Emerging Native American Artists

Dorothy Ami, southwest art.

By Christine Maxa

Dorothy Ami

Dorothy Ami has lived in Arizona’s lower Pollaca all her 33 years. She began her career as a preschool teacher, thinking that was her calling in life. When school let out each year, she would spend the summers making pottery. Eventually her cousin, potter Mark Tahbo, began mentoring Ami, spending a few hours each day watching and directing her and imparting his knowledge about working in clay.

Finally, Tahbo convinced Ami to take time off from her teacher’s job and devote herself to making Hopi-Tewa pottery full time. “Quitting my job was scary at first,” says Ami. “But now that I am completely immersed in pottery making, I will never let it go. It’s my good fortune to be able to create things from clay.”

Just one year after leaving her teaching job, Ami received an honorable mention award at the Museum of Northern Arizona’s Navajo Marketplace. Three years later, she earned second place—following just behind Tahbo’s first-place award.

Ami creates pottery in the traditional Hopi way, from gathering the clay to using sheep dung for firing it. She rarely duplicates a design in her pottery, preferring the challenge of trying something new. “I don’t think about a piece’s design until I start making the pot,” Ami says. “One line will start it, and it all just comes together. One line leads to another.”

Ami is represented by King Galleries, Scottsdale, AZ.

Marian Denipah. southwest art.

Marian Denipah

San Juan-Navajo artist Marian Denipah formed a quick bond with painting during high school. When an art teacher asked her to model for a figure drawing class, Denipah agreed. While posing, she noticed that the students seemed to be having a great deal of fun, and she decided she’d like to enroll in an art class. She did, and took to oil painting—and figurative work immediately.

After graduating from high school, Denipah had an opportunity to attend the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, where her grandmother, Regina Cáta, taught art classes. But she went hesitantly. “It was scary for me not to pursue a more practical career like accounting or something,” says Denipah. “But my grandmother helped me want to be an artist. She had a lot of spirit and soul, and the pride she took in being an artist attracted me.”

Denipah developed a bold style of painting. She uses thick textures and moves in close on her subjects, accentuating the eyes, nose, and mouth. Many of her paintings are large in scale. “A large canvas makes more of an impact,” Denipah says. “People are drawn to my paintings from far away.”

In addition to figurative work, Denipah experiments with abstraction. At first, she found that expressing her art from her feelings instead of a subject was “challenging, but fun.” But then she discovered that abstract painting gave her the freedom to use more color. “My figurative paintings tend to be more monotone,” she says. “But when I slipped into abstract work, the colors got exciting. Now I try to portray moods in my paintings through color.”

Denipah is represented by Denipah-LaRance Fine Art, Flagstaff, AZ; The Hopi Shop, Scottsdale, AZ; Feather Wolf Gallery, Flagstaff, AZ; Heard Museum Gift Shop, Phoenix, AZ; and Bahti’s Indian Arts, Tucson, AZ.

Jeff Roller

“All my designs and my beliefs in creating pottery re-flect the spiritual way that my mo-ther and grand-mother felt,” says Santa Clara potter Jeff Roller. “The methods and materials I use are all the same.”

Roller grew up in the renowned Tafoya family of Santa Clara potters. While his mother, Toni Roller, and his aunt, Margaret Tafoya, made pottery, Roller made his own little figurines. “I finally had the guts to sign my name to a pot in 1972 when I was 9 years old,” Roller says.

Although he uses the traditional Santa Clara methods and materials to make his pots, Roller has developed his own trademark style by incorporating sculptures of animals, such as the buffalo, wolf, eagle, wild turkey, and cougar—all of which have spiritual significance to him. While his unique pots have received awards, they have just as often been overlooked because they do not fall into a specific judging category. And some pots, he says, were eliminated from competition by Mother Clay. “I frequently lose my pieces while I’m making them for a show,” Roller says. “It’s almost as if Mother Clay wants to keep me at a distance.”

In honor of Mother Clay’s desires, Roller creates not many more than 20 pieces of pottery each year. He believes the pots that do emerge from his efforts were intended to be made. “If I wasn’t meant to make the pots the way I do with the animals,” Roller says, “they would crack. There’s a different message, response, and feeling behind each piece. They’re all very special to me.”

Roller’s work can be seen at Indian Market and at Trowbridge Gallery in Santa Fe during Indian Market weekend.

Jeanette Katoney. southwest art.

Jeanette Katoney

“My paintings are like a meditation,” says Jeanette Katoney, a Navajo artist who works in oil and pastel. “They bring me back down to who I am and how I fit into the scheme of things.”

Katoney’s paintings, often depicting petroglyphs or Indian weavings, tell the story of the Navajo people. But she goes beyond presenting a replication of her people’s art, tapping into the essence that inspired the petroglyphs or weavings by saying a prayer as she paints.

Katoney moved to Phoenix as a teenager to attend high school there. She learned architectural drafting and then focused on studying basic drawing techniques. Eventually, her work caught the eye of renowned Native American art dealer Lovena Ohl, who convinced Katoney to develop her art into an expression of her culture. Katoney went on to receive a scholarship to the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe.

Since then, she has received honorable mention awards at the Museum of Northern Arizona’s Navajo Marketplace and most recently at the 1998 Santa Fe Indian Market for a sand-on-canvas abstract painting of a rug motif. “The sand painting was a statement of giving and taking,” Katoney says. “When you collect sand, you have to offer a prayer and leave corn pollen. It’s a give and take. That’s what my art is about.”

Katoney is represented by Adobe East, Del Ray Beach, FL; Faust Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ; and the Heard Museum Gift Shop, Phoenix, AZ.

Dylan Poblano, southwest art.

Dylan Poblano

Zuni jeweler Dylan Poblano began learning traditional inlay techniques from his mother, award-winning jeweler Veronica Poblano, when he was 8 years old. He honed his skills and experimented with design over the years, eventually expanding his knowledge further by briefly attending the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. “I tried to combine what I learned at the Fashion Institute with the things I already knew,” he says. The result is a unique style of contemporary jewelry that has a striking sculptural quality.

“I try to do work that is different from what most people are doing now,” says Poblano. “I want my jewelry to be the opposite of that created in traditional styles and techniques.” Thus, rather than creating flat inlay pieces, Poblano produces three-dimensional necklaces and bracelets. For his Mil-lennium necklace, for example, he added ab-stractly shaped silver work on each of the dozen 2-inch squares that comprise the piece. “When I put it all to-gether, the necklace was like a plant wrapped around the neck, almost outrageous,” he says.

Poblano uses a wide variety of materials, from silver and gold to glass and crystals—even old mirrors and disposable mini-flashlights. He doesn’t sketch out his ideas in advance, preferring to feel the metal as he begins and then do something original with it.

Poblano’s newest pieces can be seen at Indian Market this year. The one-of-a-kind bracelets, necklaces, and rings incorporate unusual textures, he says, and—as always for the artist—a new twist on tradition. —MB

michelle laughing

Michelle Laughing

Navajo weaver Michelle Laughing has been making rugs for as long as she can remember. “I was pretty much born into it,” she says. “My grandmother was a weaver, and she taught my mother, who in turn passed it on to my brothers and sister and me.”

Laughing started out with the Crystal style of weaving before branching out into other regional styles, including Two Grey Hills and Storm Patterns. She enjoys making samplers, weavings with several different designs on them. Her largest rugs are usually 4 by 6 feet, although she has done larger pieces on commission.

Laughing prefers to use hand-dyed wool, which originates from her mother’s flock of sheep on the Navajo reservation. She travels there each spring, helping to dye the wool using mixtures of plants and nuts. “That’s the most fun,” she says, “blending all sorts of dyes to get different colors. My mom knows just what amount of water to use with which pot with what amount of dye to get a specific color. To change the color, you mix and add ingredients.”

Laughing has been weaving for so long that she is able to seemingly effortlessly create her designs. “It is hard to explain, but I’m born into weaving and that’s what happens,” she says. Her newest rugs on display at Indian Market will be samplers—some done in bold colors, others in natural earth tones.

Laughing’s work is represented by Cristof’s, Santa Fe, NM, and Chimayo Trading and Mercantile, Chimayo, NM. —MB

Featured in “Portfolio” August 2001