Emerging Artist | Arlo Namingha


By Hollis Walker

In the first half of 2002, Arlo Namingha’s sculptures were featured in a two person show at a New York gallery,in group exhibits at museums in New York City and Santa Fe, and in a group gallery show in San Antonio. With such representation across the country, it hardly seems possible that this year is only the second in which the 29-year-old Santa Fe artist has publicly exhibited his wood and bronze sculptures.

But Namingha has been working at his craft for longer than most artists his age. According to his father, artist Dan Namingha, Arlo was only about a year old when he scrambled under the child-safety gate at the doorway of Dan’s art studio. When Dan returned from the kitchen, he found that little Arlo had decided he could improve upon his father’s just-completed painting. “I should have known then that he was going to become an artist,” Dan says wryly.

The elder Namingha’s brilliantly colored acrylic paintings and bronze sculptures based on Hopi Indian imagery are familiar to many followers of contemporary American art. Dan Namingha’s works are part of the Smithsonian Institution, the Heard Museum, and the British Royal Collection, among others, and he is the subject of a book by Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Arlo has been known to many of his father’s collectors for years, not only as Dan’s son but also as manager of the family’s Santa Fe gallery, Niman Fine Art. For a decade Arlo has sold his famous father’s work; now he sells his own as well. Slowly, he’s shifting the balance, trying to spend as much time making art as he does selling it. Family members are taking on some of the burden: Arlo’s wife of two years, Nicole, and his mother, Frances, who co-owns the gallery with Dan, also work at Niman.

A young sculptor honors his forebears

EDITION 20. 3/4 X 5 1/2 X 4 1/2.

At the spacious, light-filled downtown gallery, Dan’s large paintings and near-Cubist sculptures seem to ground his son’s first body of work—minimalist sculptures of kachina figures. The two artists’ styles fit together seamlessly. Like his father, Arlo explores symbols and ideas from Hopi cos-mology, adding influences from the related imagery of San Juan Pueblo north of Santa Fe, where his mother is from and where he spent much of his childhood.

Arlo’s father’s family descended from a group of Tewa-speaking people who migrated to the Hopi reser-vation in northeastern Arizona from northern New Mexico perhaps as long ago as the 17th century. San Juan Pueblo is also a Tewa culture. In addition to English, Arlo speaks Tewa and some Hopi. “I’m influenced by my father’s work, which I think is very apparent,” Arlo says. He also admires the work of sculptors Isamu Noguchi and Richard Serra. “I tend to like clean lines or design-oriented pieces,” he says. “I try to incorporate that, but also to keep strong ties to our traditions. It’s a way to express who I am.’’

Arlo grew up at San Juan Pueblo, spending summers with his father’s family at the village of Hano on Hopi until he was about 13. When his parents left San Juan Pueblo to move to Santa Fe, he went with them. But a few years later he opted to return to San Juan and live with his grandmother until he completed high school. Throughout his childhood, Arlo spent a great deal of time in his father’s studio, along with his younger brother, Michael, now a student at Parson’s School of Design in New York. By the age of 9, Arlo was helping his father stretch and prime his canvases. He also learned about art from his paternal grandparents, Dextra and Edwin Quotskuyva. Dextra is a well-known Hopi potter who last year was the subject of a one-woman exhibit at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe. She taught Arlo how to work with clay. He liked the medium but found the process of making pottery tedious. His grandfather carved traditional kachina “dolls”—carved and painted figures that represent the spirit messengers who act as intermediaries between the Hopi people and the spirit world. With his father, Arlo is a member of the Katsina Society and participates in kachina dances. He also participates in ceremonies at San Juan Pueblo along with his wife, who is a San Juan native.


EDITION 15, 21 1/4 X 6 1/4 X 3

Arlo’s paternal great-great-great-grandmother was the innovative potter Nampeyo [1860-1942], whom Hoving calls “one of the major Native American creative forces of the past century.” Many other members of Arlo’s family are also artists. His maternal grandmother, Epifaña Garcia, was a potter, and her husband, David, was a jeweler and furniture maker. Despite this vast artistic legacy, Arlo says he never felt pressured to become an artist; instead it was a natural process. As a youth, he often tagged along with his father to the bronze foundry, art exhibits, and visits with other artists. When his parents opened Niman Fine Art in Santa Fe in 1990, they offered Arlo—who was taking college courses in design, drafting, and architec-ture—a job. He joined them in 1991 but continued to study painting, drawing, and animation before shifting into business classes.

After he had been working at the gallery for a few years, Arlo accidentally earned his first art commission. “I was getting ready for a ceremony and brought in a kachina I was working on, and some clients asked about acquiring my work,’’ he says, still sounding a lit-tle surprised. Other inquiries followed. For about four years, he carved and painted kachinas for sale solely on commission.

Creating the traditional kachinas soon felt repet-itious, however, so Arlo began experi-menting with a different style. He began to use less paint and to en-large and simplify the dancing figures. He had always used cottonwood bran-ches, not the trad-itional cottonwood root, for his kachinas. Now he began trying other woods, seeking different colors and grains: Malaysian jelutong, cherry wood, Sitka spruce, sugar pine, Honduran mahogany, basswood. As his work grew ever more minimal and abstract, he found that hardwoods worked best for creating clean lines and sharp edges. He continued to use little to no paint on his wooden figures and began molding some in clay. Working from these original wood and clay figures, he now casts and fabricates bronzes in editions no larger than 20.


21 1/2 X 6 X 6

In his recent series of bronze maidens, representing the female kachinas, each figure is depicted upright and immobile rather than dancing. Limbs and garments are fused into a sleek column, imparting an iconic stature. Hano Mana, a dark brown figure initially modeled in clay, retains her hand-built, slightly bumpy texture in bronze. Her cos-tume has been abstracted to a multi-planed curve, as if blown by the wind, and her facial features are minimal: Her eyes look like dashes, her mouth is open in a tiny, downward-facing triangle. “Hano” is the name of the First Mesa village where Arlo’s grandmother lives; it means “Tewa.” “Mana” translates as “maiden.” Other maidens fea-ture sharp geometric lines, wave forms, cutouts, and smoothed surfaces. Long Hair Maiden, originally carved in the nearly grain-free jelutong, is cast in bronze in a patina that mimics the wood, a pale cream. The kachina’s body has been truncated to a half-sphere bisected by a line suggesting her garment. Carved striations in her long hair and in the “beard” of her costume add texture. Her headdress, or tablita, symbolizes the entreaty for moisture, a constant concern of the desert dwelling Hopi.

This year, the sculptor experimented with a very minimal, spherical represen-tation of a kachina’s face in bronze, using multiple surfaces and patinas for variety. The form is one his father has also explored, yet Arlo is not self-conscious about building on his mentor’s ideas. He proudly points out designs he has adapted from his grandmother’s pottery and painted on kachina figures.

His is a refreshingly honest approach to what all artists know: Truly universal symbols and images come from a common, and often unconscious, source. Artists continually borrow from each other and from other cultures in an attempt to communicate their uniquely personal visions. Still at the beginning of his career, Arlo Namingha’s use of cultural symbols and familial imagery in his work honors his forebears’ legacy and helps to sustain a rich heritage that he may someday share with his own children.

Hollis Walker is an independent journalist who writes about art from her home in Santa Fe, NM.

Namingha is represented by Niman Fine Art, Santa Fe, NM; Vanier Gallery, Scotts-dale, AZ; and J. Cacciola Gallery, New York, NY. His work is on view in Changing Hands: Art Without Reservation at the American Craft Museum in New York through September 20.

Featured in August 2002