The Crestone Eagle • December, 2020

World renowned mural artist transforms the Elephant Cloud

by Alma Carel

As if overnight, a plain wall was transformed into a dancing array of colour and form, rich with intention. Though many people were fortunate to stop by downtown to both witness and participate in the process, the whole thing happened very fast indeed while racing the weather.

The goal was to bring more colour and joy to this frequented area of town, to remind people that we are all connected, the importance of the self within community and the place of community within nature.

It was beautiful to see people from many different walks of life take a moment of peace and self reflection to contribute their hopes and wishes for the community. Many enjoyed getting out of their comfort zone and left glowing a little more than before.

Focus Smith. photo by Michelle Beelendorf

That is what happens when Focus Smith comes to town. A muralist of Lakota and Diné heritage with a unique depth of vision and ability to create healing by uplifting and empowering those around him through art. This is work which he does tirelessly in his home in Rapid City South Dakota and neighbouring Pine Ridge Reservation, where he teaches both children and adults to try their hand at something new and discover their artistic abilities. His work interprets traditional Lakota culture through graffiti, bringing these old ways to the youth with what he calls “The coolness factor” and working to make indigenous people, stories and struggles visible to the world.

Focus is self-taught, and has been learning the art of graffiti from the age of 14. Without any formal training he has turned this skill into a sucessful career with work all over this country and as far as France. Graffiti is a skilled and diverse art form and community, which is not the same as vandalism, as Focus likes to remind people. He is a very prolific creator in many mediums, a master of his craft, and a teacher who holds a space of strength and humility. Every piece is infused with a great amount of thought and symbolism. There is more and more to see each time one looks.

When Focus and I first met, we were teenagers participating in a prayer run for the healing of the world. Since then, we have always been connected even over great distances. For years we have shared art, writings, and support. Anyone who knows me has probably already been moved by his work as it is something I have shared over the years.

Since I have lived in Crestone, there has been talk of visiting and painting some walls but until now we couldn’t quite cross paths. When the time is right, things fall together, and this year was that time. In the autumn, Focus was able to stop by and have a great connection with Tim and Mary Windwalker. Thus began the discussion of bringing some murals to Crestone.

On this second trip, our friends Brandon Bussard and Melanie Redmond enthusiastically brought Focus together with Benji and Michelle, the owners of the Elephant Cloud Market. To everyone’s delight, the proposal was received warmly and we are all very grateful for the support and trust in this creative process.

The first step was to set the stage with a mountain range. The magnetic mountains which drew many of us here contain the valley and ecosystem we are a part of. This was done entirely with rollers.

Next was to invite people passing by to participate by writing positive affirmations on the wall to later be infused into the foundation of the mural. Creativity flowed, and the wall quickly filled with layers of interlocking words and images. There were many great contributions and things to think about, and it got people talking about how they can practically use their unique abilities as individuals to bring their visions to reality.

Then, the magician went to work using only spray paint to represent a variety of medicinal, edible and bee-feeding local plants: Prickly pear cactus, juniper, ponderosa, red willow, rabbitbrush, monarda, and an aspen grove.

On the side is a bee, bringing this mural together with the one painted by Mariselle Bernard last summer in a sort of crosspollination.

Over all of this local landscape is his signature image of a Lakota star quilt with beadwork iconography. While these symbols are traditional and each has its own meaning, the arrangement is entirely his own and is a lesson for our time. Focus says “The design tells a story itself.”

Focus Smith putting finishing touches on the star quill.

The star quilt, which is the backbone of the design, represents the individual at the center which grows into community, reaching in the four directions. Towards the outside are tipis representing the home. They are under the Earth (triangles surrounding them) to remind us to be humble, that we are neither above or greater than the Earth we depend on, and will one day return to dust. Beneath each home is a feather to uplift the spirit and prayers. Between the homes are clouds and lightning, representing strength through adversity that unites the families and communities from many lands in the world. As Focus says “What we as humans bond over just as much as love.”

On the outside are the star nations which watch over all beings of the Earth, and the dragonflies which watch over children, reminding us we were all once children and still are in the vast and ancient world we live in.

Here the design is depicted as a rising sun as every day is a new day, a chance to live fully and in integrity with these teachings regardless of mistakes or regrets from days past. We can always begin again to do our best for ourselves, the community, and the world. None of us is free from faults, regrets or struggles, it is by growing through those challenges we create beauty.

After four days of hard work on this piece, Focus went straight to the Earthdancer School of Shoe Making to complete another mural in only two hours. 

This one depicts “Growing corn and a Kachina to bless this fertile valley of peace. It offers nourishment, be it physical, mental or spiritual,” says Mary Windwalker. All again is centered around the star quilt.

Focus is a full-time artist and the creative director of Thrive Unltd.

If you want to find out more and support the artist by purchasing hand screen printed clothing or other merchandise, you can visit this website. Support indigenous business and artists who enrich and beautify our lives in all times, especially the challenging ones: www.thriveunltd.com.

For those who want to check out more of his work on Instagram please visit @focicurrent.

Many thanks to all those who hosted, shared food, encouragement and great conversations.

I am also grateful for the respect of personal space that people showed each other during the participatory segment. The entire environment was lovely, and all those happenings and thoughts went into the mural you see today.

In closing, some words to ponder: “Progress in oneself means promoting only the idea of love and love alone. The idea of love is that of seeing what the dirt does. Many are concerned with being just the flower or petal; I am the process, the all, the everything, the decay, the water, the sun, the life, the death. These are the depths of concentration that can be drawn upon in the everyday. Your smile is your weapon, when the war is despair. Your love of your life is your ultimate power. Take strong steps and never let go of your vision. The power is in the vision, not the volume. Life is beautiful, keep on being the difference.”~Focus Smith