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Two Tucson natives named 2023 USA Art Fellows

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Posted at 11:15 AM, Jan 28, 2023

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — Two Tucson-based artists have been named 2023 United States Art Fellows and they're making a big impact through their work in not just our community but many others.

"I am of the Edge Water people, born for water that flows together," says Navajo tapestry weaver and instructor Barbara Teller Ornelas.

She is a 5th generation Navajo tapestry weaver and is one of two Tucson-based artists to receive the USA Fellowship.

"I've never had a gift like this before. So, I am very humbled by it and very honored," expressed Ornelas.

Ofelia Zepeda is the second. She's a Tohono O'Odham poet, author and regents professor of linguistics at the University of Arizona.

She is also the director of the American Indian Language Development Institute at the university, which works to revitalize endangered languages.

"I think that this award is an indication that writing in the native language or being a native person and writing is something that is unique and can be recognized at many levels," says Zepeda.

Ofelia is also the author of a Grammar of the Tohono O'Odham language book.

"It basically teaches for those who are not O'Odham, a little bit about the structure of the language, the sound of the language," Zepeda explained.

Barbara's last name didn't come by chance. It was given to her through her great grandfather, who had to have an English name in order to be enrolled in the Navajo tribe. He said he was a keeper of stories, a story teller. So Teller it became. And later down the road, Barbara became her own storyteller.

Barbara has been telling stories through her weaving for over 40 years.

She has authored books on Navajo weaving and lectures in cultural exchanges around the world.

This fellowship honors the creative accomplishments of those chosen and provides financial support for their ongoing artistic development.

"It's basically to help us continue our work or develop our new work," continued Zepeda.

Each artist will receive an unrestricted $50,000 cash award from United States Artists, a Chicago-based arts funding organization.

Ofelia says this award will grant her the resources to focus more on O'Odham literature through her poetry.

"It's a tremendous honor," Zepeda expressed.

Barbara says the financial award will allow her to slow down. After putting her ex-husband and both of her children through college, this money will help her buy new weaving equipment.

"I'm very grateful," Barbara also expressed.

Breanna Isbell is a reporter for KGUN 9. She joined the KGUN 9 team in July of 2022 after receiving her bachelor’s degree in sports journalism from Arizona State University in May. Share your story ideas with Breanna by emailing or by connecting on Facebook, or Twitter.