Darren Vigil Gray is an acclaimed contemporary artist who has called Santa Fe home since he was a boy. He attended IAIA at age 15 through their high school program and was once described as the “Golden boy of the third generation of Native American modernists”. He is a golden boy with staying power. His work is in major permanent and private collections around the world including the Heard Museum and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American Art and National Museum of the American Indian. In 2002, the Wheelwright Museum held a major retrospective exhibition of his work. He was awarded the Santa Fe Mayor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts in 2010 and received the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts from Governor Susana Martinez at a ceremony on Friday and his work is currently on display in the State Capitol Building exhibit hall with his fellow honorees. In Santa Fe, he is represented by Kristin Johnson Fine Art. I had the pleasure of meeting with Darren to talk life, art, and Santa Fe.
Q: You are married to Jill Momaday, daughter of Pulitzer prize-winning author N. Scott Momaday. What is it like having such a famous, iconic, father-in-law?
A: I met him in 1981, before I met Jill. Natives love jokes and we use humor to break the ice. I can remember laughing with him right away. I met Jill in 1987. She had just come back from Paris and I saw her walking past my studio heading for the Coyote Café for several days in a row. I just thought, I really have to paint her. So I followed her one day and asked her if she would model for me. I was really nervous but she said yes.
Q: Jill is also famous in her own right, having modeled and acted. Is it challenging as a couple?
A: I think it’s challenging with couples who are both dynamic and want to make a mark – nothing’s going to stop you. Sometimes friction does arise. But if you overcome an obstacle and realize there’s a lot of love there, you create a common bond.
Q: Where does the name Gray come from in your name?
A: I made it up. Early in my career I kept being asked if I was related to this Vigil or that Vigil. Gray is an element. White and black make gray. They aren’t colors. You use black and white to shade or tint colors. White, black and gray are the catalyst. I added it to my name to differentiate myself.
Q: It’s said that you incorporate mythological symbols into your paintings. What are some of your favorites and why?
A: There are so many and I don’t know what I’ve painted sometimes until I go back and look at it sometimes years later. When I paint, I don’t conceive anything. It’s just like channeling. That’s where the mythological stuff happens. You can’t create it. It’s like divine intervention. I like working fast and spontaneity is the key. I do like the image of a deer. They’re graceful, poised, instinctive. I did a series Instincts Keep Me Running Like a Deer. They are a symbol of love. My dad taught me that.
Q: Knowing all that you know now, what would you tell your 15 year old self if you could go back and have a chat?
A: That’s the age I left home. I came from Dulce to Santa Fe to attend the IAIA high school program. I guess I would say. Get ready to be an artist. Get ready to discover your creativity. Get ready to overcome the tragedies of your youth and art will be the tool, the catalyst to do that. Art saved my life.
Q: Can you tell us some of the famous people who have collected your work?
A: Sylvester Stallone, Steve Miller, Sir Ben Kingsley.
Q: What exhibition are you most proud of?
A: The Wheelwright Show was a twenty year retrospective of my work. It had a great catalog and a documentary film to go with it.
Q: You’ve been all over the world. You could live anywhere. Why Santa Fe?
A: There’s something about this area. A vortex. There’s a centralized energy in Santa Fe. It’s in the land.
Q: What’s one thing you would change about Santa Fe? One thing you wouldn’t change?
A: I would keep the tri-cultural aspects. That’s unique to Santa Fe and everyone here tries their very best. But I would want less people and a more diverse population from an income standpoint.
Q: What song gets stuck in your head most often?
A: Master Blaster by Stevie Wonder