Segullah Co-Editor-in-Chief and Art Director, Linda Hoffman Kimball interviewed remarkably gifted artist Kwani Povi Winder, winner of 1st place in the Segullah 2019 contest, visual arts category. Kwani shares insights into her work, her heritage, her family, and her other remarkable gifts with us. As interviewer, Linda had no idea going into this that she would be including bugs, despair or the phrase “cadaver lab”!
Segullah: In your first place winning painting for the 2019 Segullah visual arts contest, your mother is the subject in “My Prayer.” What is she like?
Kwani: My mother is an incredible woman. She has a spirit that is so in tune that she can just sense things from people. She is the rock in our family and I attribute many of my successes to her patient encouragement. I am who I am because my mom is who she is. She has given me the greatest gift of life and she continues to give the great gift of love. In the same way my grandparents have paved the way for me.
My mother’s foundation of faith is the belief that I am blessed to build upon. Her belief empowers my own. Words cannot express how much I love and admire her. She is the reason I have this beautiful heritage. She is the reason that I started to explore painting native figures with an inspirational feeling to them. I love the painting “My Prayer” because I wanted to capture not only what she looks like, but her spirit, who she is, and the pillar of faith she is in my life.
Segullah: She sounds as glorious as your paintings of her depict!
Kwani: My mother is Native American from the Santa Clara Pueblo tribe in New Mexico. My father is an Idaho farm boy, and I grew up next to his side of the family. My mom was a school teacher, so during the summers we would go down to the reservations and spend time with my grandmother and her side of the family. My mother is the only one of her siblings that has left New Mexico and most of my cousins grew up on the reservation. Because we would go down there once or twice a year, I would say that it was still very much a part of my life. I think I took it for granted. Being a young child, I didn’t really realize that not everyone had this “other” part of them. That other children my age didn’t go visit family that had a totally different and unique culture. It was just part of my life and who I was, and I assumed others had something similar for them.
Because I’m one of the youngest grandchildren on that side, many stories and things were shared that I don’t remember. My grandfather passed away when I was around 4 years old. I vaguely remember him, but the stories of him and his strength and testimony were very much a part of my upbringing.
I was older – early teens, I think – when my grandmother passed away. I remember her well. Sometimes my mom and I would go down to New Mexico to be with her. Her health slowly declined those last couple years, and we would spend time taking care of her. You take care of your elders, you don’t place them in nursing homes. You care for them and honor their life and what they have given you by giving back your time to them.
Segullah: Was your father also Native American?
Kwani: No. My dad’s side of the family comes from a long line of LDS church members, having ancestors that crossed the plains. I was reared in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I was born and raised in Southeast Idaho near my father’s family.
On my mother’s side the pioneers are my grandparents. They endured a lot of persecution and trials because of their conversion. They actually joined the Church while they were living in Tooele, UT, for a time. Afterwards they felt strongly that they needed to return to the village. So when my mother was young, around 10, they moved back to the reservation. My grandfather was a branch president for many years, and they even held church in their home. Because of their faith, their example, and their trials, I have been blessed to have a strong testimony. I know the people that they were, and I know the hard things that they faced and endured. Knowing those things makes it easier for me to trust and have faith in the gospel. They laid a very a strong foundation that I have been able to build upon.
As I grew older and entered college, life got busy and I wasn’t able to visit as frequently as I should have. I kind of set that part of me aside for a while. I really regret that. It wasn’t until I started to pursue art that I started to explore my heritage again. I have been very grateful to have time to spend with my uncle and aunts learning from them, learning the things that I know I was taught in my youth, but now I’m older and can appreciate them more.
Segullah: Do you have siblings?
Kwani: I have one older brother and one older sister. We are pretty far spaced in age. My sister, Teva, is 15 years older than I am, and my brother, Joseph, is 5 years older. Since I am the youngest, they definitely feel that I received privileges they didn’t, but it’s not my fault that I was so cute. (laughs) But really they have been my champions.
I idolize my sister, Teva. I even named my daughter after her (Tayva). Teva was always there for me for track meets and concerts. She was like a second mother in some ways. Joseph and I were typical “beat-on-each-other-but-don’t-push-it-so-far-that-we-get-in-trouble” siblings. We definitely have a different relationship now that we are older, but he supports me as well. His family comes to almost every show opening that I have. I am very grateful that I have such a strong relationship with them. We are all artistic in our own ways, and it’s amazing the support that we have for one another, and that we can lean on each other when we need. I am very blessed with a beautiful family.
My father passed away unexpectedly when I was newly married, not even 5 months. My dad and I were close. I was very much a daddy’s girl. His passing was devastating for me.
Segullah: I’m so sorry for your loss.
Segullah: You certainly have a fascinating heritage!
Tell us a bit about your husband and daughter.
Kwani: My husband Dallen and I are from the same rural farm country in Idaho and actually grew up on the same street – just 8 or so miles and a few houses away from each other. We were not, however, high school sweethearts. His sister is my age and was a good friend. We had just graduated high school when Dallen returned home from his mission. All his friends were either at college or still on their missions, so he came to a few of our parties. I thought he was cute, so made a point to talk to him. We started dating when both of us were up at BYU-Idaho that fall semester and were married a year later.
I could not do what I do without Dallen’s help and support. He’s my listening ear, my fresh eyes, my chef, he does the laundry and dishes so I don’t have to. His emotional and physical support is the sole reason I can be an artist. And he didn’t even sign up for this life. I was a biology major when we got married, and didn’t switch my major until a year after we were married. He never even batted an eye. He supported me fully, and I am forever grateful for him.
My daughter Tayva is 3 ½. She has been the most amazing companion. I enjoy each day I have with her. Her nature is such that I don’t have to paint just during nap times. She does her thing, and I do mine during the day. She’ll usually let me know when it’s time to break for lunch or a snack. I am her primary caregiver, so she comes plein air painting with me and even accompanies me to shows I participate in. From the time she was born, I would wear her on my front or back while I painted. Once she could crawl, I moved my easel and painting downstairs into our family room and did some major baby proofing so she could explore while I painted. Now that she’s older she will paint or draw alongside me. I try to say yes to her whenever I can. She even helps me put hardware on paintings and really has learned to respect my artwork and not touch things if I ask her not to.
Segullah: What were you like as a child?
Kwani: I was a very artsy child. I was drawing from the time I could hold a pencil. My mother played a strong part in that because she is an artist in her own right. But more than that she encouraged our creativity. We also come from a line of pottery makers, and so I would say it’s also in my blood. That being said, I didn’t take any formal art classes until I was in High School. I definitely had a talent for art, but never thought that I would be anything more than a hobby.
Segullah: You say on your website that “Art is my solace: the only light I found in a dark time.” If you’re comfortable sharing a little more about that, what was your “dark time”?
Kwani: After my dad died so unexpectedly, I was lost. I was angry. I was numb. I fell down a deep dark hole and didn’t see any light. Honestly it was all I could do to get up some days. I actually don’t remember much of the summer following his passing. My husband and I moved home from Rexburg to be with my mom so she wasn’t alone, and I spent my days in darkness.
I actually took one class – head and neck anatomy – just to have some sort of schedule in my life. But I remember feeling so worthless watching all the happy normal people around me, who had no idea that I was drowning. I was pursuing a degree in biology with the intent to become a physical therapist, and my whole world was turned upside down.
So I turned to art. Now I can’t even tell you what I did. Not even sure if it would qualify as “art,” but I created. And I saw just a glimmer of light.
So I did a little more, and a saw a little more light in my darkness.
Fast forward to that fall. I felt like something needed to change. I don’t remember exactly my thought process, but I do remember thinking that if art is where I turn to for light, then I should probably be headed that direction. And it was hard.
I LOVED what I was learning in Biology. I was good at it. It was fascinating, invigorating, and it also kept me going after my father’s death.
But I remember receiving the distinct impression that other people could do what I was doing. Far fewer people were blessed with my ability to create. I’d been ignoring my talent, and it was time for me to take stewardship over the gift I had been given.
So I switched, three classes shy of my biology degree. My poor husband didn’t marry an artist, but he’s married to one now. There were other miracles and guidance that led me, but that was the turning point. That light in my darkness hour, that contrast, helped me to see the clear path I needed to pursue.
I was always creating, I was known for my artwork in high school. There was a group of us in high school that competed in everything. We all played piano and competed against each other in festivals. We did well in school and competed in grades. We all did sports, choir, drama, and art and succeeded at those things as well. So my success an artist wasn’t unique, because there was the group of us that all did well. It wasn’t until I got to college and took my first art class from Leon Parson that I started to realize just how amazing my high school art education was and how much I had already learned.
Leon Parson actually sat me down at the end of that semester and told me that I could make it as an artist. At the time, I was a dedicated Biology major and had only taken the class so that my best friend, who was an art major at the time, didn’t have to walk home alone at 9pm at night. I was also fresh out of high school, and still had the viewpoint that yeah, sure, everyone can do art if they try. It wasn’t until I was actually in the BFA program that I learned that Leon had a reputation for discouraging people from pursuing art as a career because he knew exactly what it would take to become an artist and many didn’t have it.
Segullah: That is fascinating! It’s remarkable that you had a close bond as a teenager with all those “competitors”. It’s inspiring that you took the tragedy of your father’s death and allowed light to seep back into you through art. I find it noble that you listened to nudges toward changing majors at that point in your life. Thank you for your candor and your willingness to share with us.
Segullah: On your website it says: “Through her paintings she seeks to preserve, share and educate about her unique heritage.” Here’s an open door for you! What do you want the rest of the world to know and understand about your “unique heritage”? Take the mike and preach, sister!
Kwani: There are over 500 recognized Native American tribes in the United States. Each one having their own unique culture, traditions and beliefs. We are all so different. I feel like too many people expect me to know everything about any tribe, when I am still learning about my own, let alone any other tribes. Mostly I seek to give a spirit or personality to the fanaticized image many people carry about the Native Americans. We are real people that have a life and history, but the incredible and important thing is our history is not in the past. It is still alive and living within us.
Overall, not many people know about the Southwest tribes. I have found that most know more of the Plains Indians and their culture. The pueblo people are very different. They have been sedentary people for centuries. Farmers, as well as hunter/gatherers.There are 19 pueblo tribes along the Rio Grande and we have similar cultures, but many don’t even speak the same language. Because we still live where our ancestors lived, we have been able to keep many of our stories and traditions. They were not lost as the world moved into modern times.
That being said, my grandparents were ones that were placed in boarding schools and whipped for speaking their native Tewa language. Because of that, my parent’s generation was encouraged to assimilate into the modern world, and consequently my generation wasn’t taught the same things. We recognize that things are being lost, and we no longer have quite the social pressures on us to “forget” the Indians ways. So many of my generation is going back and trying to record and live a culture that was starting to be lost when my grandparents’ generation started to pass away.
A large part of why I started to paint Native dancers from our tribe is to record our clothing and capture a visual history of what our dancers wear and how they dress.
I didn’t start out wanting to educate others about my culture. I feel very inadequate to share myself because I am still learning. However, I have found that as I paint our people, others want to know about us. They want to learn why we wear the clothes we do. What the different parts symbolize. How do we still practice our Indian ways. In many ways I have been grateful for their questions because they encourage me to learn for myself and ask questions of my own.
Segullah: The rest of us are blessed by your journey and discoveries along the way.
Getting back to your art now, how did your background in biology aid your creative process? Your figurative work is so strong and compelling!
Kwani: I love human anatomy. I actually became a TA (Teaching Assistant) for our advanced anatomy lab after I switched to art. It was kind of funny because you would have some (not all) arrogant pre-med students that would be floored at the fact that they were learning from an art major. You could see them struggle with the fact that I knew my stuff even though I wasn’t a biology major.
The time I spent in the cadaver lab – learning muscles attachments, actions, bones – informed my art. Knowing what you are painting and how everything is put together has greatly influenced my figurative work.
I would also mention my biology background in studying light and how the eyes perceive light. It helps me to understand why certain lighting is the way it is. Light is relatively predictable and having a strong background in the “hows and whys” of why that is has made it easier to accurately record it.
Segullah: You obviously enjoy Plein Air work – and apparently so does your little girl. What are the joys and struggles of working that way? Was this a method you learned in school or was it something you needed no instruction in?
Kwani: I was first introduced to painting en plein air during school. I immediately fell in love. I have always loved the outdoors and beautiful scenery and all of a sudden there was a tool I could use to capture those moments that take your breath away. There is something exhilarating by working in nature and being in the moment of an image. You get to take in the whole surroundings – the smell, the light, and the sounds and visually record it in a way that no camera ever could.
There are quite a few things that discourage others from plein air painting. The elements seem to conspire against you sometimes. The sun is a big one, it can get HOT. Wind is also a challenge. There is nothing more heart wrenching than watching your precious painting that you have labored over catch air and land face down in the dirt.
The thing that really gets me is bugs. The first time I ever encountered them it was horrendous. I was painting this beautiful river and cottonwood scene with the golden light of sunset. I just had a few things to finish up so decided to stay and paint after the sunset because you still have a good 30-60 minutes of light. BIG MISTAKE. The second the sun went down, a massive hoard of insects took to the air and made it their personal mission to attach themselves to my painting. All my hard work, covered so thoroughly with bugs that if you looked at my painting from the side it looked like it was fur. I inhaled quite a bit of protein that night! (laughs.) Ugh, it’s been over 7 years, and I still shudder to think of how many bugs there were. Bugs are about the only thing that stops me from finishing a painting. I have even stayed painting through rain and snow. But bugs? I’m out of there!
Segullah: I see also that you took both watercolor and oil painting courses. Those are very different media. Do you have a preference between them? What do you like about each of these forms of artistic expression?
Kwani: I love watercolor paintings. I am completely fascinated by them. How fresh and loose and free people can be as they work with water to create these vibrant masterpieces. I cannot for the life of me paint the way that the artists I admire paint watercolors. I think it will be my lifelong pursuit to learn how to paint watercolors that are free like the ones I admire. It is almost a complete opposite to the approach of painting an oil painting – starting with white and working dark (I do the opposite in oils) – that my brain just can’t seem to get comfortable enough with it. I’m very grateful for having taken watercolor classes. I learned so much about the nature of different pigments. I understand which colors have a strong mixing strength, and color harmonies all from the time I have spent working in watercolor, which is essentially pure pigment.
I definitely prefer to paint in oils. The beautiful thing about oil paint is that you can get a little sculpture-y with your brushstrokes. You get a little 3d action with thick and thin paint. I also like that the working time is long, and that if I make a mistake I can cover it up. I love communicating form not only in values but in direction and thickness of brushstroke.
Another medium I admire greatly is sculpture. I discovered it late in my career, but if I had started out there, I might have been a sculptor instead of a painter. I’m grateful I’m a painter, though, because an easel is a little easier to haul around than a bag of clay and kiln!
My fascination with other mediums doesn’t end there. Once I started into art I took as many different art classes that I could while I was at college. I fell in love with photography, which has also been a HUGE asset to painting. Understanding how different lighting situations communicate mood, how to even just control your camera to capture the correct values/color for a reference file has been a great advantage to me as a painter.
I also really enjoy book making and printmaking. I love fibers and paper and work intimately with them.
If you want to learn about pigment, learn how to paint in watercolor.
If you want to learn about light, learn how to take photographs.
If you want to learn about form and anatomy, learn how to sculpt.
If you want to learn about line and value, learn from printmaking.
All these different parts of art work in concert and inform one another. It’s fascinating to me and I will always take any opportunity I can to learn more in any subject I can.
Segullah: When you paint, what are the toughest challenges you face (besides bugs)?
Kwani: The thing I struggle with most when painting is the prep work. I’m ashamed to say that it wasn’t until the last couple years that I gained an understanding of just how important the planning phase of a painting is. It’s a shot in the dark if you just jump into a painting without doing any sketches or having any idea of what your value composition is or exactly what your focal point is going to be. I have ruined many a painting by being too eager. Because honestly for me, the fun part is applying paint, but that’s like the tip of iceberg when it comes to everything that goes into a painting. It’s only been since I slowed down and actually starting applying the things I was taught in college – sketching, value studies, color studies, thumbnails – that I started to see my work grow and I started to make gains in my ability quicker.
Everyone has that pile of past paintings, and many of mine are extremely painful to look at. (laughs.) I don’t know what I was even thinking with some of them. There is one particular landscape that comes to mind. If you were to look at it in black and white, it would be solid gray. In real life it’s a vibrant fall scene, but my values were so off that it’s a painful reminder to me that I always need to have a plan.
Segullah: When you’re NOT painting – or getting ready for an exhibition, or entering competitions, or stretching canvases or whatever prep your artwork requires – what do you enjoy doing with your time? (Also assuming you have any left over time!)
Kwani: Art definitely is my life. If I am not painting, chances are that I am doing something related to art, even if it’s just capturing a beautiful sunset in my memory.
Our family goes camping and hiking as often as we can. We LOVE being in nature and getting away to spaces where things slow down and we can breathe. We also enjoy traveling to places where we can hike and camp. Every year we try to take a trip to someplace new that has beautiful nature to explore.
I also love reading, I have to be careful when I start a book, because I get sucked in, and will stay up until 2-3am just to see what happens in the next chapter. Some of my favorite books are: Books I Love: “Black Beauty,” “Kite Runner,” “The Giver,” “The Hobbit,” anything by Brandon Sanderson but especially the “Stormlight Archives,” and any pop-up bug books by David A. Carter.
Another big part of my life is music. I really enjoy playing piano when I can, and I sing with a local women’s group. Most of these things are combined with family. There is nothing I love more than spending an evening playing board games and laughing, those are the moments that recharge and inspire me.
Segullah: Thank you for sharing so much of your art, life, thoughts and talent with us, Kwani. Congratulations on being our 2019 1st Place Visual Arts winner and continued success with all your endeavors!
You can see more of Kwani’s work at kwaniwinder.com