Artist really connects with his work

The picture that Yatzie Dee took down from the wall looked, to an uninformed eye, like a depiction of a myth or a tribal memory — certainly nothing that reflected life in modern Southern California.

But as Dee spoke in his soft, high voice, the image took on layers of meaning.

In his tight booth at Huntington Beach's Pier Plaza Art-A-Faire last week, Dee cradled his painting, "The Evil Dance," and gave a detailed explanation. The framed watercolor-and-Sharpie picture depicts a sequence in which a Native American, midway through a dance, is assailed by a dark figure whose face consists only of beady eyes.

A medicine man comes and tries to intervene but finds himself chased away by the dark figure — until he returns with a second medicine man and prevails.

Dee, a longtime exhibitor at the weekly craft market, grew up with a Seminole tribe in Florida, but the narrative depicted in the painting owes just as much to City of Hope. That's the hospital in Duarte where he created the work in bed last December, and the dark figure represents the cancer that Dee has battled for years.

As for the multiple medicine men? Those are the doctors who worked to save his life, and if Dee sells the painting, he plans to give some of the proceeds to City of Hope and possibly other charities.

"I will just keep enough to eat and pay my bills," said Dee, 62, a Banning resident.

Dee's booth, which consists of paintings, jewelry, medicine shields and other indigenous art, was a mainstay for nearly a decade at the Art-A-Faire. The past three years, his appearances have been rarer as he went through chemotherapy, but he occasionally came back to visit with his girlfriend. This summer, he moved back into his space, and the market is happy to have him back.

"Everybody was so concerned," said Pam Free, the event's co-manager. "Everybody just loves him."


'Like a little village'

If Pier Plaza didn't reside next to the beach, Dee might never have set up a booth there.

About 10 years ago, the artist ventured to Huntington Beach to swim in the ocean and noticed a cluster of tents off Main Street and Pacific Coast Highway. Dee approached Free, who has helped organize the Art-A-Faire since 1995, and soon got the go-ahead for a booth.

The market, which is not associated with Art-A-Fair in Laguna Beach, launched in a vacant parking lot off Main Street and Olive Avenue. After a few years of growth, it moved to Pier Plaza in 2000.

Free and co-founder Toni Groat aim to be as eclectic as possible in their lineup, which means that artists who work in more common media often find themselves on a waiting list for booths. Dee, on the other hand, offered a rare commodity — authentic Native American art — which made him a shoo-in.

Nearly every Friday, and one or two full weekends in a typical month, as many as 55 vendors set out their wares — most of them handmade by the artists. The offerings range from paintings and jewelry to the more offbeat: Carolyn Walker makes wind chimes out of vintage plates and other repurposed items, while Bill Sollis and Tara Stemper, who run the business Bottle Rehab, create glassware out of liquor and soda bottles.

In the past two decades, Free has seen participants strike up friendships, even marry and have children. If a vendor dies, others at the market gather for a memorial.

"We're really like a little village," she said.


A Lakota in spirit

In Dee's case, it's far from the first village.

For nearly a quarter-century, he has set up his work at the Soboba Inter-Tribal Pow Wow in San Jacinto, Morongo Thunder & Lightning Pow Wow in Banning and other events. Some of his jewelry materials come from visits to reservations, where he collects pieces that are old, broken or missing stones and repairs them to resell.

A San Carlos, Ariz., native, Dee moved back to California — after living in several places — in the 1980s to establish his art career. Many of his paintings tell his life story or that of his family.

One favorite, which he displays at the Art-A-Faire, depicts him as a small child with his dog beside him and parents in the background next to a teepee and campfire. Over his shoulder looms the spirit of his grandmother, whose long white hair seems to flow into his body, signifying her ongoing presence in his life.

Some of Dee's recent material reflects a heritage other than his own. But it doesn't always feel that way to him.

A year ago, the artist needed a bone-marrow transplant, and doctors found a potential donor — a 92% match — who lived across the country. She was a Lakota, and after the transplant, Dee had a dream in which he sat with a Lakota tribe around a teepee, while a medicine man came to each member and told his or her fate.

Earlier this year, he made a painting of the scene while in the hospital.

"When the medicine man came out to me," Dee said, "he told me I was going to survive."


If You Go

What: Pier Plaza Art-A-Faire

Where: Pier Plaza, by the beach off Main Street and Pacific Coast Highway, Huntington Beach

When: Fridays from noon to 7 p.m. or sunset, whichever comes first; select Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. or sunset. (The market is canceled select Fridays. Check schedule at

Cost: Free admission


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