Wallace Nez Jr. | Artistry in Clay

The Call, clay, 5 1/2 diameter; Center Path of Beauty, clay, 6 1/4 diameter
The Call, clay, 5 1/2 diameter
By Gretchen Reynolds

Wallace Nez Jr. didn’t realize it at the time, but he had the kind of childhood that can shape a budding artist’s sensibilities—and give him material and inspiration for life. Born 34 years ago, Nez was raised by his grandparents, Roy and Daisy J. Harvey, on the Navajo reservation in far southern Utah. In that lonely, red-rock country, his grandfather was a rancher, less a traditional Navajo than a traditional westerner.

As a boy, young Wallace was expected to rise before dawn and help with ranch chores. He came to know the calm beauty of the farm’s livestock and of the wildlife that would slink, stalk, or flutter through his grandfather’s land. “It was a great place to be a kid,” Nez says today. “I was always around horses, cows, chickens, you name it. Growing up on the ranch taught me a lot about doing your work, showing up no matter how you feel that day, and just getting on with things.”

Ranch life also gave him glimmerings of the allure of creativity. His grandmother, “probably the biggest influence on my life,” Nez says, was an artist, although not in any pretentious or self-indulgent way. “She was really practical,” he says. A rug weaver and basket maker, she confined her artistic efforts to those hours when ranch chores had been finished, which often meant late at night. “I remember staying up all night after she’d dyed new yarn,” Nez says. “We’d roll it into balls. It took hours.” Weaving gave his grandmother so much satisfaction, though, that Nez couldn’t begrudge her the work involved.
Center Path of Beauty, clay, 6 1/4 diameter
Center Path of Beauty, clay, 6 1/4 diameter

She taught him by quiet example that the most mundane of activities—the choosing of colors for yarn, the shaping of a basket—could become a form of grace. Beauty could be created by using simple materials. “She was a real artist,” Nez says. “She made something out of nothing. Doing that is a kind of miracle.”

Today, Nez is one of the most innovative, talented young potters at work in the West. He’s taken lessons he learned from his grandmother and advanced them, developing his own unique techniques for using simple, traditional materials—clay and natural pigments—and transmuting them into something exquisite. “Beauty is the theme of my work,” he says. “I think my grandmother would be proud.”

To see a Wallace Nez pot is to want, almost irresistibly, to hold it. His pots are so tiny, so beguiling, so rounded, so elaborately decorated and pulsing with inner life that you can’t help longing to perch one lightly in your palm, as you might a newborn chick, and stare at it in wonder. His pots are astounding examples of both miniaturization and mature artistry.

Nez didn’t start out making tiny, fine-art vessels, though…

Featured in August 2007

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