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Navajos offer artistic feast

Gateway pavilion abounds with art

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The banners around the Gateway that invite visitors to "dine" are double-edged for Navajos.

Dine (Din-AY), which means "the people," is what the tribe calls itself in its native tongue.

"When I saw those banners," says Dan Kennedy, project manager for the Navajo 2002 pavilion at the Gateway, "I was tempted to go around with a marker and add a little accent mark to all the e's."

Indeed, members of the Dine — dining and non-dining — promise to be prevalent during the Olympics. The $1.75 million pavilion, 50 S. 500 West, was built in the form of a hogan with its door to the east. Outside, towers will mark the four directions, and vegetation native to the reservation will be visible. Inside, the pavilion will feature crafts, storytellers, music, food and literature that stresses reasons to visit the Navajo reservation.

The pavilion will showcase seven handsome metal sculptures. Four are by legendary Navajo artist Allan Houser. Two are abstract, modern pieces by one of Houser's pupils, Tony Lee. And Thursday morning, Lee was busy at the site, carefully uncarting the artwork.

"This will be a whole new thing for a lot of people to see," Lee said of his abstracts. "What I'm trying to say with my work is, 'We're into the 21st century now. This is where we're going.' "

Lee's sculptures, which carry Navajo names, give the impression of eagle wings and flight. Yet as abstract as it is, the work still carries an American Indian feel.

"People will have to use a lot of imagination," Lee says. "Each person will have to see what they can in it. My art doesn't sell fast because people expect Navajo art to be done in a certain way."

His two Olympic offerings are for sale, he says with a smile. All people have to do is contact him.

Lee spent a lot of time sketching before settling on the designs. One of his friends persuaded him to enter the juried competition to display art at the Olympics, and he won. He says he likes to work in stainless steel because he knows the work will easily outlive him. He does all the foundry work himself. A native of Pena Blanca, N.M., Lee still does traditional Navajo art, but he enjoys pressing on the frontiers of art more than depicting the American frontier.

The site of the pavilion has been blessed early, though Kennedy says there may be another ceremony performed after the artwork is in place.

As for the pavilion itself, tribal elders are hoping the $1.75 million investment will boost tourism on the reservation and attract some manufacturing contracts from world businesses. "Through this project, we're hoping to have people come in and see what we have," says Wydale Silversmith, a project coordinator.

Adds Lawrence Platero, chairman of the Navajo Economic Development Committee, "Our intention is to draw new faces onto the reservation."

How many new faces will be drawn in is yet to be seen. With the artwork of Tony Lee, however, the tribe is already "projecting" a new face to the world.

E-MAIL: jerjohn@desnews.com