Oreland Joe | Sculpting Stories

By Gussie Fauntleroy

Oreland Joe’s sculptures evoke the spirit of his people

Through the Sage, alabaster, 161⁄2 x 24 x 101⁄2. sculpture, southwest art.
Through the Sage, alabaster, 161⁄2 x 24 x 101⁄2.

Oreland Joe pulls back a long sheet of black plastic that covers a lumpy mass stored beside the outside wall of his studio. There, lined up against the gray stucco wall, are a couple of dozen irregular chunks of chalky white stone. The sculptor’s apprentices have hewn off all the flaws and unusable portions and gotten the pieces down to a clean, angular core, ready for Joe to carve.

“It’s solid,” Joe says, tapping one block with his knuckles. “It rings.” He tips the piece up and feels the flat bottom, already envisioning the image that will emerge from this stone.

“Because of my experience and knowledge of anatomy and animals, I can tell where a piece is going to go,” he muses. “It’s funny, you get to where you can almost look at a stone and it’s a done piece.”

Moonlight at the Dance, marble, 27 x 12 x 7. sculpture, southwest art.
Moonlight at the Dance, marble, 27 x 12 x 7.

In the artist’s mind it may be done. But hours and months of painstaking, stone-dusty work will go by before the hunk of marble, limestone, or alabaster is transformed into a Plains Indian warrior with fine features and thoughtful eyes, whose form insinuates muscle and flesh beneath his buckskin. When the sculpture is finished, areas of lustrous polished stone will contrast with a wide diversity of texture. The viewer’s eye will follow patterns of smooth dark-pink or veins of green against the gray-white of the rougher, unpolished stone. And something of the grace and dignity of the artist’s heritage will be conveyed in a piece of stone that has been endowed with character and life.

Joe, a Navajo/Ute sculptor living in northwestern New Mexico, has spent the past 20 years refining his skills. He intently and continuously absorbs and re-creates the shape and gesture of human and animal forms through observation, study, and the endless sculpting of stone and clay. At the same time, he has settled ever more deeply into knowledge and understanding of his native culture, history, and tradition.

These two facets of the artist’s development have resulted in acclaim for his work in the world of sculpture and western art. In 1993 he became the first Native American to be inducted into the Cowboy Artists of America, and two years ago he received that association’s prestigious gold medal in sculpture.

Treasures of a Navajo Woman, Tennessee marble, 31 x 27 x 12. sculpture, southwest art.
Treasures of a Navajo Woman, Tennessee marble, 31 x 27 x 12.

Among other awards, Joe has been honored with the Museum Purchase Award from the Governor’s Invitational Western Art Show in Cheyenne, WY, and the William F. Weiss Purchase Award from the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, WY. This winter he was awarded a gold medal in the Masters of the American West exhibition at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Los Angeles. And at 40, Joe is one of the youngest artists ever chosen for the Gilcrease Rendezvous exhibition.

With artistic maturity earned through years of carving and the luxury of exhibiting in the large space offered by the Gilcrease Museum, Joe considers the Rendezvous show a true expression of his abilities and passions at this point in his career. “The work in this show is me. This is the way I feel,” he says. “I’m finally at the point where I can spend more time and do larger pieces. I have been able to create the things I’ve always wanted to create.”

Oreland Joe. southwest art.
Oreland Joe.

Joe has hundreds more ideas in his files yet to be created in stone. His inspiration comes primarily from observing life. “When I go back to the reservation I might see an old man singing or a grandmother doing something,” he says. “At a family reunion one time I saw five kids playing in the sand, and that’s an idea I’d like to carve sometime.”

Joe grew up in Shiprock, NM, the eldest son of a musically inclined Navajo woman and a Southern Ute artist and truck driver. A couple of teachers, artists themselves, encouraged Joe’s interest in art along the way. After Joe graduated from high school, one former teacher saw a wax carving he had done and gave him three small pieces of alabaster to carve.

Joe had been to France a few years earlier, spending six weeks in Paris as a hoop dancer in a Native American dance troupe. While there he was fascinated by the sculpture he saw in galleries and museums, and when he picked up his first piece of stone and carving tools screwdriver, kitchen knife, and hammer—he remembered what he had seen.

Piegan Ritual, marble, 31 x 20 x 17. sculpture, southwest art.
Piegan Ritual, marble, 31 x 20 x 17.

“I said, I wonder if I can do that,” he recalls. “Thereafter it just rolled: I wanted more and more stone and never stopped. I guess that’s what they call finding your medium. I’ve painted, done sandpainting, made jewelry. But my desire to create something has never been so strong as when I’m carving stone or bronze.”

As a boy, Joe had seen his father’s jewelry and paintings bring in money for the family, so he knew it could be done. Joe himself sold his first two paintings in junior high for $3.50 each and by the end of high school was earning $25 to $50 a week with his sketches and drawings. But his decision to become a full-time artist was confirmed after he spent a frigid winter pumping gas at the Shiprock Trading Post. “When I finally thawed out,” he says with a wry smile, “I started thinking seriously about art.”

A plastic human skeleton sits on a counter in Joe’s carving studio, and in his painting studio are shelves of art books, including sev- eral on European and Renaissance artists and Japanese art. He has studied sculpture in Italy, Paris, and Tokyo.

His consuming challenge, he says, is mastery of human and animal anatomy, creating the living form in its closest possible likeness to reality. In this sense, in particular, he considers himself an artist who happens to be Native American, rather than a Native American artist.

Morning of the Bear Dance, alabaster, h16. sculpture, southwest art.
Morning of the Bear Dance, alabaster, h16.

At the same time, each piece he carves now contains a story based on native peoples’ present or past experiences and the depth of meaning he has come to understand in those experiences. “Art and culture go hand in hand,” he says. “I’ve gotten to the point where each sculpture I create is connected to a story from my culture. I’m closer than ever to the pieces—they are more to me than just something to sell.”

A few years ago Joe was selected through a nationwide competition to create a 22-foot-tall bronze of the Ponca chief Standing Bear in Ponca City, OK. His re-search on the Indian leader, who led a successful struggle for the rights of his people, inspired the artist to carve the chief in marble for the Gilcrease Rendezvous.

The artist’s relationship with tradition goes well beyond historical re-search, however. He recalls one extraordinary sweat-lodge prayer ceremony, in particular, that helped shift his perspective and open a window into his ancestors’ world.

After two hours in the sweat lodge, he and the other men emerged into the January night, where a full moon shone on the snow. Seven Indian men stood silently in a row, steam rising from their bodies. Suddenly Joe felt a sensation in his chest and was aware of the spirit of a white eagle filling his heart. The great bird rose through Joe’s throat, spread its wings, and soared into the night sky from the crown of his head.

“That type of experience really makes me think and gives more power to my art,” Joe says quietly. He points across the room to a Plains warrior carved in Tennessee marble. “I think of this guy living a hundred years ago and having the same kind of experience I had. I think of what this warrior might have thought about that experience.” Joe says he used to feel that close a tie to just one of every 10 sculptures he created. “Now I can say it about every piece.”

Photos courtesy the artist and Wadle Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; Settlers West, Tucson, AZ; Mountain Trails Galleries, Sedona, AZ; and Trailside Galleries, Scottsdale, AZ.

Featured in May 1999