Alumna Lynne Hardy strives to create works of art that represent and celebrate her culture through her Navajo-inspired business, Ajoobaa’sani
After graduating from BYU–Hawaii, alumna Lynne Hardy began her illustration business Ajoobaa’sani with the goal of telling authentic stories of Native Americans through her art. Hardy said she grew up with a love of drawing but also with a sense of self-loathing for her identity as Navajo. However, with the support of her family, her art and friends at BYUH, she overcame the desire to assimilate with everyone else. She said she now feels proud to call herself a member of the Navajo Nation as she makes and sells artwork accurately representing her heritage.
Ajoobaa’sani, according to Hardy, means “women of the Gray Mountain,” which references the area around Flagstaff, Arizona, where she and her sisters grew up. According to her business’ official website, “It is a benevolent mountain, giving us what it has to offer. It provided food, water, grazing areas, ceremonial necessities and it sheltered our ancestors from the U.S. Calvary. Our mountain is joobaa’. We are from Dzilth Ajoobaa’i. Hence, Ajoobaa’sani.”
Hardy said part of her desire for creating her business was the lack of representation she saw in places outside the Navajo reservation. “Whenever I would go into a store and see merchandise that was representing Native Americans, I would get disappointed because it turned out it was made in another country. A lot of the tourist shops have stuff that’s really hokey and perpetuates these harmful stereotypes about Native Americans. There’s so many different tribes, and you can’t just label us all as one thing. The people and companies that make that stuff take our designs and our stories for monetary gain,” she said.
With Ajoobaa’sani, Hardy uses her graphic design skills learned in college to create original artwork emblazoned on stickers, T-shirts, coloring books, and greeting cards. She also offers custom digital portraits in her art style. For her, it is a way to share her culture with others who might be unfamiliar with the Navajo or Native Americans in general, and fight back against stereotypes.
“Some people who aren’t native might feel bad about having a piece of Native American art up in their house because they’re worried they’re culturally appropriating. That’s why I think it’s so important to buy native-made art.”
“My goal with my business is to appeal to the urban native and modern native. Some kind of see Native Americans as being stuck in the past. They have these ideas from the media that we all live in teepees and things like that. With my art, I want to respect the past and embrace the future. Native cultures do change and evolve, they don’t just stay static.”
Bruno Maynez, an alumnus from California who graduated with a degree in graphic design, worked with Hardy at the Ke Alaka’i News Center. According to Maynez, “Lynne is a kind and sweet person. She is also proud of her heritage and highly protective of it. I would ask her questions about her Navajo background and she would tell me stories about her family and life on the reservation. I could tell she possessed a deep knowledge, passion and most of all an appreciation for her culture.”
According to Maynez, “[Hardy] then decided to take a leap of faith and started her own graphic design business.”
Looking towards the future, Hardy said she has many projects she wants to work on as her business grows. “I have a lot of things I want to do. I dream big dreams. Even if they don’t work out the way I’d hoped, at least I dreamed big. You’ve gotta have big dreams,” said Hardy.
Growing up around Flagstaff, Arizona, Hardy said some of the greatest stories of her heritage that inspired her were those of her grandparents. “They are full of stories of resilience and bravery. They overcame a lot. In the old days, they would take them and other kids away to boarding schools, and try to take their culture away from them.”
For years, Native American children were sent to boarding schools with the goal of assimilating them into American culture. They were not allowed to wear their hair long, wear their traditional clothes or even speak their own language, according to Hardy, who learned about these difficulties from her grandparents.
Reflecting on the painful past her family had faced, Hardy said, “My people have been here for thousands of years, because they’ve been resilient and strong. They’ve endured boarding schools, genocide and a lot of other terrible things. … I am a full-blooded Navajo, and knowing that helps me in times of strife.
“Getting to go to BYUH was a surprise,” Hardy said. She had originally been enrolled at BYU–Idaho as an illustration major. While in Idaho, she received word from a member of her reservation’s branch that BYUH was seeking for more students of Native American heritage to attend the school. She said it was a hard decision, as she had never been too far away from home for a long period of time before, but ultimately she decided to go.
Anuhea Chen, an alumna from Idaho who also graduated with a degree in graphic design, was Hardy’s friend and co-worker at the Ke Alaka’i News Center. Of the importance of art, Chen said, “When diverse artists create art, it can inspire, educate, preserve, help us gain appreciation and so much more. With Lynne’s art specifically, it’s been amazing to learn more about where she’s from and her upbringing.”
According to Chen, “[Hardy] and I started our graphic design journey together when we started [in] the program at BYUH. I remember from the start she always clung to her Navajo roots, and I’ve always admired that. As someone with Asian and Pacific Islander heritage, I wish I’d always embraced it as proudly as she does.
“When we both lived in Hawaii, sometimes she’d make me fry bread, and I cherish those moments. Nothing beats home cooked foods from someone’s culture. Since we met in our first design classes, we’ve been friends ever since. I’m rooting for her continual growth as an illustrator and with her business. As an artist friend, I really love how she’s developed her unique, identifiable style to speak to an audience visually.”
Hardy professed her love for Hawaiian culture, which stemmed from her taking a Hawaiian studies class. According to her, “The people of Hawaii really know how to express their culture boldly and proudly. With my art, I’m a storyteller, and so are the people in Hawaii. Their diversity and culture are appreciated.”
In Idaho, Hardy said she survived, but was not able to be herself. However, going to Hawaii helped her feel fully alive. She said, “Instead of wanting to hide my culture away or feel it wasn’t appreciated, I felt like my culture was being validated and praised in Hawaii instead of being put down. That’s my advice to anyone. Find people who care about the same things you care about, and you won’t feel alone.”
Loving her heritage
Hardy said growing up in the town of Flagstaff was difficult for her due to feeling lesser because of her background. “There was a lot of bullying when I was a kid. I hated it. It came to a point where I didn’t even want to be Navajo. I wanted to be a white girl, because the white girls seemed to get the attention and be seen as something more by people. I wanted to feel like a part of something back in school. I wish I could go back to high school and tell my younger self not to worry about any of that. Tell her not to worry about what people think. Tell her that her culture should be celebrated, not just tolerated.”
Chen said he has a lot of admiration for her friend, saying “Lynne is literally creating a documented history of her culture with her artwork. As an outsider, it’s so cool to learn some Navajo phrases and about her nostalgic foods. Not only that, but so many other Native people really resonate with her artwork.
"Imagine finally finding illustrations where you feel represented. I’m sure some of them would be so giddy,” she exclaimed. “Artists with diverse backgrounds creating art in turn creates a more inclusive community. Recently there was a whole conference on Native North American typography, which I thought was brilliant to facilitate these conversations and interests in written Native languages.”
Hardy also has the distinction of being an Adobe stock artist. She had originally applied for a scholarship Adobe was doing for an artist’s residency but ended up not getting it. However, she said this disappointment had a silver lining. “The people at Adobe emailed me, and said they really liked my portfolio, and offered me a chance to be a stock artist for them, which is basically the same thing as being a stock photographer,” said Hardy. Her artwork is included among the thousands of stock pieces in Adobe’s gallery, and they are licensed for a fee.
Hardy was also featured in a video for the Adobe Stock Artist Development fund. The program provides funding to artists around the world to build an authentic, diverse collection of stock images and art. The goal of the program, according to the video, was to promote more authentic depictions of underrepresented communities, but also to expand awareness.
In the video, which can be found on YouTube, Hardy said, “When I look in the mirror, I’m looking at my grandma. I’m looking at my mom. I’m looking at my grandparents and their grandparents before me, and they look like me. And now I wouldn’t change anything about it. I love who I am.
“I feel free to create the art that I create, and I love now capturing that in my illustrations. … In Navajo there’s a word called ‘hózhó,’ and that means 'to walk in beauty and harmony.’ I really believe that my family and the things they and our ancestors did brought me here today. That’s who I am. The product of them and their sacrifices.”
Advice to artists
Out of all the pieces of art she has created over the years, Hardy said her most favorite is a picture of a family coming together for a gathering. However, she admitted, “I am a Debbie-downer when it comes to art. I would always compare my art to my classmates,” but she said a strong relationship with God helped her overcome this.
“Great things take time. Comparison is the thief of progression. The personal journey is what matters most. Keep going and one day you’ll wake up and know how to do something really well. If I hadn’t kept going with my art, I would have regretted it for the rest of my life.”
Even as a successful artist with her own business, Hardy said maintaining passion for her craft remains very difficult. “When it’s done as a job, it’s easy to lose your passion.” She said there have been obstacles, such as times when she made business decisions that didn’t pay off, leading her to lose money, and faced rejection many times over.
“You really have to discipline yourself and take breaks. Sometimes I get in moods where I wonder what I’m doing. I start thinking I don’t even want to make indigenous stuff anymore. So I’ll go and watch one of my favorite movies and do other stuff I like. You’ll never be able to guess how you’ll find your passion again.”
Hardy is now living in Provo, where she runs Ajoobaa’sani with her sisters, Jenna and Leah Hardy. “The business goes wherever I go,” she said. “My sisters encourage me to keep going and creating, trying new things.”
To view several of Hardy’s art or purchase any of her work visit the Ajoobaa’sani website. Her work can also be viewed on Instagram under the account @ajoobaasani. Click here to view an Adobe Express multimedia version of the story.