Michael Billie is an award-winning Navajo mixed media artist who lives in Farmington, New Mexico. He studied art at the University of New Mexico and later took classes in encaustics, but it was only later in life that he became a full time artist. He dove into his art practice full time just before the pandemic, attending art shows all over the country.
Michael’s favorite materials to work with are resin, wax, and clay, and he intentionally combines and intermixes natural and modern materials. He is drawn to translucent surfaces, which is why encaustic art, which involves using pigments mixed with hot wax, and resin have always intrigued him. “I’ve always gravitated towards art that you can view beyond the surface, so I worked mostly with encaustic and resin. Both let the viewer see into the piece beyond the surface which I love. Using both allows you to see its depth, like looking into its soul.”
Recently, he transitioned away from encaustics entirely in favor of resin, which is more durable and holds up better to the elements during art festivals.
Medicine bags and bundles are featured prominently in Michael’s work. Using an eco-printing process, he rolls up silk with plant material, such as eucalyptus leaves and rolls petals, and steams it to create an imprint of the plants onto the silk. He then shreds the silk to create the medicine bags. Originally, he planned to fill the bags with corn pollen, which is traditionally used in blessings, but the coarse weave of the silk made that impractical. Instead, he fills them with cedar.
“The idea to include bundles in my work came during a moment I had while teaching a workshop on eco-printing at fellow artist Harriette Tsosie’s studio in Albuquerque. We were wrapping silk, plant material and rusty bits in tight bundles to extract the pigment out of the items and imprint them onto the silk. This is done by steaming the tightly wrapped bundles. After steaming a batch we set them on a big white canvas so they could cool down before we unwrapped them. When the bundles were cooling on the canvas I noticed how striking the composition looked. They were like a newborn bundled up in a blanket, a gift waiting to be unwrapped, a medicine bag and a secret under protection and never to be revealed. It was a powerful moment of inspiration that I’ll never forget.
A year or so later a friend told me about an old story between the Navajos and the Hopi that involved two sacred bundles. The Navajos had given two sacred bundles to the Hopi in exchange for helping in obtaining freedom from being imprisoned at Fort Sumner. According to the story the two bundles are still around and kept in two Hopi family homes.
The use of the bundles has also opened more connections in my life which in turn have further influenced my work. It keeps evolving into something bigger that it reminds me how much power art can have. As part of the ritual, I bless each piece that protects its new home.”
Still, Michael insists, “There’s no rhyme or reason as to what I make.” His creative flow hinges upon the kind of transcendence that can only be achieved within a state of flow. Michael intentionally clears his mind. “I have to be in a space where I have an empty head. My guys work through me and talk with me. I live for the moments when I turn into a trance state of mind where the pieces just flow without any thought or effort. It’s all part of my art making process. As I grow more into having the energy from the other side help me create I’m finding myself encouraging it more to be part of the process.” When asked about what he meant by ‘guys’-he said, “Artists from the other side.” Deeply spiritual, Michael channels feelings that are “beyond what we can understand.” Although he never met his grandmother, he feels closely connected to her and knows that she is cheering him on and supporting him in his creative endeavors.
Michael won the Innovation Award in 2016 from the International Encaustic Association and Best Of Show at the Tubac Center Of The Arts in 2019 at the First Biennial Native Art Show. He has taught workshops around the Four Corners area including the Durango Arts Center and the Encaustic Art Institute in Santa Fe. He exhibits his artwork at many galleries across New Mexico and southwestern Colorado, including The Encaustic Art Institute, Algodones Art Gallery, Sara’s Southwest, Create Art And Tea, and Weyrich Gallery.
All photos courtesy of Michael Billie.