For Elroy Natachu Jr. and Kandis Quam, the decision to join the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project this year was not a difficult one to make. The 31-year-old cousins, born just a month apart and raised in Zuni, are working artists and business partners — and the nonprofit youth organization is in the process of launching an art apprenticeship program that will give young people the artistic and business skills they need to create thriving art careers of their own.
As in so many Zuni families, art is an intergenerational calling that is deeply rooted in the culture. Natachu’s father is a silversmith, and his mother works with textiles; as a boy, he said he also was exposed to pottery and traditional cooking.
“I had my hands in a lot of things,” he recalled. “I used a sewing machine for the first time at the age of 10.”
Quam’s parents and grandparents are artists. Most of the family, she explained, are either fetish carvers or jewelers.
As young adults, however, the cousins actively avoided pursuing lives in the arts. After years of growing up together like siblings, they also went their separate ways for a time. Natachu originally pursued medicine, planning to work as a radiology technician one day. But art was in his blood.
“After the first two years, I knew that’s not where my passion is,” he said. “My passion is re-educating multiple generations of Zuni people, using art as the base for cultural teachings and the visual representation of our oral history.”
Natachu earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in studio art, with a minor in Native American studies, from the University of New Mexico in Gallup. While he was pursuing his education, Quam was wrestling with her own decisions.
“I rebelled against art to do science,” she said. “I studied biology at New Mexico State in Las Cruces, and my training is in cultural anthropology.”
The cousins finished college at the same time and returned home to the Pueblo of Zuni. Not only did they decide to pursue careers in the arts, they decided to do it together, building their own business. Quam noted that they had to start at the bottom and work their way up.
“We didn’t have mentors, and we didn’t know anything about using technology, managing paperwork and receipts, all that,” Natachu said. “We’ve learned so much over the last six years.”
Natachu and Quam are members of the Ancestral Rich Treasures of Zuni (ARTZ) Cooperative, the only Zuni company owned and operated by Zuni artists, and the only known Native-owned artist cooperative in New Mexico. The collective comprises a wide variety of Zuni artisans, ranging from carvers, jewelers, silversmiths, and metalsmiths to painters, potters, textile weavers, and woodworkers.
Quam is the cooperative’s secretary, while Natachu serves as a board member. According to Natachu, the ZYEP opportunity arrived via ARTZ.
“The coop members are anywhere from 18- to 70-plus years old,” he said. “It’s an intergenerational membership, with master artists. We’ve envisioned a youth component, so a partnership with ZYEP checked those boxes. Combining the cultural, business, and youth components is a dream come true for us — we definitely wanted to throw our hats in the ring.”
When ZYEP offered Natachu the position of art coordinator and Quam the position of art leader for the new art apprenticeship program, Natachu said they jumped at the opportunities.
“This is our chance to help build a good, sturdy program that will last,” he said. “We’ll be teaching 2D graphic design in the beginning, but eventually we will move into traditional arts like textiles and basketry. And with each discipline, we’ll explore who we are as Zuni people through art. The best way to get to know a culture is through art and food — you reach the soul of the people themselves.”
“Young people are so tech savvy, but they’re focused on games and YouTube,” he continued with a chuckle. “As we teach ancestral oral history and art forms, we’ll show them how to leverage technology to bring Zuni art into the modern era.”
“I’m excited to have youth avoid the pitfalls Elroy and I went through, because we had to swallow some big, painful pills,” Quam added. “Part of that is teaching the kids that failure is OK. It’s part of achieving success, part of the journey. The most interesting stories come from failure.”
Together with ZYEP and ARTZ, Natachu and Quam are hoping to empower the next generation of Zuni artists. Not only will they help transform the Zuni arts economy, encouraging thriving businesses with prices that reflect the real value of the work, they will strengthen their community as a whole.
“These young people will be ambassadors, because that is the role we take as artisans when we sell outside of Zuni,” Natachu said. “They also will become our next generation of culture bearers. We are honored to be helping to build that, from the ground up.”