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WarDancer's helping hand

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By Birdie Jaworski

An deliberately uneven row of paintings hangs against a colorful marbleized wall; traditional representations of Native American women and children in ochre and green, fantastic pointillist pieces in shades of the rainbow, mixed media depictions of moving dancers, of ristras swinging from adobe porches.

Neita Fran Ward stands in the doorway of her WarDancer Gallery’s door, eyeing the carefully chosen collection.

“Raising my two children is the most difficult and best thing I’ve designed,” says Ward. “I have a bachelor’s degree in fine arts and a masters in library science. I’m an interior designer, my art is space. I take a space and turn it into a piece of art. People come into the gallery and don’t know me, but they will say ‘this thing works so well.’ A lot of people don’t know why it’s pleasant to be in the gallery, don’t realize that it’s designed a certain way to bring out an emotional response.”

Ward first moved to New Mexico to fulfill her dream of bringing Native American art to the public. She began her business by setting up small tables at archery tournaments and selling jewelry to the participants and audience.

“I changed careers so dramatically,” reminisces Ward. “I owned an insurance agency, but gave it up to sell art. I built my business by going to archery tournaments with my husband. I started with three little card tables covered with jewelry. I was the ‘guilt table’ for the men. They would buy pieces for their wives and girlfriends so that they would be allowed to keep attending the tournaments.” Ward said.

The little business grew from three card tables to the current Bridge Street location. WarDancer will soon move to the CCHP’s old location across the street, where Ward will be able to display more work from more artists, most of whom have become dear friends.

“I was drawn to this area. I would drive on I-40 from Texas to Gallup and look out at the land and start crying. I knew this was where the Navajo people were placed, and my heart just broke to drive past it. I am a jewelry designer, but I began to look for and seek out for spiritual reasons to fulfill something that God was calling me to do. I knew I needed to find a young Native American person that I could help go from anonymity to being successful, someone whose work was worthy but who didn’t have help getting their work in front of the public.”

Ward’s prayers were answered through a friend who called Ward to tell her that she needed to meet a young Navajo silversmith named Brian Billie. Seven years later, Billie is one of Ward’s most well-known artists, and his work has been shown and bought all across the United States.

“Two years ago,” says Ward, “Brian told me, ‘before I met you, I told my wife that I couldn’t do it any more. I couldn’t do the work, buy the stuff, and wait to sell it. But you made it happen for me.’ Then I knew that what I was doing was right. I gave him an opportunity to travel through the world with his art. If our art involvement makes someone think they can continue with their work, then we are doing the right thing.”

A new Las Vegas Arts Council board member, Ward represents a wide array of local artists whose work can be seen during this upcoming weekend’s 2008 Studio Tour, including well-known painters Sharon Stillwater, David Escudero, Napoleon Montoya, and Jackie “Jade” Herrera.

New artists to WarDancer will also have their work on display, including Nancy Philo, who recently completed a successful show of her Las Vegas land and cityscapes at Traveler’s Cafe.

“I’m thrilled to be on the board of the LVAC,” expresses Ward. “We’re all working together with the Economic Development Council and Main Street Las Vegas to move the new Arts and Culture designation forward. Our new motto is ‘Las Vegas: A real past, a real present, a real future.’ Las Vegas has a huge future in art, but local artists have to get better at marketing themselves. One of our hopes is to set up an art mentoring program so that new artists can work with established artists.”

Ward looks around her gallery, at the glass and wooden cabinets that house Billie’s starkly beautiful necklaces to the gently carved santos that peer from different heights around the room.

“I’ve seen Las Vegas change in wonderful ways in the past two years,” muses Ward. “I’ve seen the Plaza Hotel block completely change. I’ve seen different stores coming in, and new artists moving to town.

“I believe in the positive future of Las Vegas, because I can see the incredible changes happening every day. It’s my hope that I can continue to help push art forward, and help make Las Vegas an incredible arts destination.”