Joe Cajero Jr.

Gentle Spirit, bronze, 25 1/2 x 11. sculpture, southwest art.
Gentle Spirit, bronze, 25 1/2 x 11.

By Gussie Fauntleroy

Joe Cajero Jr.’s first encounter with a ball of clay came suddenly and unexpectedly. His mother plopped it down on the table in front of him one day in a moment of exasperation. “You do it,” she said. She had listened to one too many suggestions from her teenage son, who had never worked with clay himself but was constantly coming up with ideas he thought his mother should try on the figures she created and sold in her small Albuquerque shop. The boy looked at the clay and started to protest. “But I don’t make clay figures,” he said. “I draw and paint.” He was convinced, as he’d been all his life, that he would follow in his father’s footsteps and become a painter. At home in Jemez Pueblo, young Cajero was constantly drawing, and his father was his most demanding critic, always challenging him to improve.

Just do it,” his mother repeated. When her son complained that he didn’t want to make a typical storyteller figure, which features small clay children perched on the lap of a larger, open-mouthed figure, she replied, “Make a bear. You like wildlife.”

So Cajero picked up the clay. He sculpted a small, simple bear with mitten hands and two smaller cubs on its lap. As soon as he’d finished, a woman walked into the shop, went to the shelf where Cajero had set the bear to dry, and asked how much it cost. Dumbfounded, he told her the bear needed to dry and be painted and fired, and wouldn’t be finished for a week or so. She said she would come back for it. And she did, paying $40 for the artist’s first creation in clay.

“My mom said, ‘Just think—you could make more bears and sell them,’” Cajero smiles, sitting in the living room of his home in Placitas Canyon near Albuquerque, a squirmy miniature pincer named Nashi on his lap. The 30-year-old artist and his dog both exude similar feelings: friendly, intense, and excited about life.

The Getaway, clay, 8 1/2 x 21. sculpture, southwest art.
The Getaway, clay, 8 1/2 x 21.

“Here, let me show you some cool photos,” Cajero says, putting Nashi down and spreading out pictures of his earliest bear figures. It was a form he created almost exclusively for the first two years he worked in clay, but then the bears began to change: bear claws appeared in the place of mittens; claws became human hands; bulky bodies took on muscle tone and started to resemble the human shape. Then, while Cajero was a student of two-dimensional art at the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe, he sat in his room one winter night and realized it was time to try his first human figure in clay.

In many ways, the figure that emerged foretold what would become the artist’s award-winning subject matter and style. Sure Good Chile is the torso of an old man, leaning slightly to one side, with one hand on his belly and a half-grimace, half-smile on his face. Like the koshari, or Pueblo clown figures, that followed, Cajero’s first piece possesses detailed, expressive features and gentle humor.

The artist still has that first piece, and it has never been fired. The figure is more personally valuable in its fragile and water-soluble state, he says, since he is always aware of the extra care it needs. In the same way, Cajero values and preserves his roots in traditional Pueblo culture and art.

Joe Cajero Jr. photo, southwest art.
Joe Cajero Jr.

Jemez Pueblo, north of Albuquerque in the foothills of the Jemez Mountains, is not as well-known as other pueblos for its pottery or clay figures, although these arts have been created at Jemez for generations. Cajero’s great-grandmother, for example, created figures based on the pueblo’s social dances. Other artisans made clay pots. Yet for many years Jemez pottery was created primarily for ceremonial use or trade, and little of the earliest work remains in the pueblo.

The koshari, in Pueblo tradition, is a black-and-white-striped clown who plays an essential role in ceremonies and dances. With mischievous humor and a gentle spirit, kosharis carry out lighthearted pranks on Pueblo children and adults during feast day celebrations. At the same time, the clown has a serious role, carefully watching the dancers and making sure everything goes smoothly. Living between the human and spirit worlds, the koshari also serves as a communicator between the two realms.

Cajero was concerned, at first, that traditional Pueblo members might be offended that he was making and selling images depicting an important aspect of Pueblo life. His mother suggested he show his work to a Jemez elder and ask his opinion on the matter. So Cajero invited an elder to his house. The old man looked at Cajero’s pieces and smiled. Then he rearranged his face to reflect the serious nature of his visit, and turned to Cajero. “Our people have been mak-ing figures since I was a kid,” he assured the young artist. “You’re not the first person who’s made a Pueblo clown. But you’ve been blessed with the talent to make them this well. As long as they’re funny, as long as you’re not making anything that comes from the sacred ceremonials, keep doing it.”

Cajero’s figures convey the generalized image of a Pueblo clown, rather than being specific to Jemez Pueblo. But the artist’s portrayal is true to the spirit of the clowns, who laugh, poke fun at themselves and others, and whose painted stripes often smear and drip down their bodies when they sweat. “I grew up seeing the ceremonies all my life, so I’ve seen a lot of funny things that kosharis do, and I change them a little for ideas for my pieces. And a lot of ideas are basically just daydreams, little fun things from my imagination,” he says. “Some people ask me when ko-sharis would ever run into chickens, like in some of my pieces. My great-grandmother was born in 1904, and she told me a lot of stories of how the old ceremonies were. When she was young, there were corrals and stables, there were chickens running around. Every-thing was very close. So I can imagine chickens running into the plaza during the dances. In my daydreams, I relate to that time period.”

The element of lighthearted warmth that pervades Cajero’s imagery reflects a vibrant sense of humor among Pueblo and other American Indian people, a quality often underestimated by non-natives, he says. “I think there’s a general perception of Indians being on the serious, stoic side, but that’s like saying day is night. There’s such a neat sense of humor in Pueblo culture. And I think humor is the one element in all cultures that doesn’t really need a lot of explanation.”

From the beginning, Cajero’s figures have earned acclaim, taking first- and second-place awards almost every year at Santa Fe Indian Market and other venues. Among the artist’s top honors was the 1993 Katherine and Miguel Otero Award for Creative Excellence, which placed his art at the pinnacle of creative merit among all Indian Market divisions.

Along with kosharis, Cajero creates multiple figure pieces, Pueblo angels in white mantas and butterfly wings, and humorous figures other than clowns. His clay pieces are formed in natural clay from Jemez Pueb-lo. In recent years he also has begun making limited-edition bronze figures of the same imagery, a process which employs an armature and commercial clay appropriate for bronze casting. Besides giving more collectors access to each piece, the experience has opened exciting  new creative doors, he says. “It seems I’ve been developing my skills in clay to lead me to work in bronze, and then working with bronze has enhanced my skills with natural clay. I get so excited when I’m working on a new bronze piece—it seems like the possibilities are endless. You can do more detail with the commercial clay, and then there are all kinds of patinas and colors to work with on the finish. It’s like having a new playroom and 50,000 different toys to play with, and I’ve only picked up the fifth toy.”

Photos courtesy the artist and Blue Rain Gallery, Taos, NM; Tanner Chaney Gallery and Wright’s Collection of Indian Art, Albuquerque, NM; Wadle Galleries, Ltd., Santa Fe, NM; and Bronze-smith Gallery, Prescott Valley, AZ.

Gussie Fauntleroy wrote about figure painters in the November issue.

Featured in January 2001