Kachina Carving | Portfolio Aug 2000

By Antonio Lopez

Clark Tenakhongva, Palhick Mana (Water Maiden) [1999], 20 x 13. craft, southwest art.
Clark Tenakhongva, Palhick Mana (Water Maiden) [1999], 20 x 13.

Traditional Kachina Carving

Clark Tenakhongva

Although Clark Tenakhongva once carved more contemporary “action figure”-style kachinas, he takes a hard line regarding the religious purity of the art form. He started carving at 12 years of age when he was initiated into the kachina society, learning from his grandfather and other family members. Later in life he sold modern kachinas to trader Joseph Day while also making traditional “belly acher” kachinas for his daughter. About 10 years ago, Day visited Tenakhongva’s home and saw all the traditional kachinas. From that point on Day encouraged the artist to stick to the old style. Thus, since 1992, Tenakhongva has worked exclusively in what is called the New Traditional Style.

Tenakhongva is concerned that kachinas be made within certain parameters. For one, he believes kachina makers should speak Hopi since that is the only way one can truly participate in the ceremonies, and without that context, the artist could never know the true spiritual intent of the kachina. Kachina dolls should also not be sold for the sole purpose of earning money or to support antisocial behavior, like intoxication. They are meant to be made a certain way and for a particular purpose, he says, and should not be exploited. Moreover, some carvers outside the religious system carve kachinas that Hopi religious conservatives say are forbidden to be represented.

Working in the traditional style, Tenakhongva applies natural pigments and does not use a wood burner. His cylindrical figurines with exaggerated heads represent, in his view, the spiritual intent of the kachina. “The contemporary dolls are so detailed that they get away from the real meaning of the doll itself,” he says. “People refer to kachinas as works of art, but for us they are created for their ceremonial significance. When you do contemporary dolls, you get away from tradition and the original reason they were carved in such a fashion.”

Still, Tenakhongva acknowledges, “A lot of us carve for economic reasons. Probably 90 percent of carvers probably do it for employment because there is 80 percent unemployment on the Hopi reservation.”

When it comes to wood burners and synthetic materials, Tenakhongva is more adamant. “The dolls are humans like us. They are created to represent spiritual beings. Like you and I, they are very fragile. If you put a curling iron on your forehead, you would get burned. If you put that on the wood, you are actually burning the flesh. When you put linseed oil, acrylics, and oil-based paints on them, it’s like they’re drinking a gallon of Clorox. They are live spiritual beings: Why would you want to contaminate another’s body?”

Clark Tenakhongva, photograph, southwest art.
Clark Tenakhongva

Contemporary Kachina Carrving

Aaron Fredericks

Contemporary kachina carver Aaron Fredericks received an art lesson the hard way: from clowns. During a kachina dance in his village at Second Mesa, the artist, a traditionally religious Hopi who participates in the kiva ceremonies, witnessed the clowns imitate a doll carver, using a live kachina dancer as their subject. The clowns burned the kachina’s feathers, then disciplinary “whipper” kachinas reinforced the point by symbolically punishing the clowns.

The statement the clowns were making to artists such as Fredericks is that certain practices by contemporary kachina carvers are not permissible. Hopi religious conservatives believe that using a wood-burning tool and “toxic” materials such as linseed oil, acrylic, and oil paints is wrong. Among many traditionals, wood-carved kachinas are imbued with the spirit of the kachinas they represent, and burning the wood is like burning a being.

Fredericks got the message, yet he feels the prerogative as an artist to carve kachinas in the form that best represents his creative vision. He started carving kachinas in high school to earn extra cash. After returning from a stint in the Army, Fredericks became interested in carving again. He researched different techniques and became enamored with the one-piece style, in which the entire figure is carved from a single piece of cottonwood with no attached arms or legs. He adds only feathers and items that may be held in the figure’s hands.

Fredericks is known for his extreme detail, which is achieved with the aid of a wood burner. “That is just the way the trend has gone to make detail and put a fine line on the wood,” he says. “You get a nice texture on the sash, you get a real fine line. The burner tip can be sharpened to a knife’s edge. The wood burner can be used to put a nice dark color in some areas or for feather work.”

One of Fredericks’ more popular figures is the Left-Handed Kachina, a hunter who can be depicted with animals. “I can carve animals that he has just killed or hunted,” the artist says. “I usually put a ram somewhere at the base or in the carving, or a dead tree, or animals on the side, or lizards or flowers to bring out the overall carving. I think, What would make it a little more dramatic? I try to think about that and add it into my work.”

Aaron Fredericks, photograph, southwest art.
Aaron Fredericks

Asked about how he feels regarding criticism of contemporary kachina-making techniques, Fred-ericks replies, “It’s hard to say, because I do use the wood burner. We are moving away from traditional carving and trying new techniques to enhance our work. Things are changing, and I’m part of that movement. Other than that, I know it’s wrong, but I still do it. I will continue to use a wood burner.”

Regardless of the approach to mak- ing the kachina figurines, one thing re-mains clear: Artists like Fredericks and Tenakhongva are perpetuating and evolving the craft, proving that it is neither static nor one-dimensional. Rather, kachina carving remains an intriguing expression of a traditional culture facing the dilemmas and contradictions of modern life.

Clark Tenakhongva is represented by Gallery 10, Santa Fe, NM, Scottsdale, AZ, and New York, NY; Museum of Northern Arizona Shop, Flagstaff, AZ; and Heard Museum Shop, Phoenix, AZ.

Aaron Fredericks, The Left-Handed Hunter [c 1990s], 18 x 9., sculpture, southwest art.
Aaron Fredericks, The Left-Handed Hunter [c 1990s], 18 x 9.

Featured in Portfolio in August 2000