An unusual perspective

Ryan Singer explores modern art through ideas and color

By Carolyn Calvin
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, Feb. 3, 2011

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(Times photos - Carolyn Calvin)

ABOVE: Ryan Singer sits on a bench in Santa Fe with the little vinyl Munny he painted and named the "Slanger." The little Slanger has turquoise earrings and is wearing a "wagon burner" shirt.

BELOW: One of Ryan Singer's favorite pieces, "Bounty Hunter and Trickster Encounter" is a "split-screen"-type image with Boba Fett, a bounty hunter from the "Star Wars" movies, on one side of the canvas taking aim, and a coyote on the remaining half of the canvas.

His work has evolved over the years but one thing remains constant for Ryan Singer - a desire to express himself as a modern Native American artist.

One of his favorite pieces, "Bounty Hunter and Trickster Encounter" is a "split-screen"-type image with Boba Fett, a bounty hunter from the "Star Wars" movies, on one side of the canvas taking aim, and a coyote on the remaining half of the canvas. It combines one of Singer's main influences - "Star Wars" - with an element of Navajo culture - the Coyote.

Art has always been part of his life. Singer, 37, began drawing when he was a kid in pre-school, studying comic books and album covers from the 1970s.

Singer is Todichi''ii'nii (Bitterwater Clan), born for Kinyaa'aanii (Towering House Clan). He grew up "mainly on the reservation" in the Tuba City and Kayenta area. During the summer, he would be dropped off at sheep camp where he learned to understand the Navajo language even though he wasn't fluent.

Around 10 years old, Singer said, "Gears in my head were turning and I started looking at art books."

He also took note of work by Navajo artists such as Bahe Whitethorne and Shonto Begay.

"I liked their work, their kind of art," he said.

However, Singer said he knew his kind of art took a different route.

"'Star Wars' was a big influence," he said.

In addition, he was interested in science-fiction TV shows such as "Star Trek," Flash Gordon and "Godzilla." The black-and-white "Frankenstein" and werewolf movies also served as inspiration.

As a teenager, Singer began to "do a lot of drawings and comic-book images."

He became interested in surrealism and studied Salvador Dali's work. Singer's own work took on a modern edge depicting amongst other things a cup of coffee or a skateboard. He also became a music aficionado collecting heavy metal and punk music records and creating compilations on cassette tapes.

At age 16, Singer's first painting was a self-portrait featuring him wearing a Batman T-shirt with his head wrapped in bandages mummy-style with tufts of hair sticking out from the bandages.

"It came out really good," he said.

His unusual way of looking at life became the norm for his art and a way of self-expression.

Singer graduated from Window Rock High School in 1992 and began taking courses in forestry at Northern Arizona University. He decided that his interests in the outdoors and the environment were keys to a career in forestry.

"As a young kid, people were always telling me that art was not really a good job and I needed something to fall back on," he said. "I didn't want to do anything else."

For five years, Singer tried to work with the U.S. forestry service.

"I couldn't work with all the bureaucracy and red tape," he said. "My values and morals conflicted with the whole thing."

Throughout this time he continued to sketch, paint and write poetry.

"That was my outlet," he said.

He would show his art to his co-workers and friends at shows he would put on for them in the quiet evenings at the Grand Canyon.

"They would ask, 'How come you don't study art, blah, blah, blah,'" he said.

In 2004, he went back to art, taking courses toward a bachelor's degree in fine art at Arizona State University.

During this time, Singer was offered two "big, giant commissions." One was to create four paintings for a museum show and another was to illustrate a book for Salina Bookshelves.

"In the last semester in school, I was working really hard to get a degree," Singer said. "I just couldn't turn down the commissions."

He said he learned that in the ultra-competitive art world having a solid work ethic was necessary.

"If you want to do it you have to work hard at it," Singer said. "You just never know as an artist when you're going to sell the next piece."

Today, Singer and his girlfriend, Nathania Tsosie, are partners in promoting his artwork.

"I do the artwork and negotiating with the clients," he said. "She does a lot of the promoting and everything including the Web site and ordering the post cards, stickers and posters."

Two of the most popular images on his merchandise are the wagon-burner and the can of mutton stew.

"The wagon-burner image came to me in a dream in early 2000," Singer said.

At the time, he was preparing for a one-man art show in Phoenix.

"About 10, 15 minutes before going to sleep, I was dreaming with my eyes open," he said. "I could see myself driving on the side of a cliff and I saw the sign. I sketched it out and went to sleep."

The next day, Singer said, he went out to buy a square canvas and a big tube of yellow paint to paint his dream - a sign with the image of a covered-wagon on fire and rolling downhill.

His other image of the mutton stew can pays homage to pop artist Andy Warhol.

"I've always been a big fan of Andy Warhol and modern art," he said.

Flipping through an art book one day, he wanted to see what image made an impression on him. He discovered it was Warhol's Campbell soup can.

"I studied it for a whole day and started making the same image more Navajo," he said. "I started a painting and started freaking out, this is cool."

In Singer's adaptation of the Warhol painting, the tomato soup becomes mutton stew and the brand is distinctly "Navajo."

Singer's work has gained popularity throughout the United States with collectors commissioning original paintings and screen prints. His artwork has earned him numerous awards and honors including the "Adult Smile Award" at the Santa Fe Indian Market and the "Judge's Choice Award" at the Heard Museum Indian Market.

Singer encourages others who wish to become an artist to "learn about the history, techniques and mediums of work - pottery, charcoal, pastels. It takes work and practice."

Singer's next show is at Heard Museum Indian Fair and Market on March 5 and 6 in Phoenix.  His work and merchandise can be found at

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