Basket Memory,” 2024, mixed media with pine nuts on canvas, 36×48”    

Palette

I first asked her about the palette of the show. The paintings share a commonality of hue—earthy browns, yellows and reds, offset with aquatic blues and greens.

I’m thinking about my view from my yard. It’s just the desert and the sagebrush—and different seasons bring different colors. I’m always focused on my surroundings. And when I was away from Nevada, I was always thinking of the lakes—Lake Tahoe and Pyramid Lake.

I live by Pyramid Lake. I spent a lot of time there as a kid, and up here as well, Tahoe. Water is so important to tribal people—and to everybody, to all people. It’s life. So, it’s always coursing through—palette-wise—my colors.

“Where We Exist I (top),” 2023, mixed media on canvas, 30”x40”

Washes

The colors in the paintings have a very delicate presence—built up with washes, they’re imbued with a translucency that leads the eye into their territory. There’s a diaphanous quality to the surfaces that invokes not just landscape, but the atmosphere that envelops the landscape. I asked about the painting mediums she uses—substances used to extend or chance the consistency or texture of paint.

I’m using acrylic, but I’m taking acrylic and making my own sort of medium. It’s a strange concoction of mediums—medium, water, then sand, organic objects. I have these empty jars, and I just [mix in] a little bit of this, a little bit of that. For the workshop [I’m doing at UNR at Lake Tahoe this summer], I’m going to bring my whole little science kit.

That originated from when I lived in Portland, and I was trying not to be wasteful of my paint, so I was making my paint stretch further for larger paintings. If I was working on a four foot by four foot painting, and was just using straight acrylic, it felt really wasteful, especially to get the texture that I wanted. So it was an invention that I had to come up with—also economically, I was a student, and couldn’t afford paint. So that’s how I branched off into washes, and I never left.

“Basket Memory,” (detail), 2024, mixed media with pine nuts on canvas

Pine nuts

Pine nuts are a cornerstone of Great Basin Native culture—a protein-rich dietary staple that, for Northern Paiutes, has long been integrated into festivals, spiritual ceremonies, and dances. Access to pinyon forests is under strain, because of the stresses that climate change is placing on the trees, and controversies over forest management—in 2015, 70 acres of pine nut trees, traditionally picked by the Walker River Paiute Nation, were clear-cut by the US Forest Service as part of a sage grouse habitat campaign.

Before the pine nuts made it onto my canvas, they were in my studio anyway. You know, I would have old pine nuts. I’m not sure why. Maybe I was going to draw them. And then eventually one day I was like, OK, I’m going to put them on there.

And it felt stupid. I even had one peer—he was very jealous of me by the way—he was like, it looks like you’re just putting macaroni on it. You know, like a kindergarten project.

I was scared to do that. But I wanted to do it. And this is my art, so deal with it.

I do have that little devil on my shoulder that’s always like: what are you doing? Why are you putting pine nuts on your canvas? But now, some of those pine nut paintings are sitting at the Smithsonian—so whatever, kindergarten guy.

“Picking Willow,” 2024 (detail), mixed media with willow on canvas, 30×40”

Gathering and trespass

A crucial part of Melero-Moose’s process is gathering the organic materials. They aren’t just valued for their substance—she’d have no interest in buying a bag of pine nuts at a supermarket to use in her paintings—they’re also valued for their place in the land, and their connection to tradition. Where elements like willows or pine nuts would ordinarily be gathered for basket-making or for sustenance, Melero-Moose is gathering them to use into her art.

Gathering is a contested activity, prone to crossing boundaries that have been erected across dispersed ecosystems. Access to these materials is a microcosm of the border issues that have been imposed on Native culture—first restricted to reservations where Natives could be “managed” and controlled. The reservations’ were often shrunk if something of value was unexpectedly found within their boundaries.

Melero-Moose recalled tense times, as a child, gathering asparagus or pine nuts in traditional gathering areas, and being met with hostility or threats of violence.

It’s happened to me and everybody that I know, since as long as we can remember. Even if you’re just reaching over just that little bit, if you get caught—you know, there’s been good experiences and there’s been bad experiences. Some people say, oh, come anytime you want, just let us know. And other places—most other places, you end up getting a shotgun in your face or something.

And I think with a lot of the weavers, that’s a message that really needs to get worked on. If we want to preserve our Nevada culture and our Nevada history, we need to have a conversation with the weavers and the landowners, and the BLM too. They cut a lot of the willow down, and it’s all just being wasted anyway, right?

“The Animals Taught Us to Weave,” 2024, mixed media triptych on canvas

Intimacy and toxicity

The fact that she’s gathering materials for non-utilitarian purposes gives Melero-Moose a certain freedom of range. In traditional Native basketry, willows are split to make threads—one piece of the reed is placed in the mouth while the hands strip the reed into more flexible sections. It’s an intimate intersection of body and environment, fraught in the context of pesticide use.

Nowadays, if you were to gather willow for basket making, you really have to have the right kind of willow, and you want to make sure you’re not picking where things are getting sprayed—non-toxic areas. If you’re splitting the willow to make your thread so you can make your basket, you really have to be very careful. And there are very few places to go, which is why we run into all of these [conflicts]—not being able to go in traditional places.

But for my painting, that’s where I was gathering wherever I wanted to because I’m not putting it in my mouth. I’m not worried about the toxicity of it, or even the usefulness of it. I just wanted the actual willow to put on the canvas. So I collect them out at Pyramid Lake, and at Idlewild [Park]—wherever. Verdi, right up next to the highway, or in a nice serene spot in the back of Wadsworth.

“Please Don’t Shoot,” 2024, mixed media with bullet casings on canvas, 30×40”

Petroglyphs and bullets

One painting that stands out, in its use of materials, brings bullet casings to the canvas. Circular forms, which in Melero-Moose’s paintings usually evoke water ripples, are here arranged concentrically in a way that suggests a target. The bullet casings hang pendulous along the bottom third of the picture, some streaked with rusty colors like traces of trajectory. These, too, have been gathered from the landscape—where people go out to shoot guns, as if natural spaces invite violence by their implacable vastness.

For this one, I collected bullet casings from petroglyph areas. It’s titled “Please Don’t Shoot.” It was just a matter of time before they were going to make it onto my canvas—on most reservations and BLM land, they’re just everywhere. It’s usually in areas where people are doing target practice, off in the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately the petroglyphs ended up being targeted—or even if it was unintentional, it just [produced] a lot of garbage around them.

“The Gathering,” 2019, mixed media with pine nut shells on canvas, 36×24”

Traditions

I asked if she ever felt a tension between traditional art practices and contemporary art practices. I had in mind a recent conversation with Sasha Shevchenko, a Toronto-based Ukranian artist, who works with traditional Ukranian embroidery techniques, but adapts them to a contemporary gallery context. Shevchenko has written about the ways cultural preservation—particularly in a situation where a culture is under threat of imperial erasure—can feel at odds with the sort of cultural innovations and re-contextualizations that contemporary art values. Melero-Moose, by contrast, has felt her traditional practices and her contemporary art practices working in sync.

I think a lot of Indigenous artists, contemporary artists, do feel that pressure to stay really pure in a traditional craft. But for me, I feel like I started with my paintings, and I’m getting closer and closer to my traditions, because now I do basketry, which I never did before. Specifically for me, because my whole family was in the boarding school, we didn’t have weavers in our family. So I feel like art in general brought me closer to my cultural roots, and is always working its way to doing that.

The elders that I talk to who see my artwork, they like it. There’s never any negativity toward what I’m doing. Maybe they’re more agreeable because I am also doing beadwork, and doing basketry. I’m at the gatherings, so they know that it doesn’t take me further away. It brings me closer.

Melissa Melero-Moose’s solo exhibition “Basket Memory” is on display through May 23 at the Tahoe Gallery at UNR@LT, 999 Tahoe Blvd., Incline Village. A reception is scheduled for Thursday, April 11, at 5 pm with an artist talk at 5:30. 

This summer, Melero-Moose is giving a workshop as part of the UNR@LT Summer Art Workshops, “Abstracting Landscape with Mixed Media painting,” from July 15-19. More info here.

You can learn more about the artist on her website.

Photos courtesy of Melissa Melero-Moose.

A word of disclosure: Author Chris Lanier is a professor at UNR@LT, where Melissa Melero-Moose’s exhibition and talk are taking place.

Posted by Chris Lanier

Chris Lanier is an artist and critic who generally likes to mix things up – words and pictures, video and performance, design and art. He’s had work shown and published in the U.S., Mexico, England, Japan, France, Canada, and Serbia – and has written for The Believer, HiLobrow, Furtherfield, Rhizome, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Comics Journal. He is a Professor of Digital Art at the University of Nevada, Reno at Lake Tahoe (formerly Sierra Nevada College). More at chrislanierart.wordpress.com.