Artist and Writer: Judy Tuwaletstiwa

Artist and Writer: Judy Tuwaletstiwa

Judy Tuwaletstiwa works within the global art community, incorporating influences from Fellini to the Far East, Inuit to Eastern Europe.


9 - 12+


Arts and Music, English Language Arts, Geography, Human Geography, Physical Geography

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“In 7th grade, at age 11, Ms. Rasmussen, our art teacher, asked us to paint something about the rain. That night, from my house on a hill, I looked down on the black asphalt. Lights glistened against the rain-wet streets. The car lights seemed to cut down into the roadway. I decided to paint this phenomenon. I stayed up very late that night excited by the wonder of exploring an idea visually.”

Judy grew up with a wide exposure to the geography and cultural landscape the of the United States.

“Our family was economically poor but culturally rich. My parents took us to museums and to foreign movies, art films and plays. When I was eleven, our family drove across the United States. That was very memorable. I learned early about a very large world, both in geography and in art. I saw great films from India, Mexico, Europe, Russia, and the United States. I read stories that took place in different parts of the world.”

Perhaps because of her early exposure to the arts of the world, Judy considers the artistic community a global one, not limited to one culture or place. “The community is a large one: the artists who have come before me, from whom I have learned, some from my own culture, others from different parts of the world. The Dogon from Mali. The Inuit from Canada and Alaska. Abstract expressionists, many of whom were children of Eastern European immigrants to the United States. I have learned from the aesthetics of different cultures, such as the simplicity of the Japanese. Art grows out of the landscape in which it is formed. The art that has influenced me comes out of very different landscapes.”

“From 1993 to 2005 I lived on a Hopi reservation in New Mexico. My last name, Tuwaletstiwa, is a Hopi word meaning ‘wind making ripples in the sand.’ At Hopi, the ceremonies are performed much as they were centuries ago because people stayed in one place for a thousand years. The religious ceremonies grew out of the landscape, and the needs of the Hopi people living in that landscape.”

“The great film director Federico Fellini once said, ‘Art is the dream activity of mankind.’ Art is from every culture. It is an expression of that culture’s relationship to its geography, just as language is.”


Judy is continually surprised by where her artistic vision will lead. “The act of creation becomes more mysterious the more I do it. Maybe I haven’t lived long enough to decipher its meaning. Living as an artist means being part of the flow.”


“My work is always demanding. When my children were young, I'd put them to bed and then work on my art until midnight. Now I'm in the studio from nine to five every day, but I am never not thinking about art. It demands time, lots of time, very quiet time during which I might study an ant carrying a fragment of a leaf twice its size, a woodpecker pecking on a tree, listening for a hollow sound that could mean insects, a leaf moving in the wind.”

“Sometimes when I'm making art I like to put on the radio, but usually I prefer there to be absolute silence. I don't answer the phone. I need the time to think long thoughts, time to unfold and not to rush anything.”


Geo- means ‘earth’ while -graphy means ‘to write.’ I think of geography as a language that helps us understand patterns on this Earth.”

Time and space are both important parts of geography. “Geography, for me, moves from the small to the large: a tectonic plate breaking away to form another continent, an ant carrying a pebble out of the earth. Geography stretches through time, changing over the millennia, sometimes violently, sometimes very slowly.”


Judy’s artwork is influenced by the geography around her.

“When I traveled to New York City, the buildings were so tall that standing on the sidewalk felt like being at the bottom of a canyon. The storms in New York City are like storms in canyons.”

Judy’s 1993 painting “Prisoner’s Song” was inspired by a sidewalk scene in New York City. “A black Salvation Army Santa, dressed in a red costume, his tired middle-aged face masked behind a fake white beard, stood on the corner of 54th Street and Fifth Avenue in New York City. Leaning with one hand on a lamp post, he wearily rang his bell as streams of shoppers hurried past him.

“Different cultures met in this man in a way I found both beautiful and painful.”

Judy’s latest exhibit, called Natural Languages, includes paintings, sculpture, photographs, and poems. Natural Languages is inspired by a bosque, or small wooded area, near her studio in Galisteo, New Mexico, near Santa Fe. "I feel lucky to live beside a stream in the desert. When I began my new series, I decided it was important to spend time in the bosque that the stream creates. I hoped . . . to use a variety of media in studying the bosque: photography, painting, sculpture, and text.”

“The bosque is just a ribbon of water no more than 10-15 feet across, but it supports a tremendous variety of plant and animal life. It's prone to flash floods. I see all kinds of animal prints in the mud—deer, coyote, mountain lion. The bosque feeds into the Rio Grande. We are very careful not to pollute it. The land is protected within the Hopi reservation, but it's vulnerable to outside development.”

"Just as a poem is composed of ordinary words, words we all use, the bosque is composed of ordinary materials . . . trees, grasses, water, earth, rocks, sand. The work in the series Natural Languages is composed of mundane materials we all see. A poet creates rhythm and pattern, giving birth to images that awaken us to new ways of seeing.”

“I am seeking to use photographs, mixed media paintings, text, and sculptural objects like a poet uses words.”


“Learn to see. Really see. Notice the smallest blade of grass. How the light reflects off of it, how it grows. Notice what is around you. Turn off the television. Sit in silence. Listen. Each day notice something new. Educate yourself. Do not let a day pass by without noticing something you didn’t see the day before. When you look at a photograph, study it. Learn about this large world in which we live.”


“Support your local museums. Look at things you might not understand. Photograph the changes. Learn about the natural world. What makes a leaf fall? Find out.”

Media Credits

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Mary Schons
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

May 20, 2022

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