Makers and Creators: Tempe Artists Neya Salazar and Haydn Cooper

Haydn Cooper and Neya Salazar

By Grace Lieberman

Creativity, love and a vision can lead to incredible artistic collaboration. Tempe-based artists Neya Salazar and Haydn Cooper prove this every day.

Neya and Haydn are two young people who take advantage of their unique bond not only to help each other creatively but also to handle the everyday strife of having marginalized identities.

Neya is a non-binary person of color who uses they and them pronouns, and Haydn is a gender non-conforming transgender person who uses they/them or she/her pronouns.

Both artists grew up in the Valley. Haydn has lived most of her life in the metro Phoenix area, while Neya grew up in Chandler after they and their family moved from the bay area of California.

Neya said that growing up in a predominantly white Chandler community, they often experienced racism and their peers failed to understand their mixed-race identity.

Schoolmates would frequently compare Neya to cartoon characters, and despite spending their whole childhood in Chandler, they were often called “exotic” and many people asked them where they’re “really from.”

“I learned to appreciate [Chandler],” Neya said as they talked about how getting a bike in high school helped them experience their surroundings in a new way.

“Walking and biking around at golden hour was magical,” Neya said.

On finding beauty in an otherwise tumultuous time, Neya said, “it’s a matter of survival.”

Born in the Scottsdale hospital where her mom has worked for decades and raised in metro Phoenix, Haydn was immersed in the arts from an early age. Haydn clearly has lots of appreciation for her art training and the natural aesthetics of the city.

Their respective identities, mixed with a shared love for creative expression in fashion, can sometimes make the two very visible targets in public and academic spaces.

Neya and Haydn are students at ASU’s design school,  and their collective art seems to have grown more from the frustrations of formal education than the instruction itself.

“Institutions have failed me,” Neya said, recalling how they frequently feel alienated by the treatment they receive from the staff and fellow students in school.

Neya said their relationship with Haydn has helped them grow their talent and confidence as an artist.

Neya and Haydn describe their creative partnership as, “concept and craft,” Neya drives the ideas for their collaborative projects, while Haydn utilizes her dedication to craftsmanship to help Neya realize these artistic visions.

Before, Neya mainly drew in a small-scale sketchbook, but now Neya makes huge portraits of dazzling monsters straight out of their imagination.

Neya includes lots of eyes on their monsters which leaves the beholder with an ethereal impression of being seen for everything that they are. Each design carries strong androgynous energy, unlike the classic conceptions of a burley masculine monster or the femme fatale.

The power in the images mixed with bright colors usually associated with less intense themes as monsters also reflects Neya. Neya said they are frequently stereotyped as bubbly or sweet because of their Asian heritage, while their true personality is far more passionate and blunter than most people’s preconceptions of them.

The role art plays in Neya’s life is all-encompassing.

“Art is my identity,” Neya said, as they talked about how art is both a way for them to express themselves and, “an escape from my lived reality.”

Haydn is very observant of her surroundings and draws from the classic symbols of the Valley that would be easily recognizable to a local. She also draws from her family history, including imagery of cows that connects her art to her family’s past as cattle farmers.

Haydn says she views her art as in the “work in progress stage” because she does not yet feel like she has the confidence to use her creative talent to make personal statements in her work.

Haydn also makes a concerted effort to use low-cost materials so that the emulation of their art is accessible to everyone, not just those who can afford the right supplies.

Neya and Haydn are also working on a performance piece that focuses on the importance of Haydn cutting Neya’s hair to their relationship.

Neya explained that the first time Haydn shaved most of their hair was when they started to be aware of their non-binary identity.

Neya and Haydn have tapped into the kind of physical expression through hair, body art, and clothing that helps many queer people take control of their identity and feel proud. The unique and genuine ways they present this expression shows off their artistic talents just as beautifully as any artwork.

The two are passionate above all else. Both introspective, the pair spends ample time thinking critically about society. It’s clear from the way they finish each other’s thoughts and work through their artistic ideas as a collaborative team that their relationship is fulfilling in both their personal and professional lives.

“This is my partner in crime,” Neya said, and that sentiment of trust and devotion is nearly tangible in their presence.

Follow Neya on Instagram: @ghoulofcolor

Follow Haydn on Instagram: @haydncooperart