Jack Malotte graduated from Wooster High School in Reno in 1971 and spent the next three years at California College of the Arts in Oakland. Since then, he’s made prints, paintings, and drawings depicting a complex view of Nevada. From his studio in Duckwater, Malotte takes a reverent look at our wide vistas, oceans of sagebrush, and big, open skies. He also takes a critical look at open-pit gold mining, nuclear testing, Air Force surveillance, and the federal government’s trampling of Western Shoshone land rights.
In 2019, the Nevada Museum of Art mounted The Art of Jack Malotte, a retrospective of his life’s work so far. An abridged version of that show opened at the Western Folklife Center in Elko this month and is on view through December.
Lena Tseabbe Wright, Malotte’s niece, is also an artist. She earned a BA in fine arts from Stanford in 2016 and an MFA from San Francisco Art Institute in 2020. She lives in Nixon.
Wright interviewed Malotte by phone for Double Scoop. They talked about his early years as a student and artist—and he was as honest about life’s complexities and difficulties as his paintings are.
What was it like going to CCA?
Oh, geez. … I was 17 years old. First time I ever lived by myself, and I had a bunch of grant money. … I was on my own. Moving from Reno to Oakland was a big deal for me. Cause I wasn’t used to the big city and the school. There was so many good people there. … But it was really a culture shock. … It took me maybe a year before I got used to Oakland and San Francisco and be able to maneuver around and do things, go places. When I was still homesick, I kept wanting to go back to Reno and hang out. But it just didn’t happen.
How was it making art there?
Oh, that was easy. Cause everybody was doing it. … In between classes you would sit in the cafeteria and drink coffee and eat whatever. And everybody in there was doing some kind of artwork. And then we developed friendships. … I learned a lot from all those people. Cause they were from all over the country. … I was the only guy from Reno. And I was the only Indian in my group. In my freshman year, [Nixon artist] Ben Aleck, he was a senior then. He taught me how to maneuver in the Bay Area, where to go and where to hitchhike and what art stores to go to and how to get there, that kind of stuff, you know? … It just took me a while to get used to the freedom of being on my own. No restrictions like when I was at home. … It made me a better artist though. I know I’m glad I went there. That’s for sure.
From when you first got there to when you left, did you see any drastic changes in your artwork?
Oh yeah. Just everything. By the time I left there … I was doing airbrush stuff, and I probably would have never picked that up if I didn’t go to school. And the illustration and design courses, those things helped me out a lot because I still use that kind of stuff now. When I was in high school, I used to copy different artists that I liked and try and match it line for line. … But it just changed everything, the way I approach art, everything. … I’m glad I took all that stuff because it gives me the confidence to try anything. That’s how I first learned how to do a mural. … I’ve done ceramic. I did a bit of glass blowing. And it was just to play around for a little bit.
Just make little things?
Yeah. … We also watched them pouring bronzes in the foundry part of the school. That was always really cool. I’d never seen that before. Never even knew the process. And I learned about jewelry, especially the casting stuff. Just seen all these little things I picked up, and I probably never used half of them. But if I ever did, I’d know what’s going on. I’ll be able to bluff my way through it for a little bit.
That’s what it means to be an artist. You just do whatever feels right. Right?
Yeah. And I was never afraid to try something I’d never done before. And I think that comes from art school. … There’s no hesitation. You kind of already know what you want and how you want to do it—and then just start. Jump in. And that’s what art school did for me, too, gave me a lot of confidence anyway.
Were there any times where you felt that there was a misstep? Or maybe you should’ve tried something different?
When I left Arizona, I got divorced … and came back to Reno. I was probably 25. … And I bummed around for a year. I didn’t do anything. And then my friend looked in the paper, and it said, “Artists wanted.” So I went down there to the Reno newspaper, and I got the job. But I didn’t really know anything about the newspaper business. … I knew about printing, not that kind of printing. The printing I was used to was with etching and woodblock and silkscreen. … Just the process alone, learning how what I do makes it to the paper, you know? Goes through a bunch of hands to be able to get it to print. I didn’t know any of that. But I picked it up and I worked there for six months. Picked it up pretty easy.
I got a good education with that, too. … My boss gave me a quick one-night, told me where things were, how to do things, told me his only advice was make sure everything lines up with everything else. … I was in over my head, I was thinking. But I got over that. … I just kinda put things together, like a puzzle. That was my job. … I was getting paid well, driving a fancy car, partying up. Yeah, the old days, getting thrown in jail, bail myself out because I was making good money, stuff like that. … I was still pretty young. I was still in my early 20s. You get kind of crazy making good money and still real young.
Fair. So, are you working on anything currently? I know you’ve been doing a lot more graphic stuff, just based on what you post.
Those two-point perspective things I’ve been doing?
Yeah. I just kinda got into it. And then each one gave me an idea for another one. So I got about eight of them out there in my trailer. … I want to make designs that look like beadwork. It’s just giving me ideas for something bigger. What are you working on?
Me? I am not doing much of anything right now. I’m supposed to go back to the Bay Area for a fellowship thingy. But, due to COVID, I have that feeling it’s not going to happen—or at least it’s going to happen remotely. So I’ve hooked Dad into helping me build a studio out here, using a shed from Lowe’s. Do you have any advice for any Native artists or Native students who want to pursue art as a career?
Well, the main one is just practice, practice, practice. But the other one is—see, my fault when I was young: I didn’t listen very well. So I missed out on the first year or two years. … I was just too young. I wasn’t listening. … Now I have to make up on things, especially art history.
Sometimes it feels like you need that time to just figure it out though.
Yeah. … After my divorce, I didn’t want to do anything for about a year. … I don’t even think I did any drawing. … It took a year, but I did regroup. And then once I started working, everything went smooth after that. I wish I didn’t waste all that time though. That’s the problem. And we had good teachers at the school. I mean, they were great. I was just amazed at the teachers, their talents, what they did, you know, for themselves. … It was people doing photorealism, to other kinds of things, that just opened me up. Being able to see that stuff up close, you know, instead of seeing it in a book or whatever, and meet people that were doing things that were foreign to me. … A lot of the people I met were top-notch people. … I figured I might as well use my strongest point, which was design, and then went with that.
And then being in the Bay Area, with the museums—I loved going to the museums when I lived there. That was a big eye-opener, all that kind of stuff. Plus the whole culture thing, you know, gay people, people smoking weed on the corner [in] Berkeley, hippie times. The whole atmosphere was just a big-old eye opener for me. … And that kind of changed my whole way of looking at people and things and religion and all that stuff. Cause it’s all right there. You know how it is there.
Yeah. Anyway, thanks. Thanks for the interview.
OK. Glad I did something.