Teddy is from Del Muerto, which is in between Tsaile and Chinle, Arizona and is a place that is close to Canyon de Chelly National Monument. I knew of his late father Teddy Draper, Sr. as an elder who spoke about his experiences as a Code Talker and who was a close friend of my parents. When my father passed away, my youngest son Sam told Teddy that we had found a pastel painting by him. Teddy told Sam, "Dr. Roessel always had good taste." His humor and low key confidence is exemplified in that statement and what was so appealing about his NCAP interview. Teddy was Sam's mentor in NCAP. Sam had the extraordinary experience and opportunity to work in Teddy's studio learning the art of inlay, grinding and setting stones, and everything that it entails to produce a finished piece. Sam relayed stories of what Teddy taught him and I was interested to hear more from a person who had such a positive impact on my son.
If the question was posed directly to Teddy of how his Navajo identity impacts his art, I think he would say "what?" All who he is, is intertwined in his upbringing as a Navajo person and to have someone ask that outright may not get the response you want. How do you separate out your identity? Yet, his art answers the question because what he produces in his paintings are Navajo scenes of hogans, fields, landscape, and the canyons that are in his backyard. He stated that he knew he must have some skill as a painter when his instructor at Ganado Mission School asked him to paint for an art contest. He was not happy about it but did it anyway. Later that summer a package came that had his original drawing and a check. He had won the art contest. He said that was his first realization that he could make money, which motivated him to attend the American Academy of Art in Chicago, Illinois. There he said he had tremendous instructors and was in school with other American Indian classmates that influenced his work. In all, he got positive reinforcement from other American Indians, even Alan Houser who taught at Intermountain Indian School where his father taught too and where Teddy was in high school.
The recollections of Teddy left me with the impression that artists form a community and bond closely with each other. So when you talk about communities you are speaking of how to lift yourself up and by doing so you are helping others either by example, by giving advice of how to succeed and/or being there for emotional, spiritual support. All that exemplifies Teddy and his connection to help and mentor others. If you strengthen individuals, then collectively those stronger persons create a more cohesive and improved community. People need to make a living to be productive members of their communities and Teddy spoke of the practical realities of being an artist and having to put food on the table. He is a business man and manages his art through De Chelly Art, LLC. He instructed his audience to take care of their money, invest it, do not go overboard and and do not spend in excess or you will be left with nothing. He quoted his grandfather who told him, "A rich man always dresses poor. A poor man dresses well but has no money."
What I enjoyed about Teddy's interview was his lived reality of how he got to where he is and how he has learned from it. He remembered friends who were so talented in art yet never technically trained such as his close friend Robert Draper who developed the pastel technique that Teddy uses. There is a discipline that Teddy said he learned from RC Gorman, who told him to commit yourself to 15 minutes a day doing your art. And, even when you produce a painting, you must sell it and in the beginning the additional expenses and obstacles are life changing experiences, Teddy noted. What he emphasized is you must work hard, be aggressive, control your temper, keep track of your money and do art for your soul. "There is no competition in art. It is with yourself. Confront yourself to be better."
Dr. Ami asked Teddy to speak of a lifestyle issue that affects artists and that is the abuse of alcohol and drugs. Teddy was candid and compelling in his description of his low point that landed him in rehab. He felt the Holy People got him through the roughest part. It was also his art that helped him begin his journey back as he started selling for bits of income. His grandfather counseled him that going to Alcoholics Anonymous only reinforced an identity as an alcoholic. His grandfather prayed with him and said to thank the alcohol. In his prayers, Teddy relayed he came to understand alcohol as his brother and he could not deny him because he would always be there. He saw a creek and on one side was Teddy and the other was alcohol. He said we can never cross the creek. You stay on your side and I will stay on my side. Since January 16, 1983, Teddy said he has never had an urge to drink. He helps others who seek his help.
Though art may be Teddy's profession, he finds satisfaction in how basketball coaching has become his life. It took him 20 years to find it and he enjoys working with young people and feels it has made him a "solid community member." In all the fun he has, Teddy's teams have won three national championships. I too can relate to his joy of basketball and being a coach. We may have a stereotype of an "Indian artist" and Teddy breaks any preconceived notions. When your goal is to make the world a better place and your philosophy is we must all learn to live together, then your view of the world is expansive and goes beyond the pastel colors in your hand, the silver piece you are creating. You transcend art and identity as labels. Teddy Draper, Jr. does just that and he finds joy in teaching. "All these things happen in life are not by chance." His words uplifted me and I knew why my son found in Teddy a person he could look up to and learn from, as an artist and as a person.