At every step of his wandering life, artist and Indigenous activist Jack Malotte has refused every definition but his own
One night not long ago, artist Jack Malotte was awakened by the sound of a woman’s laughter. At age 67, the Native American elder has for decades inhabited a remote reservation redoubt amid central Nevada’s vast Great Basin. Other than the wind or the howl of a coyote, rural nights are peaceful. Women don’t laugh out here in a community of 192 people — at least not at this hour, not this close.
But Malotte wasn’t dreaming; Chad, his Australian Shepherd, had heard the noise, too. Malotte got up, walked out the front door, and fired off a few rounds from his .22-caliber rifle. He did the same thing out back.
Who knows what he heard. Perhaps it was the shadowy figure Malotte calls “the spirit that follows me,” one that appears in much of his work, art whose subjects range from the spirituality of his Western Shoshone and Washoe ancestors to the injustices nonnative culture has perpetrated upon these sacred lands — US Army massacres, atomic testing, military bombing trials, open-pit mining, and massive water-diversion projects.
He takes the episode in stride, admitting that this place and its history are both violent and mysterious. “My motto is that Duckwater is where the pavement ends and the fun begins,” he says, “the place where the real meets the surreal.”
Born on Northern Nevada’s South Fork Reservation but raised in Reno, Malotte has spent his life and career not being boxed in. He’s not content to be defined as just a silk-screener, or a painter, or even an activist who expresses his political views through line drawings or sweeping Western landscapes. Over the decades he has done all of that and more, capturing vital Indigenous causes in paint, pencil, and ink, and having his work shown worldwide, from European galleries to the Smithsonian. He’s also worked such diverse jobs as a newspaper graphic artist and US Forest Service firefighter, all while lending his artist’s eye to Nevada’s Indigenous protest movement. He’s worked beside Mary and Carrie Dann, the Western Shoshone sisters, who in the 1970s challenged the federal government’s use of their tribe’s traditional lands, a case that went all the way to the US Supreme Court.
Throughout Malotte’s career, marijuana has been his muse. Getting stoned helps connect him to an abstract world that combines the modern and the ancient, making the invisible visible. His paintings depict mythical renderings of ghostlike whirlwinds and geometric cones that hover over an electrical storm moving across the high desert at night. There are commentaries on such challenges as toxic dumping on tribal lands, alcoholism within Indigenous communities, or a scene of US Air Force bombers strafing revered mountains rendered in yellow and purple. In Malotte’s paintings, the mountain ranges and basin valleys come alive with color.
For much of his life he was on the move, each new place more isolated than the next. He married three times, had a daughter, but always felt the press of partners trying to make him something he wasn’t. He lived on people’s couches, becoming more solitary, the “spirit that follows me” always on his trail. As he dispensed with cell phones and official addresses, friends had to contact his mother to learn of his whereabouts. In 1999, Malotte arrived in Duckwater to produce a mural for the high school gym; he fell in love with activist Virginia Sanchez, who would become his fourth wife, and never left.
I’m an artist who happens to be Indian,”Malotte says. “Michelangelo didn’t sign his work as an Italian, to define himself in thatway, so why should we?
Duckwater, an hour west of Ely, now serves as his base, where he works in a trailer-turned studio, situated off a dust-swirled dirt track, the property line marked by a forlorn white truck. When he moved out here, he jokes, people thought he’d died. But it is just such isolation that fuels Malotte’s creativity, allowing him the space to create. It took him a full two years to get used to the quiet and endless space. But now when he hears the city’s car horns and shouting, he longs for the tranquility of the reservation.
He takes long, wandering rides in his Toyota Tacoma pickup to find promising landscapes, such as Diamond Peak, creating images of the mountaintop reflecting ethereal light after a recent snowfall.
When he converted the old trailer into his art studio four years ago, he had, for the first time in his life, a place to store his art. He recalls visiting folks across the West to collect pieces he’d left behind on loan. He’d meet with old friends, spot a long-ago piece of his hanging on the wall, and ask, “Geez, where’d ya get that?”
In person, Malotte is quiet and quirky. He uses leftover paint to create unorthodox designs on his studio’s inner doors. He’s like a stoner who takes a hit and stares at the stars. Yet his body of work, while lush, is always pointed and always speaks loudly.
“Jack gives Nevada’s issues a global relevance,” says Ann Wolfe, curator at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, which in 2019 hosted an exhibit of Malotte’s work. “He depicts events from open-pit mining to experiments at the Nevada Test Site that have a huge influence worldwide. His work shows a world that’s out of the way, in the margins, out of sight, out of mind, the places people don’t get to see but are still so important.”
Malotte says his artistic stance in any given work depends on how he feels the day he faces the blank canvas. But one thing he’s adamant about: He is not a Native American artist. “I’m an artist who happens to be Indian,” he says. “Michelangelo didn’t sign his work as an Italian, to define himself in that way, so why should we?”
Malotte sits in his trailer studio and talks about the past. Soon to be a great-grandfather, he exudes a youthful energy, his silver hair shaved close at the sides, the back gathered into a ponytail. He wears bib overalls and laughs a lot.
As a boy on the reservation, he fished and swam in the South Fork of the Humboldt River and did small crafts when the mood struck him. He encountered his first serious visual artist at his grandmother’s kitchen table, as he sat across his uncle Bobby, a draftsman for the local power company who drew cartoon caricatures in pencil.
The boy marveled at the flow of creativity and wanted that outlet for himself. He took drafting classes in high school. When he wasn’t playing football, he was drawing — figures of animals and Native American spirits.
“My high school art teacher and my mother pushed me into art school,” Malotte recalls. “I didn’t think I wanted to go. I was just dumb at that point. I was 17.”
He attended what is now called the California College of the Arts in Oakland, where trips to local record stores influenced his developing style. Album covers were their own art form, and he would buy records for the messages on the cover, most times without ever having heard the music. Aubrey Beardsley, Maxfield Parrish, and even Walt Disney are among his other influences.
While he didn’t graduate, Malotte’s college training made both his art and his worldview more disciplined. Even as his instructors discouraged him, Malotte incorporated Native American culture and commentary into his work, which included a portrait of the Lakota leader Sitting Bull, and another of US Army officer George Custer, with blood drops sprayed across the paper.
After leaving the Bay Area, Malotte began his peripatetic life, never living in one place for long. He learned to dislike the assembly-line drudgery of what it took to sell his paintings in galleries, redoing the same images if they became popular, like a singer with one hit song. Malotte decided that his best audience was Jack Malotte.
“It was kind of trippy,” he says. “I came from a place where, when it came to the arts, anything goes, so when I went to the art galleries in Arizona and an owner gave me the lowdown of what sells, it stopped me. He said, ‘I like this one and that one, give me 10 like this and 10 like that.’ I did two and it got boring, so I quit.”
He experimented with silk-screening, drawing, drafting, and painting. He became partial to T-shapes and triangles in his work, always trying to loosen up, stretch himself, using a base in geometry to develop his own free-flowing style.
By 1978, Malotte was back in Reno. “I was an easygoing pot smoker who used to party like hell,” he says. “In the 1970s, you made a lot of friends when you walked around town with a garbage bag full of weed.”
One day, while getting high, a friend turned to him and said, “Jack, we gotta get you a job.” He picked up the newspaper classified ads and pointed to one: “Artist Wanted.” Malotte soon began working as a pasteup and editorial artist for what is now the Reno Gazette-Journal, illustrating news articles and advertisements. Since then, he’s always been open to assigned work, but his heart had always been in his own art.
In the 1980s, Malotte began designing posters, pamphlets, murals, and publicity materials for Native American activists and environmental groups, including the Western Shoshone Sacred Lands Association, which was pressuring the US government to return traditional native lands. That’s when he met the Dann sisters, two tribal leaders who were making headlines as activists. He found out he was related to the pair, who told him about his ancestors. Malotte’s father and mother are both descended from the Te-Moak Band of Western Shoshone.
While Mary Dann was reserved, Carrie stayed in your face. “I’d meet them for breakfast, and Carrie would give me advice,” he says. “It was like she was yelling, bawling at me to come see them more often, and to get more political.” But Malotte shied away from the front lines. “I knew I wasn’t a speechmaker,” he says. “I wasn’t out there yelling and shaking my fist. As an artist, people came to me like a hired gun. That wasn’t my thing.”
His wife Virginia agrees. “Jack got pulled into situations,” she says. “He likes choices. As he gets older, he’s just as political, but probably more wise.”
Lately, Malotte’s activism has mellowed, though the military jets still hawk the landscape in many pieces. He’s also at work on a large painting about little-known US Army massacres of tribes in central Nevada. The political edge remains. He gives his silk-screened T-shirts such design names as Indian Uprising, Sagebrush Heathen, Pesky Redskins, and Wretched Savages, playing off the derogatory phrases often applied to Native Americans. “They’re little political jabs,” he says.
In one recent work titled “Shot in the Heart,” he depicts the controversy surrounding Cave Rock, a formation on the shore of Lake Tahoe that has long been sacred to the Washoe tribe. Now the cave had been taken over by rock climbers, the rock pierced by two tunnels used by gamblers and tourists. The Washoe see the move as cultural theft. Malotte’s piece shows blood seeping from the tunnels; above, mysterious figures rise and flee from the lake, representing the loss of its spiritual powers.
Such work satisfies him. Yet every time Malotte creates art on commission, he ends up asking himself why. Like the time a woman wanted her late husband’s ashes mixed in with the paint. Malotte politely declined; that would be messing with the spirits.
Or the time he painted a boardroom mural for a Reno executive. The customer was a pilot and wanted a scene of jets flying on the horizon, so like he always does, Malotte painted his mountains in technicolor.
The man wasn’t pleased. He wanted his mountains to be a realistic drab brown. So the artist went back to work, mixing up a color he likened to baby poop.
“Okay!” the man said when the work was done. “That’s what I want!”
Malotte sighs. “I didn’t like it,” he says, “but he was the boss.”
Jack Malotte has spent decades capturing vital Indigenous causes in paint,
pencil, and ink, and has exhibited his work worldwide, from European galleries to the Smithsonian. Samples of his work in the gallery below.
Malotte still takes long drives in his white pickup, looking for inspiration for his next work. But after two decades, he has to scout hard for new images, absorbing all he can, joking that at least the trips have shown him where to find all the good firewood in the valley.
“I look for drama, the changing colors, the light through the clouds,” he says. “In Duckwater, all you have is a lot of horizon.”
Much of Malotte’s artistic vision comes from memories. Once, while climbing a cliff as a boy, he looked up to see an eagle soaring directly above him, hovering in the wind. Before it flew off, the bird looked down at the boy. “I’ll always remember those eyes,” Malotte says. Now, when he draws eagles, the eyes always come first. It’s the same thing with mountain lions or wolves. He’s spotted both in the wild, their yellow orbs burned into his cortex.
His renderings of nighttime desert downpours come from moments as a child when he sat in an outhouse, keeping the door open, so he could watch the electrical storms move across the darkened landscape, lightning flashing on a far horizon.
And he will always remember the time when his young daughter, Cora, discovered a coyote resting beneath the family car. Malotte had never seen a coyote that close up, but the girl wasn’t afraid and neither was the coyote, and for the longest time she squatted there, talking to it.
“In Shoshone culture, the coyote is like our father, the person who brought us here,” Malotte says. “People say the coyote must have been someone we know, whose spirit had come back to talk to us.”
These days, Malotte still communes with wild animals. Not long ago, he and Virginia began feeding four feral cats that turned up on the property. Pretty soon, several skunks and ravens also found the food and began showing up at mealtime.
“So we feed them, too,” Malotte says. “I say they’re all part of my tribe now.”
Meanwhile, Malotte continues to make new art. Surrounded by cherished works of the past, he might smoke a joint to get to that creative place in his mind. Then he sits down to produce. “I’m trying to do as much as I can before the end comes,” he says. “Sooner than later, the ‘spirit that follows me’ is finally going to catch up.”