Art Changes Us: David Dawangyumptewa

Daniel Dawangyumptewa's art, deliberately left slightly out of focus to avoid copying.

David Dawangyumptewa has a story to tell about his art. He tells his story with no regret and no sorrow, but hearing it is hard on the listener. Dawangyumptewa has been an artist all his life, but he has also done other things–he’s been a lighting roadie for Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt and a stonemason. He is best known for his work in high-profile arts advocacy throughout the state of Arizona.

But I’m getting away from the story. I was at the Flagstaff Hopi Festival yesterday. Held at the Museum of Northern Arizona, the festival includes demonstrations of katsina doll carving, weaving, basket making.

Back to David’s story. David’s background is with the Water Clan. His detailed work focuses on water images–frogs, dragonflies, water colors. They almost always contain figures interacting with animals. Then, he had a stroke. Not a mild warning stroke, but one that sent him into a coma and damaged his right side. He could not hold a brush, a pen, or pencil. His thoughts were muddled. He survived his coma. He woke up to the burning clear realization that his life would never be the same. And all he wanted was his life back. He began to work on putting together the same life he had. And despite his best efforts, his old life was gone. It had vanished with the stroke. The more he told people he was going to put his old life back together, the more people agreed it was what he should do, the further away the goal slipped.

Here is the part of David’s story that amazed me. He decided that he was still an artist, but a different artist. And after being right-handed all his life, he picked up his pen in his left hand and began to teach himself how to do his careful, detailed, precise art with his left hand. “I wanted my old life back,” he told me, “but I couldn’t have it, so I created a new life.”

His new life is amazing to me. The piece I purchased, above, done in gouache, pen and ink, is from his new life. It looks perfect to me. He smiled and thanked me, but I know behind that kindness is the sadness for what was. And still, David Dawangyumptewa’s story is one of reinvention, one that proves that we can choose our art, even as it chooses us, and that we can be someone new, made of the someone old, and hard work and practice can win over giving up. David could have had a comfortable life as a show promoter, or as a consultant, but David is an artist and wanted to stay and artist. And so he did.

—Quinn McDonald is a writer and artist, whose book on raw art journaling will be publishes in June of 2011 by North Light Books.