Martha Pettigrew | Water Songs

Pettigrew with Water Song [1997], bronze, H26., sculpture, southwest art.
Pettigrew with Water Song [1997], bronze, H26.

By Franz Brown

Wrapped in her father’s blanket, holding her mother’s pot, a Hopi maiden sits in the morning coolness, listening to the call of quail and dove. While resting from her hike down the 400-foot mesa, she notices the baho—a prayer stick—in a bush nearby, and in her mind she sings a prayer. Only yester-day, in public, she combed her boyfriend’s hair, a gesture that announced their intention to marry. She will soon release her own hair from the two buns—the customary squash-blossom style of a maiden—and allow it to hang free or in braids as the married women do. The young woman fills her pot and then cups her hands to bring the cool water to her mouth. Lifting her heavy load onto her back, she begins the journey back up the mesa.

Such a story might come to mind when viewing Martha Pettigrew’s Water Song, a piece from the Nebraska sculptor’s series on women. A theme close to her heart, the role of women in society has fascinated Pettigrew since her college days at the University of Nebraska in Lin-coln, where she took anthropology classes and learned about women’s contributions to the establishment and preservation of various cultures.

Mujer con Gallo [1996], bronze, H20. sculpture, southwest art.
Mujer con Gallo [1996], bronze, H20.

“Women are the culture bearers in every society,” says Pettigrew. “They do most of the child-rearing, and that is primarily how culture is passed along. The routine activities they perform hauling water, baking bread, teaching children—are the things that perpetuate a society.” In this sense, Pettigrew says, women are the common thread that binds all societies together. Through her sculptures, which focus on daily tasks, Pettigrew aims to build a cultural bridge of understanding.

Although she has sculpted wild-life, portrait busts, and an occasional male figure, most of Pettigrew’s sculpture can be divided into two groups depicting women: the Water Song series, with its idealistic portrayals of Native American women, and the Marketplace series, which takes a more realistic approach to women as workers. Each piece in the Water Song series includes a Native American woman wrapped in a blanket holding an object such as a pot or small bouquet. The composition of each figure is poetic, with the subtlety of curved lines conveying a sense of graceful movement.

Pettigrew also considers it important to capture the Indian’s reverence for the Earth. “Native Americans tend to live closer to nature than other people,” she says. “They have a connection with the land that many of us have lost.”

Water Song shows this connection by depicting a Hopi woman resting during her daily task. Though carrying a 50-pound water jug is a difficult chore, Pettigrew focuses on the woman’s moment of peace rather than her struggle.

Such aesthetic concerns give way to storytelling in the Marketplace series. These works are more narrative, bringing the subjects to life in everyday situations. In Too Many Cabbages … Too Few Melons, a complete story unfolds in the viewer’s imagination:

Too Many Cabbages ... Too Few Melons [1997], bronze, H15., sculpture, southwest art.
Too Many Cabbages … Too Few Melons [1997], bronze, H15.

Soyla sits among the vendors, a queen perhaps, her rebozo worn on her head like a multi-colored crown. She knows her patrons want melons, but she is short of them and has enough cabbages to feed a village. Una dia de regatiando, a day of bargaining. It has left her a little weary. Too many cabbages. They are “viejo, manchado, muy picado,” says the buyer. She laughs, “At this time of day are we not all a bit old and blemished? The cabbages taste wonderful and are good with tomatoes—delicious in a soup that swims with ajos y cebollas.” The buyer does not like garlic-onion soup and turns away toward a stall of chayotes, zapotes, chirimoyas, and sandias. Soyla sighs, “Perhaps, instead, you’d like a melon?”

The emphasis of this piece is on the woman’s activities, on her daily struggle to make a living at the market. But not every piece in this series is set in the marketplace; rather, the title is symbolic of a woman’s survival in a world of bargaining. The marketplace, however, is a favorite setting of Pettigrew’s. “There’s something about the casual atmosphere of those places that attracts me—the stacks of vegetables, the boxes of flowers, the shade umbrellas, the chickens and ducks, the occasional burro loaded down with things.”

The Drummer [1992], bronze, H22. sculpture, southwest art.
The Drummer [1992], bronze, H22.

Pettigrew can turn such hodgepodge into an orderly design. “In Cabbages, part of my intent was to create an interesting composition by repeating shapes,” she says. “I liked the rounded shape of the cabbages, her bosom, and the three melons stacked to the side.”In her work Pettigrew tries to empathize with her subjects, and her ability to do so likely comes from her own early struggles. After earning a fine arts degree from the University of Nebraska in 1972, she took a job as a scientific illustrator. She married Delmar Pettigrew in 1978 and set aside her art career to raise and train thoroughbred horses with him. After 12 years of operating a horse farm, sudden shifts in the marketplace destroyed their business. Eventually they realized that Martha’s artistic talent could be the answer to their financial problems. Del remembered seeing her childhood carvings and abstract work, and he suggested she try a career in sculpting, with him as her promoter.

Having lost their farm through bankruptcy, the Petti-grews set out for Loveland, CO, in an old pickup with only $37 and Martha’s first sculpture of a race horse. She completed a few more pieces with borrowed money, sold them, and reinvested the earnings in new works. Pettigrew says the first few years were difficult but essential to her development. “I probably would have been a dismal failure had I started any sooner,” she says. “I had to go through some hard times to get where I am today, but to show emotion in art, you have to experience some difficulties.”

Water Carrier [1993], bronze, H17., sulpture, southwest art.
Water Carrier [1993], bronze, H17.

Over the years Pettigrew has worked to improve her sculpture by studying works by Henry Moore, Isamu Noguchi, and Francisco Zuniga. From Moore and Noguchi she learned simplified form and monumentality. The influence of painter and sculptor Zuniga, who is known for his simple depictions of Mexican peasants, is particularly evident in Pettigrew’s Water Song series. “The beauty of the bodies and souls of the common people hold more interest for me than caliper-measured, idealized figures,” she says. “I learned that by observing Zuniga’s work.”

Pettigrew also sought to improve her technical skills by studying with Loveland artist Fritz White, whom she found to be a gruff but effective teacher. “I still rely on Fritz’s special brand of constructive criticism to keep me humble and on the right path. He’ll tear a piece apart and then say it’s damn good. He pushes you to the limit, but he has a big heart.” Among other things, White stressed the use of exaggerated form and the elimination of negative space.

Pettigrew acknowledges that she still has much to learn, and occasionally a piece doesn’t turn out as she’d envisioned it. But her successful sculptures reflect her outlook. In pieces like Mujer con Gallo, viewers just might glimpse a bit of the artist.

“Here is a woman looking at a rooster with a friendly de-meanor,” says Pettigrew. “He’s not going into the cooking pot—she has just purchased him for breeding. This woman is standing with solidity; she knows her place on Earth. Her face is beautiful because it’s filled with self-awareness and self-confidence. She knows exactly who she is.”

Photos courtesy the artist and Third Canyon Gallery, Denver, CO; Greenhouse Gallery, San Antonio, TX; Taos Gallery, Taos, NM, and Scottsdale, AZ; Joe Wade Fine Arts, Santa Fe, NM; and Gallery East, Loveland, CO.

Featured in July 1998