Sky Duncan: Cosmic dancer and earthly painter

Story by Jeff Kronenfeld, October 2019 Issue.
Photos courtesy of Sky Duncan

Sky Duncan grew up thinking it was normal to tour the world dancing in front of large crowds.

Though born in Arizona, Duncan’s earliest memory is from a trip to Austria where he and his family were attending a festival celebrating indigenous cultures from across the globe. Only three at the time, he still vividly recalls watching Maasai, Hemba, Aztecs, and others celebrate together while he nestled under a blanket beneath a tree. Hailing from a family of world champion hoop dancers, he learned to move to the beat of drums almost before he could walk.

By Jeff Kronenfeld.

Whether painting on canvas, sketching in his journal, dancing gracefully in competition or teaching dance to indigenous youth, Duncan uses art to bridge gaps, be they aesthetic, cultural or even emotional ones.

As the second youngest of five brothers and one sister — almost all of whom have been competitive dancers at one time or another — Duncan learned dancing by watching his brothers rather than in a classroom or studio. Growing up in a suburban home in east Mesa, all he wanted to do was dance and draw, sometimes seeing elementary school as something that got in the way. Though at times the only Native American in his classes, he was surrounded by indigenous people through extracurricular activities, church and dance.

As early as first grade, he recalled feeling somewhat separated or displaced due to his sexuality, especially when P.E. class was split up by gender. However, his best friend BJ always had his back. “He’s black and queer and I am indigenous and queer,” Duncan recalled. “If anyone gave him crap, I would give them crap. If anyone gave me crap, he would give them crap.”

While he found solidarity in the classroom, his homelife was an artist’s haven, whether it was his father painting, his brother Kevin sewing dancing outfits or his mother’s work at the Heard Museum. From Kevin, his older brother, he also picked up the habit of keeping a journal and sketch book, something he still does for artistic and therapeutic reasons. Then as now, his journals were intricate works of art overflowing with colorful self-portraits, angelic figures and psychedelic skyscapes.

Though increasingly drawn to visual arts, he didn’t gel with his art teacher at Mountain View High. However, he continued to develop his skills through fashion and photography classes. His photography teacher held weekly critiques and pushed Duncan to show his work and enter it in competitions. He learned the basic elements of design in fashion class, enjoying being the only boy in it. He loved both subjects, feeling torn over whether to move to California to pursue fashion or New Mexico to pursue visual arts.

Duncan opted to study visual arts at the Institute of American Indian Art (IAIA) in Santa Fe, the same school where his parents and brother had once gone. He enjoyed being surrounded by other aspiring Native American artists from across the continent, though it was a little overwhelming as well, cloistered far from the city center.

Compared to his brother’s experience a decade earlier, which Duncan said was defined by President Barack Obama’s hope-centric campaign, he attended in the shadow of President Donald Trump’s vitriolic one. At the same time, Duncan witnessed a resurgence in indigenous activism forced by efforts to infringe on the sovereignty and livability of tribal communities. There was the proposal for the Resolution Copper Mine in Arizona, which would have desecrated an area sacred to Duncan’s San Carlos Apache Tribe, and the Dakota Access Pipeline protests further north. “That was one movement that I kind of saw mature,” Duncan said. “I always look back at that one-year as really wild, being a 20-year-old growing up during that time and trying my best to hold on to my hopes and drives, even though everything — all the screens — were totally opposite of that energy.”

Duncan has kept busy, continuing to paint while participating in solo or group shows throughout New Mexico. He often integrates dancing or live painting into his events, such as he did for a show in July at Karuna Colectiva, an Albuquerque art gallery. He had a solo show in 2015 at a space now known as the LOOM Indigenous Art Gallery in Gallup. There, Duncan showed paintings that were massively scaled up versions of his journal work, including wavy recursive patterns and colorful skyscapes, often featuring smiley and stoic faces. “My paintings, at that little stage, were kind of Keith Haring-esque, just to represent my claustrophobia and extreme overthinking.” 

Contacts he made at school and through the art world helped him learn more about the indigenous LGBT+ community, including the Gathering of Queer Nations. Started in 2016 as a response to a lack of visibility for LGBTQ people at the annual Gathering of Nations Pow Wow in Albuquerque, which brings over 700 tribes from across North America together, the Gathering of Queer Nations showcases the art, music, poetry and fashion of LGBTQ indigenous creators at Corpus Arts, an Albuquerque book and zine store. At the most recent gathering, Duncan participated in a multimedia show, presenting a large painting titled “You Will Never Fall Apart.” He labored on the painting for more than year, repeatedly painting controversial images or words, only to cover them up and then repaint them, over and over. “That was one of my main inspirations, just conceptually thinking why am I covering this up?” Duncan explained. “Then, going back to those things and asking what am I glorifying? What am I yelling to the audience? A lot of it had to do with sexual violence and other experiences that I’ve never discussed before.”

As he continues exploring traumatic events from his own past and pushing himself as an artist, he also has been learning from teaching hoop dance to youths from the Pueblo of Pojoaque in New Mexico over the last three years. Having never been a teacher before, save for as an uncle or older brother, Duncan’s experiences helped him cultivate patience, adaptability and to reflect on why he creates and performs.

“Sometimes a student will have a good day and sometimes a student will have a bad day,” Sky said. “I have to reach down to the deepest part of my heart and give them what excites me, whatever I would feel on stage or in my backyard dancing. Then, I happen to hear the ending and we have to get out in time, because we’re so lost in the rhythm. I just want them to get to that point, to where this becomes an instinct for them.”

Armed with his numerous journals and a drive as relentless as the beats he dances to, Duncan is a young but growing artist to watch.

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