Jacquelyn Yepa named 2022 Institute of American Indian Arts Student of the Year

·4 min read

Mar. 13—Jacquelyn Yepa is a metal head, an A-student and a fervent advocate for continuing local Indigenous culture.

That's a winning combination for the Institute of American Indian Arts, which named her its 2022 Student of the Year in late February. The school, which listed an enrollment of more than 690 in fall 2020, will award Yepa a scholarship of $1,200 for the achievement from the American Indian College Fund.

The 22-year-old artist is set to graduate in December and is planning for a long career ahead in the Southwestern art world.

"Yepa is a responsible, diligent, and accomplished student with excellent writing and speaking skills," institute President Robert Martin recently wrote in an email announcing her selection.

He added, "She is an excellent student leader, artist, and businesswoman who can make a tremendous difference at the local, tribal, and national levels."

Yepa (Diné, Jemez Pueblo) grew up in Albuquerque always interested in art. Her dad paints landscapes and does pyrography (wood burning), and she grew up going to art shows and learning to speak up to help sell his works.

"That's kind of how I got more out of my comfort zone," she said.

Years later, Yepa is completing a final senior project at the institute that will fuse her loves of painting and ceramic sculpture with a beloved topic: Native American metal bands, like Albuquerque-based three-piece band Suspended. Yepa's project will exhibit four emotions she relates to the experience of listening to metal: happiness, sadness, aggression and calm.

"When I paint and kind of try to get in the zone of finding what I want to do, I like to put on some heavy metal," she said. "It reminds me of good times with my family."

Yepa grew up going to shows with her family. Since high school, she has had a denim vest brimming with patches representing various bands.

"If I could sing, I would try to be in a band too," she said.

On a chilly Thursday afternoon in a studio room at the institute, Yepa's studio space was covered in paint flecks. The framed works in her studio rely on deep blues and oranges, and they often depict images of "creatures" of her own design. One work is a black-and-white ink drawing depicting a delighted sloth clad in a patch vest, straddling a tree-branch.

Much of her work in the studio features geometric shapes, including a cuddly looking, pastel-colored ceramic figure named "XO" that holds a piece of tile in its hand that fits into its body like a puzzle piece.

"They're inspired by mosaic tiling," she said of her works. "I love how the shapes fit perfectly together."

Since she was a teenager, Yepa has worked summers for an organization called Apprenticeships for Leaders in Mosaic Arts in Albuquerque, designing mosaic sculpture installations around town. She has learned to hand-make and cut the ceramic tiles there and now is a lead apprentice.

Her ceramics professor, Daisy Quezada, said she noticed early on how Yepa, "a total rock star," pushed the boundaries within ceramics during an introductory class and later brought students together through the medium.

"She was super engaged," Quezeda said. "I felt like she was always lifting up the class. ... She was always invigorating and full of energy."

Yepa graduated from Cibola High School in 2018. She split much of her youth among Newcomb on the Navajo Nation, Jemez Pueblo and Albuquerque.

In high school, she said, she was sometimes shy and felt isolated being one of few Native American students.

"All the textbooks were just filled with white artists," she recalls of her high school history classes.

Being in a university environment around more Native students and staff members has helped heal that loneliness, she said.

"I'm really glad I went here; this school really changed my mindset," she said.

Yepa helped establish the Keeping Indigenous Values Alive club on campus, through which she worked to revive a Pueblo Feast Day for students.

"We got a lot of kids who wanted to share their traditions with each other, and just talk about home," she said. "And what kind of stuff we have in relation to each other."

Yepa, who is studying both studio arts and business entrepreneurship, hopes to combine both areas of expertise by establishing an organization to help Native youth in more remote areas get paid for their creative work.

"It'd be another opportunity to get kids somewhere and get the chance to do something they're interested in," she said.

But first Yepa plans to continue on to another college program, this time in the field of botany.

She hopes to get a better sense of the medicinal value of plants in the Southwest, and possibly move to Durango, Colo., after graduation.

"Being Native and growing up in a city, I wasn't able to have that connection I really wanted with the land," Yepa said in a recent interview.

Yepa hopes other Native American youth interested in art will keep applying for opportunities, like she has throughout her time at the Institute for American Indian Arts.

"Take little steps," she said. "It could turn into something else."