A Lifetime of Achievement

Lloyd Kiva New, Untitled [1968], acrylic, 31 1/2 x 42 1/4, courtesy Institute of American Indian Arts Museum, Santa Fe, NM. southwest art.
Lloyd Kiva New, Untitled [1968], acrylic, 31 1/2 x 42 1/4, courtesy Institute of American Indian Arts Museum, Santa Fe, NM.

By John Villani

Mountains of personal sacrifice and hard work are involved in building a fine-arts career. But when you ask artists what they would do differently if they could live their lives all over again, most of them wouldn’t change a thing. That’s why the Lifetime Achievement Awards given by the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts are important. They look beyond matters such as how much fame or marketability an artist has garnered in a career, focusing instead on the bigger picture: what they have accomplished during their time on this planet.

Decades of intense dedication to their work have made these award recipients leaders in their chosen fields, says SWAIA board member Upton Ethelbah. “These individuals’ contributions to Indian art are what’s most important. We look for a lifetime of commitment and a significant impact on their art form.” Following are profiles of the 2001 recipients.

Lloyd Kiva New
To make an impact in the hyper-competitive field of design, one must be talented, focused, and at times, brash. Lloyd Kiva New, who was born in Oklahoma in 1916, has been all of that and more. While he’s best known for his leadership of the Institute of American Indian Arts (1967-78), Kiva New achieved far more than just the presidency of the nation’s foremost Native American arts education facility. He’s also been an author and a real estate developer, a painter and a World War II veteran, a poet and a fashion designer and a teacher.

“During my time at the IAIA we implemented a new theory of art education for Indians, one that built on the strength of their Indianness and did away with barriers that had defined the limits of these artists’ creativity,” says Kiva New. “At the time, it was important to push Indian art beyond the status quo that had focused on certain styles as being ‘charming’ and instead move toward what at the time was considered a radically new principle: allowing the artists to be themselves. I’m proud to say that this new model is what’s widely accepted as the norm in today’s world,” he says.

During the years of the Great Depression, Kiva New became the first Native American to graduate from the Art Institute of Chicago. He then worked as an instructor and administrator at the Phoenix Indian School before serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II.

Like many veterans, he returned stateside with unlimited hopes for the future. His initial mark was an important one: He developed an art gallery and studio complex in what was then the sleepy suburb of Scottsdale, AZ. Today, he’s widely credited as one of the driving visions behind Scottsdale’s emergence as a powerful arts marketplace.

Kiva New also spent several years working for the Rockefeller Foundation’s Southwest Indian Arts Project before settling in at IAIA in 1961. Later he served as a trustee of the Heard Museum, advised on the founding of the National Museum of the American Indian, curated an international exhibition of Native American art, wrote and produced two plays, and was feted as “The Honored One” by the Red Earth Indian Arts Festival in Oklahoma City.

“Because Indian life is changing so quickly, it’s more important than ever for Indian artists to maintain their artistic and cultural linkages to their traditions,” says Kiva New. “We always have to keep in mind what true art is and how—given the freedom to do so—artists can engage in the important dialog of new idea creation. And hopefully, it’s through their work that tribal impulses will continue being restored.”

Pop Chalee, Eagle Dancers [1952], 46 1/4 x 93 1/2, courtesy Red Crane Books. southwest art.
Pop Chalee, Eagle Dancers [1952], 46 1/4 x 93 1/2, courtesy Red Crane Books.

Pop Chalee
A beloved figure in Native American art circles, Pop Chalee [1906-1993] was a dramatically beautiful woman who was as comfortable in front of the camera as any Hollywood starlet. She combined tremendous talents with her good looks to become internationally fa-mous as a sort of worldwide ambassador for Native American arts.

Chalee’s murals and paintings are striking for their ingenious synthesis of Native American and Asian artistic values, and she was a leading artist in exploring the nether reaches of fantasy art, although she had to take some heat for the stylized art she chose to create.

Despite the barbs of some, Chalee was considered by most to be an artistic genius. Howard Hughes, for one, commissioned her to create a dozen murals during the 1940s for what was then the new airport in Albuquerque, NM. Other Cha-lee murals are scattered across the Southwest, including one at the New Mexico State Capitol in Santa Fe.

Born Merina Lujan, she was given the given the name of Blue Flower (Pop Chalee in her father’s Taos tongue) by her family. During the late 1930s she was a student at the Santa Fe Indian School in the art studio of Dorothy Dunn. Among her classmates were Allan Houser, Harrison Begay, and Gerald Nailor.

In 1916, following Mabel Dodge Lujan’s heralded arrival in Taos, the young Chalee found herself spending increasing amounts of time at the Lujan residence, observing the activities of art-world celebrities at play and in the studio. “That is where I spent half my life as a kid,” Chalee once said, “when I wasn’t in Indian school. They would let me come in and I would stand there and watch. And there was always a cookie jar!”

Chalee used images of deer and horses in many of her best-known paintings, and around southwestern art circles it’s said that one of her paintings provided the spark for Walt Disney’s creation of the Bambi cartoon character. Throughout her life she remained modest about her success, telling some that her love of painting was what compelled her to continue working.

“I don’t think you are ever as great as you could be, and I think it’s a good thing,” she said. “Because if you ever got to where you thought you were the best, you couldn’t make it.”

Abstract Rainbird by Geronima Montoya. painting, southwest art.
Abstract Rainbird by Geronima Montoya

Geronima Cruz Montoya
An artist, businesswoman, and educator, Geronima (Geri) Montoya painted in the exacting, informative style closely associated with graduates of Dorothy Dunn’s studio art program at the Santa Fe Indian School. But not only did Montoya attend Dunn’s program, from 1935 to 1962 she also assisted her mentor through her retirement and then herself took over the program’s helm as the institution’s Director of the Fine Arts and Applied Arts Program.

“I was one of Miss Dunn’s students,” Montoya says, “and she asked me to help her with teaching some of the younger students. Then, when she moved to Taos, I started working with the older ones, teaching how to mix paints, prepare materials, and work in our traditional styles of art.

Geronima Montoya
Geronima Montoya

“We always encouraged the students not to forget their Indian ways and to learn as much as they could from their parents and elders. Another part of their education was learning how to make a living from their art, so people would stop in at the studio to look around and buy what the students were doing. We wanted them to understand the entire process, from creation to selling.”

Native American traditions and cultural integrity have always been Montoya’s inspiration. She says that for younger Native American artists to become even better at their chosen fields, they should first spend the time and effort necessary to learn their tribal languages.

“Yes, paint in your own styles,” she says, “but younger people also need to do whatever it takes to keep their old ways alive. You can do what you like, you can create whatever art you want, but don’t ever throw away your traditions. Only by understanding who you are and where you came from will you ever be able to create art that’s important.”

Mica pot by Rose Naranjo. southwest art.
Mica pot by Rose Naranjo

Rose Naranjo
If it hadn’t been for Rose Naranjo, the entire field of Native American art would look different. That’s because Naranjo is the matriarch of one of the most distinguished and accomplished families of artists in North American art history. Her legendary command of pottery’s clay medium always resulted in works of art that flawlessly integrated a keen sense of sculptural aesthetics and an incredibly sensual texture. Hers was a standard set so high that when her children embarked on arts careers of their own, their creative excellence quickly earned them wide acclaim.

Born in 1915, Naranjo married Baptist preacher Michael Naranjo before raising her family in Santa Clara and Taos. Her children are Michael, Jody, Tessie, Edna, Nora, Louisa, and Dolly. “I was about 13 years old and living in my old adobe house in the center of Santa Clara when I made my first pot at my grandmother’s home,” recalls Naranjo. “She taught me a lot of things about making pots, but most important of all, she taught me how to be a good person. I tell young people that if they want to learn how to make pots then they first have to learn to pray. And when they work with clay, understand that it’s a material with life, so go ahead and talk to the clay while you’re working.”

Rose Naranjo
Rose Naranjo

Though Naranjo has completed her own career as an artist, that hasn’t stopped her from appreciating the developments young artists are now making in the pottery realm. “They’re different, they’re nice, but they’re often done just to get people’s attention and win awards,” she says. “That’s why my favorite potters are the ones who still make pots the old way, to be used around the home and to fill your life with beauty.”

Featured in “Portfolio” August 2001