Award-winning Native American artist Mateo Romero ’89 is a member of the Cochiti Pueblo in New Mexico. His work, which often depicts traditional dances and the landscape of New Mexico, has appeared in international exhibitions. After Dartmouth he received an MFA from the University of New Mexico and continued his painting as a Dubin Fellow at the School of American Research.
Was there a moment at Dartmouth when you realized, I’m an artist?
There was a moment. I went into Dartmouth initially thinking that I was going to study architecture. For an architecture major, a course in studio art was a requirement, and that course introduced me to drawing. I was totally engaged by the beautiful male and female models in the class. I was painting and drawing a lot, and when it really came down to it, I was seduced by the sensual character of drawing nude models, and I’ve never left that. After all these years, what I do is still brought back to drawing the nude and the idea of line and edge and shadow and light and dark. That studio art class was the moment that I realized I was more interested in drawing and painting and working with the human space of the body than the architectural space of a building.
What does your artistic process look like?
I have several styles that I work in, including landscapes in oil paints and black and white drawings, but what I’m best known for is a mixed media style, which incorporates photography. I take portraits of people and dancers and enlarge the images onto a canvas. Then I paint onto the canvas, so it’s very much based on the idea of drawing a model. It’s a little “pop” and has that Warhol or Rauschenberg feeling to it. The photography is a reference to pop art, and the paint is laid in to reference abstract expressionism. Because I do the photography myself, the majority of my subjects are living people, but it references historic photography, because the images are black and white, and they are often of traditional dancers. So they reference historic photography like a Parkhurst or Curtis, but they also reference living people in the community.
There are a lot of levels to it, but not everyone is aware of those deeper meanings because they are such sensual, luscious paintings. Because they are beautiful, I don’t think people often think of these paintings as being part of a longer tradition of photography and portraiture, but they are. Each painting is linked to a moment of ecstatic beauty. At their best, they capture and recreate a moment of the ceremony, and my hope is that people who weren’t present at that dance can almost hear a drum or feel what it is to be a dancer in the line.
Where do you find inspiration for your paintings?
The inspiration I always go back to is the idea of these models I drew in when I was 19. It’s a sensual, loving experience, interacting with your models: drawing with your hands and seeing with your eyes. Later it becomes about paint and color, but before that, it’s filled with emotion and psychology. As with the models, I draw inspiration from the subject of my work. I’m gearing up to work in a new style, one that is a total abstraction. I want to take inspiration from the landscape and the mesa and build expressionist work that is pure color and temperature and abstraction. It’s not related to physical space, but only emotional space. I want to let the paintings have their own life.
I also want to say that the Dartmouth community has been really supportive of me. I had a great time there as an undergraduate, and the president, the board of trustees, and many alumni have supported me and my work immensely. The Hood Museum has even collected my work. Being a professional painter can be a struggle. I’m a Native guy and I didn’t have the economic resources that some people did when I went into this field, but I put everything out there, and it took off. Classmates of mine are now collectors who support me, and I recognize that part of me being a successful professional painter goes back to Dartmouth. I feel blessed.