By Dottie Indyke
Robert Albert laughs his way through most workdays. Whittling away at the roots of cottonwood trees, the 41-year-old creates a veritable circus—clowns climbing from rooftops, tossing each other in the air, breaking piñatas, and falling off ladders. Some are grotesque, with protruding tongues, bulging eyes, and flabby ears; others, cuddling rag dolls and puppies, are pretty near irresistible.
The clowns are based on the characters of Hopi ceremony who, through their rude and bawdy behavior, teach the proper way to act. During summers on the Hopi reservation, villagers dress up as these striped comedians and intrude on the tribe’s kachina dance by poking fun at everyone and everything. Each year they are rounded up and disciplined and they promise to clean up their act, but they never do.
For Albert, who grew up in the Third Mesa village of Moencopi in Arizona, the dances were enthralling. A mischievous kid who got into fights, played with matches, and ditched school, he found there was something about the clowns that resonated. But at 10, when he was inducted into the kachina society and granted access to tribal secrets, he left his childish ways behind, assuming the Hopi moniker, Sakhomenewa, given to him by his grandmother. She was a member of the tobacco clan and chose a name that meant “tobacco that has been laid out straight to dry.”
Around that time, his uncle sat Albert down at the kitchen table with a knife and a piece of wood. Through high school, Albert carved and painted but struggled with academics. He planned to attend vocational school to become a truck driver or a carpenter, until a school counselor asked him what he enjoyed doing. Art had never occurred to him as an occupation, but with her support, in 1984 he enrolled at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. As for so many Native artists, IAIA was a revelation, exposing him to traditional and contemporary work from dozens of American tribes. After graduation, he moved to Tucson and for a while supported himself as a painter.
“I was doing okay, but I wasn’t making a lot of money,” he admits. “Lots of people liked my paintings, which were of kachina dancers, but there was always something wrong with them—wrong size or wrong color.”
When after five years he decided to focus entirely on carving, first on kachinas and then on clowns, the response was immediate. At his first Santa Fe Indian Market, Albert won second place in his category. He has received awards nearly every year since and, in 2004 at the Heard Museum’s market, won best of classification and division. At these fairs, people flock to his work, drawn by the weird and endearing antics of his diminutive clowns.
“I really look at the faces as the center point of my carvings,” Albert says. “When Hopi people see my work, it stops them. One of the best compliments is when they say, ‘This looks like my uncle or my nephew.’”
Like the clowns of Hopi tradition, each of his carved figures has a reason for being. Some are inspired by everyday life at his home nowadays in Gallup, NM, by kids playing on a playground or something he has seen on TV. Sometimes they satirize politics, as with his sculptures sparked by the hanging chads of the 2000 presidential election. Often they come straight from Hopi lore, such as the clowns who set kachinas’ hair on fire.
The shape and size of the raw wood help determine the character of each piece. Albert’s work ranges from a single figure 5 inches in diameter to a group of seven figures that is more than a foot across. He is a slow carver, and the initial stage of removing wood with a belt sander, band saw, and grinders is the most time-consuming. Once the piece is pared down, he uses wood gouges, straight knives, and a wood burner—originally invented to craft duck decoys—to create wrinkles in skin, hair, and the fine details of clothing. To finish, he seals, sands, and paints with acrylics. The facial expression isn’t decided until the last moment.
“The whole point is to make people laugh,” Albert says. “If you can draw a crowd … if you can stop people in their tracks and make them react, then, as far as I’m concerned, you’re successful.”
Albert’s work is shown at Grey Dog Trading Company, Kaibab Courtyard Shops, Bahti Indian Arts, and Silverbell Trading, all in Tucson, AZ, and the Heard Museum Shop, Phoenix, AZ.
Featured in February 2006