The Shock of the Nuevo

For decades, Santa Fe has been the spot to find world-class Hispanic and Native American art. Now, Laura Fraser discovers, a new generation of artists is adding 21st-century buzz to the city’s creative mix.

From Sunset Magazine, May, 2015

Navajo artist and photographer Will Wilson mixes the 19th century with the 21st in his tintype portraits of contemporary Native Americans.

I’m sitting on a bench in the middle of the Plaza in Santa Fe, having an argument with my dad. Like so many people who visit this town, we’re here to see art, but there’s so much of it — 250 galleries and an overwhelming number of museums and handicraft shops — that you need a strategy. We’re focusing on Native American art, which eliminates a wide swath of galleries that could be anywhere else in the world, but Dad insists on seeing only traditional arts and crafts, while I’m more interested in contemporary work.

“I don’t like that new stuff,” Dad says — an opinion of his that blankets all of modern art, not just Native American. “It’s crazy techniques, done by people with split personalities, and it just doesn’t do anything for me.” I roll my eyes. He gestures toward the Navajo and Pueblo artisans under the porticoes of the Palace of the Governors, selling jewelry and baskets, as they have for more than a century. “The most beautiful craftsmanship is right there,” he says. “Each artist puts his individual stamp on a long historical tradition.”

My dad is 86, so I’m not about to change his mind. But I wonder, given that he’s not exactly open-minded on the topic of art in general, how he got interested in Native American art in the first place. When I ask, he smiles at the memory of how he and my mother took road trips to New Mexico from their home in Colorado in the early 1960s. “We’d detour through reservations and stop where Indians had little stands by the road,” he says. “We were fascinated by what they had to sell.” Their first purchase was a finely woven wedding basket. Over the years, they went to Native American flea markets and art fairs, collecting gleaming black pots, Navajo rugs with diamond eye-dazzler designs, and sand-cast jewelry. “Every piece brings back memories,” says my dad, touching his Zuni inlaid turquoise belt buckle. “We always met the artist, who’d talk about how they’d made the piece. We weren’t just tak- ing home a pot or a piece of jewelry; we were taking home a story.”

That’s why, long before Santa Fe was a style, my mother wore chunky turquoise jewelry, and ours was the only house in the neighborhood with bronze katsina dancers on the coffee table. They brought us kids with them to Santa Fe a couple of times, to stroll by the treasures Native Americans were selling on the Plaza, to eat chiles rellenos and honey-dipped sopaipillas, and to drive on dusty roads to pueblos where we’d visit Native craftspeople in their own backyards. Like my parents, I marveled at Native art: the way Navajo rugs captured the Southwest- ern landscape and flattened it into an abstract tapestry; how the pottery was perfectly round and smooth, yet made by human hands, without a wheel. But some of the paintings my parents brought home of Native Americans in their beaded and feathered glory made me uneasy. They seemed too storybook, given what little I knew about the grim history of Native Americans, depicting a time that was easier to romanticize.

“I love the crafts, but I’d like to see art that says something about Indians today,” I tell my dad. “Indian chiefs on horses are too romantic.” He shrugs. As a physician, he spent 15 years practicing on a string of Native American reservations (he can conduct a physical in Navajo), so he’s more familiar than most with Native American issues and cultures. “I don’t care if they’re romantic,” he says. “I like art that has a respect for their traditions, and for the past.”

Generations of beauty

Over the next couple of days, we adhere to my dad’s traditional itinerary. Our first stop is near the Plaza: Rainbow Man, a gallery of fine Native American jewelry and folk art that has been operating since 1945. Its back-alley room, Dad remarks, was the secret process- ing center for people working on the Manhattan Project in nearby Los Alamos. Today, the room’s walls are crowded with weavings from Chimayó and prints by Edward S. Curtis, who photographed the tribes west of the Mississippi from 1898 to 1928. These are iconic pictures of Native Americans, in their traditional headdresses, moccasins, and braids. Dad ad- mires the prints and chats with the owner about which of the rugs on the wall were old trade blankets and which were Chimayó, from weavers of Hispanic ori- gin. He’s in his element.

The following day, we venture out of town to the small villages that lie north of Santa Fe. On the way, I ask how Santa Fe became such an artistic hot spot, and Dad gives me a quick history review. New Mexican pueblo tribes — Acoma, Santa Clara, Zia, and many others — have made baskets, pottery, and other domes- tic crafts since perhaps 1200, each with its own tradi- tional motifs. In 1610, Spanish colonists settled Santa Fe, bringing their sheep, weavings, and silversmiths up from Mexico, influencing the local tribes. Then came the Americans: In the 1820s, Santa Fe became a flourishing trading center, since it sat at the crossroads of the old El Camino trail to Mexico City, and the new Santa Fe Trail, which was bringing white settlers west from Missouri. In the 1880s, an entrepreneur named Fred Harvey set up hotels along the rail lines in the Southwest, including the Alvarado Hotel in Albuquerque, which had a salesroom for Native American handicrafts.

After the crafts came the art: Anglo artists arrived in Taos and Santa Fe in the early 1900s, with paints that Native artists began to use, and ever since, artists and craftspeople from all over the world have flocked to the Southwest. Today, 2.6 percent of all workers in Santa Fe are in the art business — one of three top art markets in the country, alongside New York and Los Angeles — with a wide mix of styles, quality, and prices.

When we arrive at Chimayó, we stop in to watch seventh-generation weavers at an adobe house where skeins of indigo-dyed wool are drying outside. Lisa Trujillo, weaving a striped Rio Grande rug, shows us the old looms, still in use, and traditional patterns with some updated designs. Then we visit potters in the San Ildefonso pueblo, where, in the 1970s, my parents bought a black pot with a delicate feather design from Maria Martinez, who became the most famous potter in the Southwest, with works displayed in many museums; she changed Native American pottery from a curio to an art form. Inside, Barbara Gonzalez, Martinez’s great-granddaughter, also a potter, explains how the family makes pottery from earth dug nearby, shaping it by hand on the bowl of a gourd bottom, paint- ing a design with a yucca brush, firing it in a mound outdoors, and polishing it. Gonzalez shows us Martinez’s pots, and her own, some of which have a more contemporary look.

“You do a clay pot in the traditional style, but you do it your own way too,” she says. “That’s being an artist.”

“Art is always evolving,” I say, glancing at my dad.

findinG the new face of santa fe art Now it’s my turn. Having spent the first half of our Santa Fe trip focusing on the traditional arts Dad loves, we are — or at least I am — going to visit galleries and mu- seums that represent the new face of Southwestern art.

This is why I’m talking to Patsy Phillips, director of the Institute of American Indian Arts’ Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, just off the Plaza. IAIA has been a breeding ground for Native art for the past 50 years.

“We still have the problem that people want to romanticize Indians — they want to see what we call ‘beads and feathers,’ ” Phillips, a Cherokee, tells me. I nod, thinking of my dad. “Native artists today are creating installations, concep- tual media, sculptures — it’s more of a statement of what’s happening now.” Many Native artists, Phillips adds, focus on issues that their communities face: the damage done by a history of colonization, the clash of traditional culture and the modern world. After we talk, I walk through the exhibits, including some abstract landscapes by Yaqui artist Mario Martinez and eerie transformation masks on hand-stretched drumskins by Alaskan artist Da-ka-xeen Mehner.

Then I pick up Dad and take him to Windsor Betts Arts Brokerage House, which has a greatest-hits collection of contemporary and traditional Native art. Dad gravitates toward the older landscapes. I ask him to consider some of the contemporary pieces more closely, so he has a long look around. “I don’t like paintings that focus on the negative,” he says. “The art that shows everything Native Americans have had to fight against — the white man, alcoholism, the demands of living — doesn’t improve a healthy under- standing of Indian philosophy or art, which I’ve come to appreciate more and more.”

“We still have the problem that people want to romanticize Indians — they want to see what we call ‘beads and feathers.’ ”
— pATSy ph ILLIp S, d IREc To R, MUSEUM of con TEMpoRARy nATIv E ARTS

Next comes a surprise, a treasure that even my father, with all his visits to Santa Fe, has never seen: the Indian Arts Research Center, which houses more than 12,000 pieces of Native pottery, jewelry, textiles, sculpture, and basketry. We’d been told about it by Joe Schepps, owner of the Inn on the Alameda, where we were staying (and which displays its own collection of New Mexican art). He explained that the center’s collection is intended for researchers and to inspire contemporary artists.

When we walk into the vault, we gasp at the rows and rows of pots before us, grouped by pueblo, representing centuries of artistry. “It’s emotional, isn’t it?” says Elysia Poon, the program coordinator. “Amazing,” says my dad. Poon shows us centuries-old de- signs still used in Native art today.

We meet one of those artists a couple of hours later, Navajo artist Ehren Kee Natay, a fellow at the center. “I draw my influences from the traditional side and from pop culture,” he says. Then he pulls out paintings with elements of dream imagery done in spray paint. This is an artist who isn’t frozen in time, but galloping toward the future.

The last stop on our art tour is the Wheelright Museum of the American Indian, on Museum Hill, southeast of downtown. There is only one exhibit there, by Will Wilson, a Navajo photographer and artist, and it is ex- traordinary. Among his projects are photographs, Criti- cal Indigenous Photographic Exchange, some of which are portraits of contemporary Native Americans, created with a historic process similar to Edward S. Curtis’s. Wilson says he is impatient with the way, for many people, “Native people remain frozen in time in Curtis’s photos.” He’s playing off the notion of the “authentic Native American,” presenting his colleagues, family, and friends as they are — in their own clothes, sometimes holding objects that are meaningful to them. But however much the photos challenge our notions of what “authentic” means, they are mesmerizingly beautiful. Another piece, his rendition of his grand- mother’s woven eye-dazzler rug, done in square glass beads that resemble computer pixels with a QR code woven in to scan a video, is another shimmer- ing example of a traditional art form brought up-to-date.

I show Wilson’s art to Dad. He’s fascinated with the tintype-style digital prints, and glad to see they are respectful images of contemporary Americans. He ad- mires the beaded eye-dazzler rug, made of 76,050 painstakingly woven beads. He has no idea what a QR code is or that you can scan it to see another video about the rug. He doesn’t care that the piece was created on custom computer software.

“Wow,” he says. “Gorgeous. Just look at that craftsmanship.” “But it’s contemporary, Pops,” I say. “Crazy technique.”

He shakes his head like I just don’t get it. “It’s traditional,” he says. “It’s this Navajo artist’s individual take on everything that has come before him.” I glance at my weathered father and realize we actually aren’t so far apart in how we look at art. After a few days in Santa Fe, we’ve both come to love the old and the traditional, and the young and the new.

Seeing and buying Santa Fe art

A great pleasure of a Santa Fe trip is returning home with a Zuni bracelet or Santa Clara pottery. Yet art shoppers are wisely wary. How can you tell if that thunderbird bolo is authentic? (Santa Fe historian Joel Stein estimates that 60 percent of the jewel- ry sold in town is made in Southeast Asia.)

The best way to guarantee your purchase’s value is to buy only at stores with established reputations (look for the South- west Indian Arts Association symbol); museum shops; and vetted, juried exhibitions. Avoid outlets offering “50 percent off.” A “certificate of authenticity” may be faked. And beware the term “Indian craft- ed,” which can signify factory-made goods. The more trustworthy term is “Indian handmade.”

Here’s our short list of Santa Fe art venues for admiring and purchasing work — along with a perfect place to stay.

Galleries and Markets

blue raIn gallery Represents contem­porary Native artists. 130 Lincoln Ave.; blueraingallery.com.

centInela tradItIonal arts 946 State 76, Chimayó; chimayo weavers.com.

Portal natIve amerIcan artIsans Program/At the Palace of the Governors on the Plaza, the daily Museum of New Mexico–sponsored show supports ar­tisans from all 19 pueblos. Apache and Navajo tribes are also represented in the mix of pottery and jewelry. Artists set prices — from under $50 to hundreds of dollars — and bar­gaining is discour­aged. nmhistory museum.org.

raInbow man 107 E. Palace Ave.; rainbowman.com.

santa Fe IndIan market Famous market runs on the Plaza every year on the third weekend of August. More than 1,000 artists display juried work. swaia.org.

sunbeam gallery San Ildefonso Pueblo; sunbeamsanildefonso.com

wIndsor betts arts brokerage house 143 Lincoln Ave.; windsorbetts. com.

Museums

IndIan arts research center Tours are offered at 2 p.m. Fridays only and must be reserved. From $15; 650 Garcia St.; sarweb.org/?iarc.

museum oF contemPorary natIve arts $10; 108 Cathedral Place; iaia. edu/museum.

museum of Indian arts and culture Classic and contem­porary Southwestern paintings, pottery, jewelry, basketry, and weaving. From $6; 710 Camino Lejo; indianartsand culture.org.

wheelwrIght museum oF the amerIcan IndIan Focus is on solo shows by liv­ ing Native American artists. The Case Trad­ing Post museum shop is good. Become a member and receive substantial discounts. $5; 704 Camino Lejo; wheelwright. org. — Laura Fraser & Sharon Niederman

Where to Stay

Inn on the Alameda 303 E Alameda St, Santa Fe, NM 87501
(888) 984–2121.
This upscale, pueblo-style small hotel is a central location for art lovers: a block from galleries on Canyon Road and a 4-block walk from Santa Fe Plaza. Fresh, New Mexican-style breakfast will get you through hours of walking around.