Fall 2000, Volume 18.1
Linda B. Eaton
Native American Art at the End of the Millennium
Linda Eaton, is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Weber State University, received her Ph.D. in Anthropology from Brown University in 1983. She has long focused on the Native peoples of the United States Southwest, and her work with artists stems from interests in the creative process and in the interactions between creative individuals and the cultures in which they operate. She has taught at Weber State University since 1992, and is married with one daughter.
Nora Naranjo-Morse is from a Santa Clara Pueblo family well-known for its traditional pottery-making and more recently for combining clay with other visual arts. She has been working with clay since age 25 and is a potter, clay sculptor, poet/writer and increasingly an artist in a variety of other media such as silver, print-making, bronze-sculpture, video and installations. Married, with two children, she lives in a house at Santa Clara that the family built for itself from the Santa Clara clay. See more work by Nora Naranjo Morse published in Weber Studies: Vol. 12.3.
Brenda Spencer, a Navajo of the Towering House clan, lives in the Wide Ruins area of the southwestern part of the Navajo Reservation in Arizona, where her family has lived for generations. She works at Hubbell's Trading Post, now a national historic site, and weaves primarily the two styles characteristic of her home area, Wide Ruins and Burntwater. Brenda uses primarily machine spun wool, hand-dyed with vegetal dyes, preferring to concentrate her efforts on the weaving process itself. She has been weaving since age 20, and is married with two children.
Baje Whitethorne, Sr. grew up on the western Navajo Reservation and is best known for his paintings of traditional performers and of remembered landscapes from his 1950s childhood in the Black Mesa area of northern Arizona. His was a traditional Navajo childhood, in which he rode horses and herded sheep and attended boarding school, until his early teens. At that point, he went to live with a non-Indian family in Tuba City while he attended high school, then went on to Grand Canyon College. He worked as a boilermaker until 1978, when he began building his career as a professional watercolorist. Baje is married, has three children and one grandchild. He makes his home in Flagstaff, Arizona.
From 1987 to 1991, I was involved with a group of southwestern artists who were attempting to explore visually and in words the challenges facing Native Americans in the art market of the day. Called the "Separate Vision" project at the Museum of Northern Arizona, these explorations featured the work of Santa Clara clay artist Nora Naranjo-Morse, Navajo weaver Brenda Spencer, Navajo watercolorist Baje Whitethorne, Sr., and Hopi kachina doll carver John Fredericks. All of the artists were trying new ideas and techniques within their chosen media. But they struggled daily to overcome stereotypes of Indians and of Indian art. They worked to balance their desire for public recognition with the need for creativity and the desire to convey images they saw as personally and culturally more meaningful than the stereotypical red, white and black rug, blackware wedding vase, kachina dancer in bright poster-paints, or paintings of a buffalo hunter at the end of the trail.
I was then a curator at the museum and helped create the Separate Vision project that provided each artist with a one-person show, an artist's residency at the museum, and opportunities to teach and speak about their world and their work. The final part of the project was a group, capstone exhibit that traveled widely throughout the United States to raise nationally the issues affecting Indian artists.
It was at the end of the black-tie opening of the capstone exhibit that artists, film makers, exhibit preparators, educators and I found ourselves in the museum kitchen, shoes off, leaning on elbows, watching the museum lights go out, and not knowing quite what more to say. Though all of us would be invited to speak and appear separately at the show's other venues, it was the end of our group experience, and we were reluctant to see it go. "This feels like high school graduation," said Brenda Spencer ruefully, and we all agreed. We had raised our issues, but time was needed to see what would come of our collective efforts. Someone made the suggestion that we should come together again, as the 20th century wound to a close. By then we might have some answers as to whether Indian artists could find a market more receptive to change and exploration than we had seen in the Separate Vision project. We made our parting that weekend, but voiced the intention to come together after ten years, and to reflect on what had come of our efforts and other forces for change in play in the late 20th century.
In August, 1998, Nora Naranjo-Morse, Brenda Spencer, Baje Whitethorne, Sr., and I came back together for that discussion at the Museum of Indian Art in Santa Fe. John Fredericks was unable to be present but is still an actively creative kachina doll carver.
We had all followed, certainly, our separate visions. The three artists that were present have grappled particularly in the past ten years with three different aspects of the problems we had identified. Brenda works tirelessly with the public and with other Navajo weavers to make a place for Navajo weaving in the 21st century, to interest young women in weaving and to encourage established weavers to follow their own creative ideas within the form, to make of it a recognized, dynamic art, much more than the "craft" that 20th century American society consistently called it. Baje concerns himself with empowering Indian artists economically by harnessing the accumulated knowledge and influence of current successful Native artists to help those just beginning. Knowing that established artists develop greater latitude in creativity through time, he believes that mentoring can place new artists in a stronger financial position in the market, ameliorating to a degree the fiscal realities that reward the making of stereotype pieces and marginalize creative expression. Nora continues to elaborate on and live the message that art is first and foremost a means of expressing vital thoughts, and that the voices of Native artists should not be excluded from the public forum by comfortable expectations of shopworn forms. As an anthropologist, I continue looking for the wheels within wheels that affect my friends, their work and the larger society.
Our reunion discussions began with personal directions and circled out to larger views of creativity and the market for American Indian art.
Linda: Nora, can you talk about your art in general now, what you're working on, what you want to be doing?
Nora: I will always work with clay, simply because of the historical and cultural connection I have with it. It's just a part of me, although I now understand that I can only get to a certain size with the clay, and in that way I'm limited. The last large sculptural piece I did was eight…nine feet high. I was pretty proud of myself. It came through the firing process in one piece. And it was out of Santa Clara and micaceous clays, and I wondered if this particular piece might be the biggest clay form ever done along the Rio Grande by a Pueblo person. But it was really a turning point for me. I knew that I wanted to make larger sculptures but I knew this clay had its limitations. So I've begun working in bronzes. I'm getting ready to make a sculpture that's about eleven feet high and I will carve it out of really condensed styrofoam, so I'm using other mediums. I also started working with monotype prints about three years ago, which is really very exciting, because it's so different from the clay process. But there are always certain lines that I use from my experience with clay that overlap into different mediums. I was doing jewelry for awhile and incorporating the jewelry into the clay surfaces. So that clay is always my point of reference.
Linda: Will you talk about that a little? You have a nine-foot sculpture, on one hand, and your clay people, three or four feet tall, and then here's something that's very tiny and accretive, made up of lots of little parts, and it seems a very different thing creatively. Is it that way when you're doing it?
Nora: Yes. And again it's really challenging, and that's probably why I wanted to do it. But they're very similar in the sense that they're designs that come out of me, that I visualize very large, but to be able to make them very small and to have somebody wear it, it's quite thrilling. And then, it seems that, no matter what I do, I'm always going to these very basic ideas of mud and home and it all springs from the culture. For example, when I look at a piece of metal and all of a sudden I think, "Hey, why can't silver be with clay?" and I incorporate it somehow so that it's visually acceptable to me. I am, in my opinion, creating, truly creating. And I'll spend a period of time doing that, and then something else will call me. (Laughs) And so I'm always going like this, down this path, but the path is very broad, and it has these curves and turns. You know, it really is a metaphor for the life I'm living.
Linda: Brenda, how about you? What's your weaving been like in the last ten years? Have you been weaving steadily?
Brenda: Not all the time, like I was ten years ago. When I have a new idea—that's probably the only time. I try to do something different, something new, be more creative with my weaving now. I try to have something in mind every time I start a new rug. It's got to be different from the ones I've done before. When I get a new idea, I usually sketch it out and put it someplace and have it in mind. Then I put the loom up and sit at it, but normally, I won't get the rug done right away. It'll take me six, maybe eight months to complete it from when the idea starts to come.
Linda: Do you go so far as to do colors in the drawing?
Brenda: No, the colors of wool that I work with just aren't the same colors I would see in a crayon or colored pencil. So I just usually leave it as pencil sketches.
Linda: And the colors are in your mind?
Brenda: Right. And I usually have the colors all dyed and ready to go, and my design. The colors are the ones I usually work with.
Linda: So they're there before the fact, almost like keeping paints if you were a painter?
Brenda: Yeah, like that. I'm weaving still in the Wide Ruins style and the pastel colors, but in my Burntwater type rugs I try to do something different, try to change my design somewhere in the middle or in the corners on the sides. What I'm working on now is a Teec Nos Pos style. It's something different for me to do. I've done one before and I've always wanted to do another one, but I just didn't have the design in mind that I wanted to do. But I've got it started now. I just demonstrated weaving at the Gallup Ceremonial, and that helps me, to see a lot of colors, and to see other weavers, especially if they come up with new ideas or different designs. That's when I get motivated to weave. I want to do something different, challenge myself to make a change in my weaving.
Linda: Is that the level at which it happens? Not so much that you see something and want to do something like that, but that you see somebody going in a new direction and you see that energy?
Brenda: Yeah, that's what I like. And that really motivates me to weave.
Linda: How would you measure success?
Brenda: It's just so hard to say where my measurement is, but in the last ten years, a lot has happened for me. I've done a lot. I've communicated with a lot of people about who I am. Having a book and everything else—people have more respect for you, and they come out and talk to you about weaving. So I was able to get around and do a lot of publicity for weaving. I was able to do a presentation, a workshop in New York with the Woven by the Grandmothers exhibit about two years ago. One of my mom's rugs was in that collection, and one of my mother-in-law's rugs and my sister-in-law's rugs were in that collection. So I was able to go out there with them and be with my mom and help her out. There were more than twenty Navajo weavers that went back to New York and saw their work out there and presented themselves. So I was able to do a demonstration for about an hour or two hours with my mom and helped her in talking to people about weaving. Every weaver would present herself for about three days. Then there was an article about me in Indian Artist magazine. And I was asked to go as a Navajo weaver to a fiber workshop in Hong Kong. It was great. I had a chance to take another weaver, so I took my mom, which I thought was very important. It was really a good experience. There were a lot of Oriental weavers, and just different tribes, different nationalities, weaving from everywhere.
Linda: Do you think the trip influenced your weaving?
Brenda: I think it did. I came home with different ideas, a little bit stronger colors. Buying wasn't a real possibility, so I mainly just took pictures, got ideas, things like that. I think that's really when I decided to do another Teec Nos Pos [a style which traditionally has included many Asian design elements]. Now I'm really challenging myself to get it done, to see what the finished project will be like. It is pretty much what I had drawn out on paper and then going on from there—there're days when I'm at work and I'll have an idea. I'll grab a paper and a pencil and draw it out, a design of something. And I'm just putting that all together in my Teec.
Baje: So how does that have an impact on your personal interests in the weaving?
Brenda: Not only that I weave a lot myself, but I do a lot of rug repairs on old rugs also, so that's really helped me a lot to understand more about weaving. I try to mend old rugs so they'll look new again. I like to sit there and have the old rug for a week or two weeks just at my house, to get the feeling of the weaver and what she thought and how she felt about weaving. It really does change my weaving. And also I still try to focus on different weavers, and try to help them.
Baje: Ten years ago, I didn't really have any idea what I was going to do. I knew I was doing my work, and it was important to me, but since then, it's opened a lot of new doors, taken new directions. I have different ideas. I've gone back and done some jewelry…tufa stone and casting. I have written and illustrated some books. I have worked with a lot of schools, museums, kids of all ages, and I've traveled halfway around the world. People are asking and looking to me: "How'd you get to where you are?" I think when you have an interest, you develop it. When you have something that sparks in your life or in your heart, you just approach it and take a chance. I think the people are the ones who take you on that path, if you have a journey to go. They look at your work; they want to know what you're all about. And simply on that note, you develop. It doesn't just take an artist to make an artist—it takes a lot of people.
Linda: Do you do the same sorts of subject matter that you did ten years ago?
Baje: I still do the Navajo-oriented material because I am Navajo and that's what I know. I do landscapes, but in a different kind of way. I don't do a lot of planning anymore. I just sit down and see where things go. Or I can take time to do other things. I find myself with plenty of time but still have the same interests. I've been teaching art at my youngest son's school for going on three years now. And the kids have responded well and really enjoy it. The kids are my main interest. I was a kid once and I had questions and I wished that somebody would come to my class and show me things or give me a direction or reinforce what I was doing. Kids' minds are wide open when you see them. They believe everything you say, so you have to be honest with them. You're at a one-to-one kind of level, where they're going to soak up everything that you tell them. They have dreams, too. They have ideas and they have interests. So that's what I try to key in on and work with. I try to make it more fun for them than work. Simply, the routine is water, paper and colors—primary colors—and making them work and working with good paper. I try to give them experience, just approaching something with an open mind. I've been doing some workshops with kids on short stories, working with a simple storyline and developing it into their own and doing an illustration. I also have a chance to work with adults, international students who come and take classes at Dineh College every year for two weeks. The idea is to teach Navajo culture around art, any type of forms, silversmithing, baskets, rugs. That's been in development for three years. And people have taken an interest in what I teach and how I teach art…I didn't realize there was so much there to teach.
Linda: Does the teaching feed your own art? Do you do different things because you teach?
Baje: Oh, yeah. It has certainly sharpened my knowledge about Navajo culture and Indian culture, and how its art forms compare with western forms. And it has developed into something that I didn't expect to gain—the interpretation of Navajo art, how the medicine people and the shamans view art. I have realized that I do know quite a lot of things about Navajo culture which I didn't think I knew…a lot of memories, as far as the art.
Linda: Brenda, how many rugs do you think you see a year? When you work at Ganado [Trading Post], there must be a huge number.
Brenda: I see a lot of rugs, two to ten rugs a day. There is not one day when no weavers come in.
Linda: So you really get a good picture of what's going on. What about the customers? When people are doing new things, trying new colors, etc., are the customers there for it?
Brenda: Sometimes they are. It all depends on who your customer is. Some people are more flexible, the ones you tend to see once every other year or once a year, they come over and they always ask for something new, something different. There's a lot of room for that. And I always try to tell other weavers, tell them to be more creative and do something different from what they've been doing all the time. I've been talking to a lot of weavers and trying to help them out with their colors and their designs.
Linda: So you, too, have done a lot of education, both educating the weavers and interpreting the changes in the artform to them and also interpreting their material back to potential buyers. When you advise weavers, and you talk to them about change, are you mostly responding to what you think the market is doing?
Brenda: Oh, yeah, that's mainly what I'm doing. There's a market for rugs, you know, and the only way the weavers are going to get what they want for their rugs is to make a change and do something creative or be themselves and do something different, instead of having the trader or somebody else tell them how to do it. It's got to be in themselves to do something different.
Linda: That's a pretty fundamental change, it seems to me, in weaving, that now it is different rugs, creative rugs that are easier to sell than something that is a stock pattern.
Brenda: Oh, yeah.
Nora: But doesn't that generally happen? Because I know that happens in pottery, to a large extent. Or is happening at this point. Because the market basically became flooded with the traditional pottery, the carved black Santa Clara pot that you would normally see. In some ways, I think it has, so the collectors are looking for something that they would think is innovative. That's where this whole other market starts to open up—some people who do different things experiment within these boundaries.
Linda: So do you think that the number of artists who can make a living doing more creative things is increasing?
Nora: Oh, yeah.
Linda: …Do you think the "market share" for them is better than it was?
Baje: Yeah, I think that the doors are wide open for an artist to do his or her own kind of work. I think that when you make an effort to change things, you also create a new market for yourself. From what I know, the artists certainly have made changes in their own way, in the jewelry market, the weaving, painting. I think if you look at my work, it has changed a lot, from the things that I used to do. Just, for example, in the water colors I have a piece that I brought with me that doesn't have any indication that has to do with Navajo. I mean, it's just watercolor, contemporary, washes…the vertical stroke and the horizontal stroke, and just colors. There is a market, and that fluctuates, but for some of us, I think we've done well enough that we can support ourselves doing the sort of work we want to do. Not a whole lot, but we know how far we can go.
Nora: That begs a question for me. I've heard people talk, Native people ask the question. Should we expect to be part of the mainstream art world and do we want to be? Some people are adamant and say no, we don't want to be part of the mainstream art. Or we can stay within this arena, where we can be innovative within this arena. However, we can never do what Baje was talking about, doing a watercolor that doesn't look Indian at all. I do things sometimes, quite a bit, where it doesn't look Native at all. Someone from Illinois could have done it. That sort of thing. And, interestingly enough, people just don't respond to it. They don't want to see it, especially if it gets abstract and what someone else would call "mainstream".
Linda: So when you talk about responding to it, is it that when it's among your things, and other things in which they could readily identify something that looks "Native," then they'll respond to those pieces and not to the one that's "mainstream"?
Nora: Yes. And I'm wondering…. I think that brings up an issue that people like my children will have to start dealing with. Because they'll have to figure out where it is they belong culturally. How will the next generation of Native Americans continue in their tradition with their personal vision and integrity intact? Those are the kinds of questions that are surfacing among our children.
Baje: I was just talking to my son this morning, and he had the same question. I just said, "Well, you know where you come from. You know where your life started, where your father's from, where your mom's from, and who your grandmothers and grandparents are. I started with that, and that's what I know. And that's what I'm going to have and what they're going to have the rest of their lives. If they raise their children traditionally or in that cultural influence, they can have that and they can take it anywhere they want. You are being accepted as a person. They know who you are, they know what you do, they know where you came from, so you have room to work, whatever way you want to go. But you are in an arena, you are where you can survive. This is your little world and this is what you have established by yourself. This is why people want to come to your show and this is why people want to know who you are and what you're all about. But I don't know, if you think of mainstream, it's a whole different thing.
Linda: Here we have a society that has so many people in touch with one another from all kinds of different cultures and different backgrounds, and who do influence one another. And we all influenced one another in various ways in the Separate Vision project out of our different backgrounds—I think all you—anyone—can really do is what you are moved to do at the moment, and some aspect of that comes from your mother's family and some aspect from your father's family and some aspect from having worked with the other artists in Separate Vision or from having had a peculiar experience at the grocery store this morning. As time goes on, I think this whole business about what is and isn't Indian art is going to get just more and more difficult as the society gets more and more interconnected. Fifty years ago you might have grown up on the Navajo Reservation and not be around non-Navajos very much, but that's never going to happen with your kids.
Nora: Several months ago I had an exhibition in Canada with eight other Native artists. I spent two weeks with Native people from all over the U.S. and Canada, all of them very intelligent, interested—some were urban Indians, some were reservation Indians, but they all had these very important, separate visions. Their work wasn't commodified, especially in this context of Native American market, because seven of the artists were doing installation work, which of course was not for sale. To be around them and to be inspired by them and their very unique cultural and personal perspectives was very good for me. It's almost like there are two arenas of people working in the Native art world—one group of people who are going out on the creative limb and really experimenting with their mediums, and on the other hand, I know there are Native artists who keep the more traditional art and crafts movement going. And I think this more traditional arena of creating is more subject to the market demand than the other. I recently worked with Edward Poitras, from Canada, and in one of his installations he used just straight pins, thousands and thousands of pins that blanketed the wall in an area of maybe nine by nine feet. He put them an inch apart, and then—you know how they used to scrape the buffalo hide with a tool? He got that tool and around it he wrapped an extension cord and the cord had a fitting into the electrical outlet…you just don't see that kind of work in the Southwestern context of Indian art. And when I see that, I get very excited and stimulated and hopeful. So that I feel that I've found a niche with these people. They're very open and excited to share their visions with me, and so again I find myself awestruck….(laughs)
Linda: The Indian art market has had those two groups for a long time, though, with a limited number of people who seem to have had, or at least exercised, more freedom than everybody else, and then most people doing what would sell under their local equivalent of the portero. Do you think that's changed? Can you get a sense of that? You're working in certain circles, and they're really exciting circles, but when you go to Santa Fe, is what's going on under the portero any different, do you think?
Nora: No. No, because I was there about a month ago. And I walked up and down a couple of times. And I saw basically the same work.
Linda: Could have been ten years ago, or even forty years.
Nora: Exactly. Every once in a while I'll see something that catches my eye, and again that sense of hope surfaces. It's very difficult for an artist anywhere to make a living so the prescribed art forms become standard fare. When I do see innovation, it signals that an artist risked financial security and went with his or her creative vision. My hope is that there will be people who will want to, will take the chance.
Linda: Traditionally, it has been easier for Southwestern artists at the portero level to make a living than, say, an Iroquois artist. The Indian art market has been very strongly developed here for a century. So it strikes me that it's a blessing and a curse at this point, because the hooks are in deeper for Southwestern artists—there's a much stronger stereotype, but it is tied to a level of financial reward—predictability, at least. If I talk to a class of average college students about Iroquois art, they have absolutely no picture in their minds at all until I show them something. But for the Southwest it's…
Linda: Yes. Do you think it is breaking up at all?
Nora: No, and I think it says a lot about the way society seems to need to view Native people in general. We want our Natives to be… fill in the lines. And what I'm finding out is that they also want Native people to be manageable…that is, to stay on the rez. (Laughs) Did I cross the line? Did I say the wrong thing?
Linda: No, it's actually the conclusion I've come to, too. I've gone back a lot in my mind over the things we did in Separate Vision, just looking at it and thinking about it, and I see it as meaning different things now from what I saw ten years ago. And the primary difference is that it appears to me that there was a manageable and safe niche sought out to put Indian people in, and the creation of craft arts is something that is not dangerous to anybody, that allows non-Indians to participate a little through buying and to feel as if, yes, indeed, whites and Indian people live in society together and everything is really all right.
Nora: In essence, Natives are compartmentalized in a safe package that the non-Natives can handle and easily catagorize within their limited view of us.
Linda: Right, and one that white people can walk away from. I think it is what plays behind this business of limiting the rewards for creativity in Native art. I think also there's a notion that you and the people that you are now exhibiting with challenge—there's a notion of a set of images that can be collected that allows a person to feel they can collect the reality of an Indian culture. And I think that's part of the challenge in trying to do something different in Native American art—you're suddenly suggesting that there's not some finite number of categories, of ideas in an Indian culture's art, and that you cannot collect the essence of someone. Does that make sense?
Nora: Yes. And that you can't hand out a ribbon to determine the quality of someone's time and energy and culture and work. It's limiting, very limiting, not to mention insulting, to who I am as a person. I think about the porcelain plates that I've seen. On the plate is this Indian babe that looks like Barbie, she's got low-cut everything, and everything she's wearing is tight. For all practical purposes, she looks white, her features are white, but she's dark, and she's supposed to be Indian, and it's on a porcelain plate that people hang upon the wall and assume that this is what a Native woman is. How absurd to portray Native women in such a limiting way!
Linda: So, in that vein, what did you think of Pocahontas the movie?
Nora: I liked the pillows. They were great. How's that? (everyone laughs) The whole idea of collecting this stuff, just like you were saying, perpetuates the stereotypes. People are very comfortable with that and always will be, because to dig beneath the surface, one will have to deal with realities like housing and alcoholism and loss of the language in Native culture. Those sorts of realities are not what white society wants to deal with when it comes to "their" Natives because then it shatters that image—it shatters the plate. And I like the idea of shattering those plates—I think it's very interesting. In Pueblo culture there is the idea of K'osa (sacred clowns). K'osa, with their comedic brilliance, hold a mirror to humans, with all their foibles and weaknesses. And I think that part of the tradition just surfaces in me at times. Because I never… I know this about myself… I never do really anything abrasive or mean. It's always with a slant of mischief. Or it has humor in it. I find that to be very effective when reaching an audience. That's why I find the medium of video so exciting and interesting, because I can play the K'osa—and deal with important issues while making people see the humor of our humanness. And so that if I do take a pillow that's got Pocahontas on it, I can show it for what it's worth, a Native girl sleeping on the pillow, or a Native mother buying a Pocahontas pillow for her clueless, culturally deprived daughter, whose only concern is that she wants to be like the other girls who've seen the movie, because there's a lot of humor in that. And there's an underlying message about where we're at and how we're perceived, and really how we perceive ourselves as Native people.
Baje: But Brenda, your weaving has become not just traditional weaving anymore. It's becoming more of an artform.
Brenda: Oh, yeah.
Baje: People like you've taken the old way and made it a new thing, in the process adding more to it and making it more personal, and I think it's what we [as Indian artists] have evolved to. Nora does work, things that are different and fascinating and fun. They're great ideas and, for me, it makes me look at my own work and compare and say, "I've got room to go that far, and I can go as wide as I want to or I can stay right here." Last year I did a workshop on how a person can take the western ideas and the Navajo ideas and combine the two. If you're Navajo, or any other Native, you live the lifestyle, you teach the lifestyle, you grew up in the lifestyle, then all of a sudden you're introduced to the western world. There again is language, everything parallels, there is belief, there is philosophy in both, so now what I've done is put the two together. You have double what you have started with, but at the bottom, you're still who you are. You're going to be Navajo or Santa Clara or whatever, no matter what you do. One I realize is a fast world, and one is a slow world, the western and the traditional Navajo. The Navajo philosophy is it only takes you being who you are, it takes being you first, and you are the only one who could do this. So if they make it a part of mainstream art or it becomes that, you've even gone further. Why do we have to limit ourselves? We've learned western things, and we have what we know [Native culture] and can combine the two. Now we can go as far as we want and still be the artists we want to be. There's still an indication of the Navajo philosophy that art is a new kind of thing, so that Brenda's talking about making changes, and I'm sure Nora has, too, taken what she had learned in both worlds and combined them into one. All of a sudden, it's not what we usually do, so we actually changed and also took the other side, and there's a lot more there we can do. I have taken ideas and I've been open. I start with a basic idea, but by the time it comes out, it's completely different.
Nora: What it wants to become.
Brenda: It still does what it wants to do, yeah.
Baje: And I'm open to that these days. I think we find ourselves teaching a process, but then there's no limit to what the art becomes. I think it's become our own worlds.
Nora: I think that's true, except I keep coming back to this idea that the market determines how and where the boundaries are, to a great extent. And I guess I can still keep my cultural personal identity, except I know that if I want to eat, it's got to be identifiable. That's an issue that I think a lot of contemporary Native people are struggling with. They want to ask those basic questions and say "Yeah, I am an amalgamation of all these influences, and accept this, what I make, from where it comes from, who I am as a Native American at the end of this millennium, and all that this experience entails." And the market will say, "Hmmm, but I don't see a raingod in this or I don't see a yei spirit in this—I don't get it, so I won't buy it, because it's not culturally identifiable." I did a piece recently, and it was this woman who had these very strange breasts. They were just pointing in different directions and the piece had nothing in its head and it was a big zero on the bottom and it was all done in stencil and acrylic and enamel—it was just plain scary. It was what some people would call "modern art," and somebody came in looking at my work at the studio and I could see them physically responding to it, because they came to see Nora Naranjo-Morse's work, the contemporary Native American sculptor. They weren't able to accept this piece that I purposely left in the studio because it symbolizes something for me. The people couldn't even get close to it to look at it. They couldn't even see it as a piece of artwork. It was just… "Oh." They averted their eyes. It was really interesting. And actually that's happened a couple of times. That's fine because it has a purpose in the studio. But it also brings up a lot of questions for me. So I keep coming back to that marketplace, and how much it really does have an effect on us, even though we do represent ourselves as Native people and contemporary Native people with supposedly an open arena to work—but it's still an arena that we work within, as opposed to pulling canvas over a wall and saying, "Yes. Get it?" That kind of thing. Do you see what I'm saying? A Pueblo woman is never supposed to do that kind of artwork. There will always be that `Indian babe' collector plate that we are stenciled into. That's the kind of thing that I'm struggling against, and as long as I am who I am, I always will. And as long as there's a market specifically for Native people, we always will. And we will always be compartmentalized in that arena, on that plate, with these boundaries.
Linda: It seems to me that change at least, though, comes incrementally. Brenda's seeing it in weaving. You're getting aspects of it. But there are limits still, it seems.
Baje: Yeah, there are, there are.
Nora: Yeah, and I think that is very universal. I think we're just an example of much larger phenomena in which everyone is restricted by the standard, whatever that standard is at the moment.
Linda: There's an interesting point that has been made to me, that this experience is not unique to Native Americans, that this is the artist's experience—any artist, all artists. Whatever pond you happen to be swimming in as an artist, they say you will still hit a set of limits as to what somebody thinks a contemporary sculptor—or potter, or painter—ought to be making. Once someone gets an idea about what any artist is about, then that particular artist isn't supposed to change too much or too fast. For Native American artists, there are particular stereotypes, so you can perhaps predict more what the limits will be for them, but I'm told by other artists that the limits are there for everybody. They're just set in a different way.
Nora: And I think especially it's ironic for artists, whether they're black, Native, whatever. Artists are really visionary, and they generally don't think in terms of boundaries. They honestly believe that there are no boundaries. And so they're really going against the current, because the current's saying, "Wake up at 8, have 2.2 children, by the time you're 35 you do this, and na-na-na-na-na, forever and ever." The artist spirit, the creative spirit that I think is in us, that I think we're born with, luckily, swims against that whole ideology. We were talking about Natives being managed? I really think it's really a much larger sentence. I think we as people, whatever society we're in, we are managed, and controlled, and defined.
Linda: Yet, within that, you are all successful in common terms—you can sell the things you do, you're invited to exhibit, you're invited to talk about the things you do. How do you measure success in your own life?
Baje: To have sensitivity to your life is success, I think. You know you have to exercise, you know you have to eat, you know you have to be with the family.
Linda: So you can keep life in balance and still do your art.
Baje: Yeah. Maintaining the reality of things. In reality, I'm still the same person, and if I'm treated and perceived as a person, then I've done well and I think there's a lot more room for more creativity. I know where I came from. I know what I was and what I've experienced in my life and childhood. I think that, coming from the Navajo people through generations, creation began with colors, and a lot of the stories are sort of abstract, so there's a lot of directions you can go with just the simple philosophy of the Navajo people. Where the ideas came from and how they were told and how they were passed on through generations. Through some of my work, I see a lot of the same thing. You plant things. You integrate some of the things that you remember. Individuals can study the Navajo culture, philosophy, and the Indian beliefs, and in a sense show all of these things. You show balance, you show color, you show motion, you show change. Navajo philosophy and belief, way of life, is really nature's way of doing things. One man was talking about Eden in the Bible and he said, "This is Eden—we are in Eden. This is where everything man needs is, on this earth." The earth lives for us and we are a part of the earth. The earth doesn't belong to us, but we are planted to be part of the earth. Everything, every level of life from the center of the earth to the top is life.
I've been dealing lately with cultural things, traditional things, how I use those ideas. You know there are two parts to all things—living things, benches, all things—the man and woman. The man side is a sacred thing, and the woman side is educational, the teaching tool. A child learns things at every age level, as he's growing, and is introduced to the sacred things, like the healing things, the blessings, by an individual, an uncle or an aunt that does these things. But in a person's growth, in his growing up and learning, there's a time and place it's his decision to continue that path. So using these images of sacred things, there's no way of talking to a child when they don't have the knowledge to see. I was taught to believe that if you portray things as they are, then they are sacred, so you sort of toy with a form, you use it in a way that it's not the actual being. So, for example, the image of the yei form—a yei is a spiritual being of the woods and the hills, a healer. He is everything, a composite of all elements that make life. In the last few years, I've learned how to portray the yei properly, just searching back through how I grew up and how I related to it and how it became a form and how it became a base to my work, to the point that I can feed off of it and use it in any setting now.
Linda: So you do a sort of interpretation that is not a complete being?
Baje: Yeah. One is not taught, the other one is taught. You have to be an apprentice in that society before you portray them as they are. I'd really never had the chance before to talk with elders about Navajo art, how they interpret what is art in the ceremony, and what is in their scrolls or whatever they talk about, where they keep document things in their own way. I don't know if you're introduced to that. I know my grandfather had things in his pouch, that sacred pouch. Those are unseen things. So to hear them talk about those, the language and the images and the symbols, it was all new to me. The interpretation, the expression of art, what is art to them, was interesting to hear—balance, motion, colors, harmony. It's simple but it does say quite a bit. And then, to compare it with the western world, you have the same ideas, the same kind of interpretations. The human being—they say the five different individuals were made and the world was made in that way simply because the world would be interesting. There would never be a situation where the languages become one. So I guess in a way we understand the arena thing that we've been talking about—it has to be different, it has to be separated, it has to be—otherwise, the world is not interesting. Otherwise, the language is one. We cannot have one ruler, we have to have diversity in the world. We have to have differences, we have to have cultures, we have to have languages. In the sense that art is one's own personal interpretation and expression and language; a way to communicate, that language is understood in any language, in any culture. It has to have balance, it has to have negative and positive things, it has to have good, bad; otherwise, the world would rebalance itself and when it does, then there's potentially dangerous changes in the world. The world should be balanced, there need to be plenty of differences.
Linda: So it's an argument against the kind of smearing of all cultures into one culture.
Baje: Yes. I've been confronted, told many times in my career that the only reason I've done anything with my art career is because I was Native. We can have all kinds of excuses, but it does take an individual to get somewhere. Native This group of textiles shows Brenda Spencer's experimentation with the "Wide Ruins" style. Her traditional Wide Ruins, shown below right, is made up of straight rows of intricate elements in various combinations and colors. Her textiles above and below left experiment with those canons, using drops and reversals in the patterns within the rows, emphasized by color changes and contrasting outlines. She also uses alterations in the customary mirror-imaging and symmetry to add "something different, something more creative." These rugs are individual statements that add to, rather than violate, the Wide Ruins standard. art wouldn't be what it is without all of us, because we've made a lot of change, not simply that we wanted to, but you grow, in growth you change, you get new ideas, and in the collector's eye it has to be different. You can't just buy the same rug from one person year after year. It has to be different from the others if it's going to be on their wall somewhere, in whatever way you change it. It's growth and change, and I think the world allows you that. I don't know where we're going to go. I've certainly learned there is a lot of room for change, there is a lot of room for expression, for creativity, so I'm open for more change. But we still have our unique way of doing things, we all have.
Linda: Nora, you used to say that art takes over and makes itself after a point. Do you think your path as an artist has done that as well, that it moves toward something? You've become very free, done lots of different kinds of art—do you think that has any effect on how other people might think about their own art, what the possibilities really are?
Nora: Now that you bring it up, probably my ego would say `yeah, I hope so—that would be great.' But we talked about this a long time ago, that once that creative magic kicks in, I surrender myself, basically. It takes over, and I don't think about anyone else in that sense. Although this last project I did Reservation X, I did a 30 foot by 10 foot high installation, and it included a ten-minute video, and it was basically about issued housing on the reservations, past housing made of adobe and the experience now of HUD homes that are manufactured frame modular homes, and that definitely was something I wanted to make clear as a statement. I wanted the people of my village to see this. I want people of other communities to see that. And it basically came from this song that my mother taught me when I was younger. So I got from her this song that I learned from her on some average day. And I incorporated it into this whole big process that became extremely tangible in that it was so large, and that I was very certain that I wanted people to see. But when I was in the process, editing or plastering the wall that was part of the installation, I was there, and I wasn't really thinking about the larger issue I was creating.
Linda: You were present in the creative process, in a Zen sense.
Nora: Yeah, exactly. And I love that about creating—it's just so magical.
Linda: So, it's really before the fact, and after the fact, you see the path?
Nora: And sometimes in the middle, I almost have to gulp, an internal or emotional gulp, because I'm thinking, `Can I really do this? Is this really possible?'
Linda: Do you think in terms of the word success? Do you have a way to measure what you would want to be successful at in art, and how you would measure getting to it?
Nora: Several months ago, one day I found myself at the White House, right? (laughter) My things, along with several other Native artists', were being exhibited in the Rose Garden, and we were asked to come and have tea with Mrs. Clinton. And it was all very formal—we got these beautiful hand-written invitations. And I'm looking at it, and I'm thinking, `Wow, this is, I guess, success.' But what I was even more excited about was that in that group of people they also selected was George Morrison, who does woodcarvings. He's about 70 years old, and he came in a wheelchair. To meet him was a very important thing for me. And that he was recognized, that we were recognized as a group of people and that the art represented there was really very vibrant and strong and it messaged so much about who we are as contemporary Native people. And, to me, I thought that was successful. When I wake up, and I can basically design my day, and it includes things like that experience, or even being able to stop what I am doing and spend three weeks getting ready for a ceremony, and just letting myself go into this place that is very, very spiritual and not having to worry about much else, the outside world, to me that is successful. I'm healthy. I like myself. I will continue like the Tewa people say: if you just have good feelings and approach whatever you do with those good feelings, then that's what success is. You are living in beauty, if you will. And that's all I really want.
I did a film called "I've been Bingoed by My Baby," and of course it was about gaming. And I've showed that to people at Santa Clara. And some people just went, "What's she doing? What's going on?" Some of them just don't relate because, again, we're in the context of Southwest art where, if you're a Pueblo woman, you should be sitting at home polishing pottery because we're three days away from Indian Market. But I know that the people in the Santa Clara community know I'm doing work that's a little different. Recently I've been in the papers quite a bit and on TV because I've been involved in this Cuerto Centenario project. This is the 400th anniversary of Onate [the Spanish conquistador who established the colony of Santa Fe]. There was money allocated from One Percent for Art to do an Onate sculpture by a Hispanic person, historical information about what the Spaniards brought into this area at that time by an Anglo person, and a Native American response to Onate and all that had happened. All of this would eventually culminate in a bronze piece. I was asked to be that artist. Because it was public monies, there were public forums where people would come together and state their concerns, etc., and it became very heated at times. And so I was thrown in the center of this whirlwind, and I saw just a number of racial issues that had never been resolved, and maybe won't ever be, surfaced and played out in the public. And now people really appreciate that it is a response to Onate and that I'm trying to bring in a new way of looking at Native monumental sculpture. Usually it is very romanticized and done by men. I think it's wonderful that the Art Commission chose a Native woman. And the idea that I've brought in isn't at all romantic. It's very straightforward. It's not angry, but it says what it needs to say. You have to look at it and think about it. It's very conceptual. I like that idea because it opens all sorts of doors. And I like the idea that it's in a public place, so that younger people can see that this is what our elders—because in some ways I'm moving toward that label—what our elders did at the end of the millennium.
Linda: So there are things that the world seems to need out of you in the path that you take?
Nora: Yeah, whatever role it is. I remember when my son was going through a specific ceremony, the only thing that I was able to do was support him, get all his things together, and cook. I cooked for a week, and I made chili and I made bread and I made everything I could, and when that day came to feed people, we fed them on the floor. I watched people come in and eat the food that I had made, and it was a good moment for me. And somebody said, "Don't you wish that you had gone through this ceremony?" Well, it wasn't my time—it was my time to support and nurture and every spoonful they took—that was what I was doing. And that's how the people at home really see that everyone does have their place. That sometimes I'm the one on the receiving end of support and other times it's me that's strong enough to be able to give that. So that whenever I participate in some art-related experience, I also bring that experience of home and nurturing and receiving that nourishment. I incorporate it into the creative experience whenever I have the opportunity to work. Because I love it. I just want to keep working. I don't want to stop, because if my hands are gnarled by arthritis, then I can still write somehow. I may not be able to make sculptures out of mud, but at least I'll be able to write about something. I want to be versatile as I get older. And I'm starting to see myself preparing for that. I want to have a list of things that I can do, that I can call on as I get older. I think that's just part of creative living.
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—. "A Separate Vision." Plateau, Vol. 60, (1), 1989, Museum of Northern Arizona: Flagstaff.
—. A Separate Vision:Case Studies of Four Contemporary Native American Artists, Museum of
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