Robert Martinez’s airy studio is the second story of his house outside of Riverton, Wyoming. The Northern Arapaho artist specializes in the airbrush technique, which means air compressors squat next to desks cluttered with air guns and brilliant paints. 

“I use bright colors,” Martinez explained, “because people are so used to seeing Natives depicted in sepia or black and white photography. Then you think, oh, those are old. Those people don’t exist anymore.”

My use of bright colors is to say that we’re here. We’re alive. We’re going strong. We’re getting stronger. I also do a lot of confrontative pieces. Rather than a romantic looking off toward the mountains, the tipis, the trees. I want my art to adjust expectations of what Native art is and what Native art can be.

Robert Martinez holds a skate deck that he airbrush-painted. (Photo by Melissa Hemken)

His studio walls pulse with his expressive airbrushed portraits. Martinez first learned about airbrush painting at an amusement park. “I sat there — I was about 12 — watching those guys airbrush t-shirts and hats for over an hour,” Martinez recalled. His parents bought Martinez an airbrush and a compressor, and he learned the air gun’s temperament and how to fix his mistakes. By age 16, he airbrushed cars on commission. Three years later he graduated with a bachelor of arts degree from Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design. 

“Art isn’t valued here in Wyoming, except for in Jackson or Cody. Plumbing, welding, all the carpentry are valued, but artwork isn’t,” Martinez said. 

Robert Martinez pulls pencils out of a case to work on a piece of ledger art in his Riverton, Wyoming, studio. (Photo by Melissa Hemken)

“It wasn’t until a couple years ago that I got back to being a full-time artist. When I got out of college, I was. Then real life hits and you go, ‘Oh, sh–. I’m not making that much money. I’ve got to get a real job.’ I’ve done different things over the years. I worked in the schools for the Arapaho tribe. It helped me realize what I don’t want to do.”

I grew up here on the Wind River Reservation, in Riverton, and my family and I are here. If it wasn’t for the Internet, boy, I would not be as far along in my career. I still have to travel seven hours at least to any place to sell art or ship it. Because, Wyoming, we’re so far from anything and everybody.

The last time I went to Jackson, I went on a gallery tour. I gave them my whole spiel. They said, ‘You’re contemporary, and that’s awesome. We already have an Indian.’ Well, there’s not a quota. You can have more than one. What’s funny is that I would guesstimate at least 95% of the artists with gallery representation in Jackson don’t live in Wyoming.

Robert Martinez sketches a piece of ledger art in his Riverton, Wyoming, studio. (Photo by Melissa Hemken)

A single portrait of Martinez’s might include a 1800s headdress, 1990s-era boombox, and breakdancing. “People have these preconceived notions about Natives,” Martinez said. “They think we are all dead. Then, they ask, ‘Do you guys ride horses to get to work? Do you live in a tipi?’ These are serious questions for them. That’s why I use my art to poke holes in those romantic ideas of Natives and the American West.”

A piece of ledger art that I did is of a cowboy taking a selfie. It’s called Hello Cowboy, because the cell phone has a Hello Kitty on it. I like to incorporate pop culture. I’m an old-school hip-hop fan. I try to capture expressions. It’s hard to find that in photos of Natives. When we bring out a camera, everybody puts their smiles away, stops laughing, and gives the stoic look.

Yet, we’re always laughing!

To see more of Robert Martinez’s art:

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.