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THE POWER

OF PERCEPTION By CONNIE BUFFALO

C

hanges are shaking our lives sometimes like the thunder rolling across the mountains and meadows. They come in subtle ways that creep in unobserved and instigate a shift in consciousness that influences generations to come. In small corners of America, a movement is gathering momentum that will re-define our relationships to Native Americans and their art. Santa Fe has been recognized as the center of Native American art since the early 1900’s. Now, as the third largest art market in the United States, it is taking the lead in initiating broader discussion of identity, inclusion and a re-visioning of American history. The language of art as a communicator of these discussions has never been more vocal or eloquent. Santa Fe continues to be a living canvas of vast panoramas just as it was when artists first captured its magnificence in the early 1920’s. You can respectfully visit pueblos and feel the rich spirituality that binds humans to ancestors, earth and sky. You can walk through living museums of some of the oldest collections of Southwestern pottery or kneel before rotating collections of jewelry exhibited by artists who sit patiently under the Palace of the Governor’s portal on Santa Fe’s Central Plaza. There they explain the stories behind their shining silver jewelry, their stories and the footprints of turquoise and precious regional stones that are woven into the ancestral designs. Beneath the predictable presentation of Native American art, there is an electric undercurrent of new ideas, techniques, materials and thinking that heralds an emancipation from old conventions that proscribe what “real” native art must look like. In its place, native artists dissolve the expectation of Native Americans as either the Hollywood buckskin-draped Indian or the bitter Native American marginalized by alcohol and drugs. Human brothers and sisters emerge, proud members of over 90 different Native Nations, conscious of the importance of authentic identity, accuracy of historical events and the freedom of uncensored creative expression. One venue for expanding native expression is the world’s largest Native art market sponsored by the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA). Celebrating its 88th year, the Santa Fe Indian Market features 1150 juried traditional and contemporary artists from over 100 tribes across the United States, attracting between 60,000 to 100,000 visitors, and generating over $18 million in sales for the artists, the city, and its businesses. Although the market runs over the weekend of August 22 and 23, the ceremonies, education, cinema and other events, launched on August 18th, with the first State recognized Native Arts and Culture week. Visitors have the opportunity to visit and learn from both seasoned artists and

“Santa Fe continues to be a living canvas of vast panoramas just as it was when artists first captured its magnificence in the early 1920s…”

10 • Fine Art Magazine • Fall 2009

Nathan Youngblood and C.S. Tarpley working in the studio


Doug Hyde’s monumental sized bronze, Little Turtle, in front of Nedra Matteucci Galleries. Doug Hyde is another important Native American artist whose works blend contemporary and traditional styles and themes.

some of the most exciting emerging Native artists. Bruce Bernstein, Ph.D., Executive Director of SWAIA formerly served as the Assistant Director for Cultural Resources at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. He brings not only a depth of knowledge of Native art, but an intention to break down the historical constraints surrounding Native art, and encourage an understanding of the views, context,

and reference points of Native artists and their work. A constant advocate for Native artists, Bernstein and his team are constantly encouraging gifted artists through SWAIA Fellowships, creating education programs for the public and fostering innovation in the Native art communities. Many galleries dedicated to Native American art feature both the traditional and cutting-edge work of contemporary native artists. While Nedra Matteucci

Galleries carries a broad spectrum of artists from the 1920s to contemporary work, two of their artists shown embody the resilient spirit of the emerging Native art world. The first artist is a man I’ve come to admire for his talent, courage, sensitivity to native issues and historical accuracy. Joseph Henry Sharp was born in 1859, trained in art in America and Europe, and explored the west, living at a Crow agency from 1902-1910. He advocated for Native Americans by taking the unpopular position of protesting government ruling requiring native men to cut their traditional braids in exchange for short haircuts. Although he sometimes took artistic license, he did work to maintain the dignity of his subjects and communicate the subtleties of native living in paintings now coveted by collectors. He was a founding member of the Taos Art Colony and encouraged understanding of native issues through many of his paintings. Among the contemporary native artists at Nedra Matteucci Galleries are Doug Hyde, of Nez Perce and Assiniboine background, and Michael A. Naranjo, a Santa Clara Pueblo artist whose personal story brings deeper meaning to his work. Some artists see their sculptures as they unfold into form. Naranjo feels them come alive. The son of a distinguished ceramic artist, Rose Naranjo, Michael was hit by a grenade in a rice field in Vietnam in 1968. The strike instantly blinded him and injured his right hand. Life, in Michael’s case, simply rearranged his gifts. His determination to be an artist overcame every obstacle and through perseverance and skill he learned how to create exquisite sculptures from memory, intuition and heightened sensitivity. He scratches out details in the clay with his fingernails with uncanny accuracy. Naranjo has, by invitation, seen with his hands the Medici Venus in Paris and Michelangelo’s David. An awardwinning artist, Michael Naranjo uses his own life as a living work of art, and his sculpture is a testament to his passion to create. A dramatic example of innovation in native traditional art forms is the collaboration between Nathan Youngblood, a Santa Clara Pueblo potter and C.S.Tarpley, a mixedheritage artist with Choctaw and Chickasaw bloodlines. Nathan Youngblood grew up in a family of inventive, talented artists. He remembers when a curator from a museum came to his Santa Clara Pueblo and told his grandmother about how designs were carved into pottery in other parts of the world. She took his words to heart and began carving traditional Pueblo Fine Art Magazine • Fall 2009 • 11


designs into the face of the clay. What began as a conversation today has become an important art form. Nathan, the only Native American artist in the White House Collection of American Crafts, begins each piece with a general idea of what he intends to make. As he works, the color, carvings and shape reveal themselves. Each design has a meaning and becomes a prayer in Nathan’s hands. Youngblood’s Carved Water Jar with Rain Clouds and Walking Bear Paws, pictured in this article, was created with what looks like a Greek key design on the bottom of the pot, but is known to the Pueblos as a “walking bear paw.” The upper designs are a combination of various cloud motifs. Together they symbolize a respect for the bear who led the ancestors to water during a drought and combined with the rain in the clouds becomes a prayer of gratitude. While Nathan was earning his reputation as a highly collectable artist, C.S. Tarpley was on his own successful track of glassblowing and refining a complicated technique of “electroforming”. His relationship to the glass had its own spiritual quality. Tarpley believes that everything in the universe has its own consciousness. In glassblowing, he interacts with the molten life of the glass to evoke a shape while retaining its luminosity. The electroforming is such a complex process that only a handful of artists have mastered it. Electroforming is the bonding opaque metal, copper in our example, to the translucent glass and then carving, processing and finishing the surface. Each piece can take several weeks to months to complete and have been acquired by prominent collectors and museums across America. Tarpley draws on influences from every culture for his symbology. He carves designs that are similar across cultures creating images that have many names but one form.The alliance of Nathan Youngblood and C.S. Tarpley defined them as cutting edge artists emboldened by a combined vision. Tarpley blew life into the crystalline molten pots and Youngblood inscribed them with his traditional designs. “Each artist brings a unique gift to this work”, said Paula Rhea Mc Donald whose gallery, Kiva Fine Arts represents the work, “and when combined, a magnificent new hybrid art form is born.” Their Untitled glass bowl reflects why their series is nearly sold out and they continue to earn accolades individually and together. Another gallery synonymous with encouraging innovative Native American artists is the famous Blue Rain Gallery. The large gallery walls are lined with some of the finest contemporary Native artists, each unique and pushing the limits of native art. Tammy Garcia is an artist who can work brilliantly in so many media that she should be an old seasoned elder and not a beautiful, young woman. She started working as a traditional Pueblo potter from the Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico. In the same way that her clay pots tell the stories of Pueblo life past and present, she weaves storytelling into full-size bronze triptychs, glass bowls, and sculpted clay pots. In a book of her artwork, “Tammy Garcia, Form Without Boundaries”, Bruce Bernstein C.S. Tarpley Red Water Vessel with Greek Key, approx. 11” x 7” writes, “...I stand in awe of the art Kiva Fine Art, Santa Fe of Tammy Garcia. Her work is, 12 • Fine Art Magazine • Fall 2009

Preston Singletary, Killer Whale Blown and Sand, carved glass 29.5 x 18 x 6.5 Blue Rain Gallery

quite simply, superlative. Not only does it include some of the most engaging contemporary works in the nation, it is, at the same time, a powerful expression of the living, changing, creative nature of Native American culture.” One of Garcia’s bronzes is featured here, but to truly get a sense of her talent, one must visit Blue Rain Gallery either virtually or in person. Andrea is a good introduction. Her skirts pick up the colors of the earth at its edges and the impeccable design creates reflective surfaces that light every facet of the sculpture. Preston Singletary is another of the most respected contemporary artists. His proud Tlingit heritage reflects in his work. He combines his traditional art with advanced glassblowing techniques that he learned from world-renowned artists at the forefront of the Seattle glass-art movement. After learning the subtleties of glass work through the creation of traditional European shapes and art decoinspired designs; he explored a new revolutionary direction. He took traditional Tlingit designs normally carved in wood and transferred them onto glass. Singletary launched into a lengthy study of Tlingit art and formline design, consulting with elders, artists and scholars until he felt prepared to begin. His images were sand blasted onto the surface of the glass resulting in artwork of extraordinary beauty. Killer Whale is a reminder of the killer whales sometimes adopted by shamans as “yek”, or spirit helpers. The Killer Whale is respected for


Norma Howard, Untitled, Watercolor on Paper, 18” x 24, Blue Rain Gallery

its intelligence and a spirit guides. There is a belief that these whales are the embodiments of human spirits who have walked on. Norma Howard’s style is opposite of Singletary but just as engaging. Howard is a self-taught Choctaw and Chickasaw from Oklahoma. Stories of her grandmother couple with her vivid memories of the land she grew up on. Together, they create everyday scenes of Native life so simple and universal that they evoke peace and an easy familiarity. Her style is reminiscent of pointillism of the impressionists, but Howard creates her own unique twist by painstakingly layering tiny, cross-hatch brush strokes. In this way, she builds up depths of color increasing the vibrancy of the watercolor and creating a sense of movement, as if the scene were alive and available. Howard explains her work with simple humility. “These subjects about how people survived in hard times and in everyday life that every tribe can relate to, wherever they lived. People tell me it’s the details that draw them into my paintings and capture their feelings. My inspiration will always be to tell my ancestors’ story and honor the way they lived.” Norma’s watercolor, Untitled, is one of the scenes where the viewer has a sense of familiarity with the Choctaw’s environment, drinking in the quiet of the lakeshore and feeling the stillness of the woman’s thoughts.

This quiet scene is one of many reflections the award-winning Howard offers. “I want to open peoples’ minds and hearts to the Choctaw,” she says, “where life was dictated in a simple and pure way.” Santa Fe itself fosters an environment where the new, rising voices of native artistic expression are nurtured, encouraged and rewarded. The city of 70,000 promotes awareness of the arts to its 1.3 million annual visitors and features work of the city artists in its spectacular new “green” convention center. Santa Fe has been designated a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Creative City, the first U.S. city to be so honored. Creative tourism, which UNESCO and Santa Fe are aligned, offers visitors an engaged and authentic experience, with participative learning in the arts and heritage, and also provides a connection to those residing in Santa Fe who help to create a living culture. Santa Fe is also home to the School for Advanced Research on the Human Experience (SAR), a world-class research center that brings scholars and Native American artists together to collectively explore what the possibilities are when we activate the full spectrum of our humanity for collective well-being. Founded in 1909

Michael A. Naranjo, Glory, bronze, 12” x 11 5/8” x 6 3/4”, edition of 10, Nedra Matteucci Galleries

by anthropologist, Edgar Lee Hewett, SAR was built with a mission to collect and preserve Southwest Native American material culture. Several years later, in 1927, John D. Rockefeller founded the renowned Laboratory of Anthropology with a mission to study indigenous cultures. In 1947, the two institutions merged, bringing together the most inclusive and systematically acquired collection of New Mexican and Southwestern anthropological artifacts in the country. The SAR compound, open to the public, houses over 12,000 items of Native art of the Southwest. The collection includes pottery, jewelry, textiles, works on paper and canvas, basketry, wood carvings, and drums. It also holds a small collection of archival photographs and film. SAR has created a quiet Southwestern campus where they grant fellowships for artists and scholars-in-residence and foster discussions of social scientists, humanists, artists, archeologists and anthropologists to not only explore the learning and legacy of past native cultures, but also to initiate powerful dialogue on the global human condition. Through these interactions, crossdiscipline groups endeavor to understand and participate in the improvement of the human condition. These dialogues impact the work of artists and scholars alike and result in publications that capture and pass on the shared wisdom (sarweb.org). For Native artists, another powerful venue for unpacking their heritage through art is the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (formerly the Institute of American Indian Art Museum). The museum is home

Teardrop Platter, Nathan Youngblood and CS Tarpley. Sand carved blown glass with electroformed copper, 16.5” ht x 13” wide x 8” depth, including base, at Kiva Fine Art, Fine Art Magazine • Fall 2009 • 13


to the largest collection of contemporary Native art in the world. In the museum patios and exhibit halls, the non-native views of what constitute native life and expression is eclipsed by a collection of art that gives voice to the native experience from the native perspective. Exhibits cut to the quick of consciousness and confront visitors with art that tells stories left out of conventional history books. In the current exhibit, “Badlands”, native artists use humor, irony, truth, stories, retrospectives and stunning visuals to lift the veils of Native Americans and First Nation cultures of Canada and present the humanity of the natives and the soul of their past and present experiences. The “Retrospective Exhibition of Daphne Odjig,”, features the work of this mixedheritage Potawatomie, descended from the great chief Black Partridge. This powerful exhibit and artist video captures the mythic sweep of her life, her pictographic portrayal of spirit and matter, the underlying beliefs that guided tribal values and the uncompromising recreation of historical events. Patsy Phillips, Director of the museum and member of the Cherokee nation, comes to Santa Fe from the National Museum of the American Indian (Smithsonian). Her mission and that of the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MCNA) is to advance the discourse, knowledge and understanding of contemporary Native arts and showcase Native American contemporary art locally,

Michael A. Naranjo, The Dancer, bronze, 27 x 13 3/4 x 10 inches, edition of 10, Nedra Matteucci Galleries

Tammy Garcia, Andrea, Bronze sculpture 30" x 15" x 15"

nationally and internationally. As part of that effort, MCNA is participating in a multimillion dollar grant by the Ford Foundation, “Advancing Dialogue” to develop a Native American interpretation of what Native Art is. These are the days that we will look back on nostalgically and in hindsight call the birth of a new Native American art movement. Traditional designs and artwork are expanding to include materials that imbue them with textures, beauty and endurance unseen in the past. Native artists are exploring new artistic expressions that revise the past and envision self-defined identities and roles for the future. The language of Native art is becoming more complex, deeper and richer, more challenging and carrying not only the voices of their ancestors, but their own evolving stories created as proud and sovereign members of the international community of art. Joseph Henry Sharp (1859-1953), Blackfoot Tribe, oil on canvas, 30” x 40”, Nedra Matteucci Galleries 14 • Fine Art Magazine • Fall 2009

Connie Buffalo is an Anishinnabe writer and artist; for more of her work, visit www.fineartmagazine.com

10-14Power of Perception  

OF PERCEPTION “Santa Fe continues to be a living canvas of vast panoramas just as it was when artists first captured its magnificence in the...

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