Transformation, clay, 24 x 36 x 36.
By Dottie Indyke
If Roxanne Swentzell had not found art, there would have been no communicating. As a young girl, she had a speech impediment that made it impossible for anyone to understand a word she was saying, even when her sister helped translate. Out of desperation the 6-year-old made miniature figures in clay, sculpting their faces to convey her stifled feelings. “Those little pieces said a thousand words,” she recalls.
Over the years Swentzell’s clay people have grown wiser, cheekier, more disconsolate, inquisitive, and compassionate. Their development has paralleled the artist’s own, becoming more satirical with her blossoming sense of irony and more sociological with her deepening awareness of her cultural identity. Her mother once observed that if you lined up her daughter’s pieces in chronological order, they would tell the story of her life. From a basic desire to communicate, Swentzell has created a distinctive and universal language.
Candle Holder, bronze, 17 1/2 x 10 x 20, edition 10.
Once at Santa Fe’s Indian Market, a deaf woman tried to tell Swentzell how moved she was by these clay figures. “Even though I didn’t understand sign language, she made total sense to me,” Swentzell says. “I thought, ‘Wow. I can really reach people.’ And that was the ultimate.”
Swentzell’s emergence as one of the most sought-after contemporary ceramists in the United States was in part genetically determined. She descends from the nine gifted Naranjo siblings of Santa Clara Pueblo. Her mother is the activist, scholar, and architect Rina Naranjo Swentzell, her uncle Michael Naranjo is a well-known sculptor who was blinded in the Vietnam War, and most of her aunts, including Nora Naranjo-Morse and Jody Folwell, are acclaimed potters.
Swentzell was born at Taos Pueblo, but her childhood was spent traveling back and forth along a 70-mile stretch of the Rio Grande River in northern New Mexico between Taos, Santa Clara Pueblo, and Santa Fe, where Swentzell’s Anglo father worked at St. John’s College. Her school years were a trial, and not only because of her speech problems. “I didn’t learn in the traditional way,” she says. “I tried hard, but it didn’t go in or come out the right way.”
The Making of Oneself, bronze, 10 1/2 x 8 1/4 x 13 3/4, edition 25.
Art became her lifeline. Watching her mother make pots, she learned the traditional Pueblo method of hand-coiling. She pored through books on European masters that her father brought home, staring at pictures of Michelangelo’s statues. The clay figures she made at school so impressed her teachers that they took a personal interest in her progress. After she exhausted every art opportunity at Santa Fe High, the college-level Institute of American Indian Arts opened its doors to her, and she spent long periods working in their state-of-the-art studios.
Swentzell’s sense of humor was integral to her artwork from the beginning. When she was a little girl, an earthworm she had carried around for days dried up and broke in half. She wailed at the top of her lungs, then worked out her grief with a clay installation: an earthworm funeral peopled with tearful figures, a priest with a cross, and one little girl dejectedly holding a dead worm. Today, that wit manifests itself in such images as cherubic women clad in gold lamé bathing suits. “My technique has gotten better, and my people have gotten more sophisticated,” Swentzell muses. “But I’m still the same person.”
The Despairing Clown, clay, 21 x 8 x 10.
At 17, Swentzell chose to attend Oregon’s Portland Museum Art School because of its emphasis on the human figure. Though she reveled in her assignments and the stimulating artistic environment, she increasingly felt squelched by the school’s singular focus on art. Worst of all, Portland made her long for home. She’d stare at homeless people wondering why they didn’t run into the hills rather than wander the cold, lonely streets. In the lush green of the place she’d dig around under bushes looking for red adobe dirt. After a year, a pregnant Swentzell dragged her boyfriend back to New Mexico. He didn’t last long but she remained, gave birth to a daughter and, later, a son, and scraped by on the money she made selling handmade bowls and cups.
One of her first exhibits in Santa Fe featured one woman carrying a baby, one rocking in a swing, and one with a belly like a bowl that became a Swentzell signature. “The idea probably came from being pregnant and how things came out of me. In the Pueblo tradition, the mother is the container.” The figures were sexless, hairless, and earless, but the facial expressions were clear: Some were scared and some looked tenderly on their babies. Like their creator, they were individuals in the process of becoming.
Window to the Past, clay, 34 x 36 x 27.
“A few pieces sold, and I didn’t expect that,” the artist says. “I just had fun with the setting up and labeling and having my family come and eat cookies,” she laughs. A big career milestone came at age 21, when Swentzell was invited to show her work in her aunt Tessie Naranjo’s booth at Indian Market. A storm of publicity and gallery offers followed. Seemingly overnight, her clay people were thrust into the limelight—and they have been collecting ardent followers ever since.
Swentzell’s house seems a world away from the nearby town of Española, known for its decked-out low-rider automobiles and enchilada and hamburger drive-ins. The scene is idyllic, with sheep, turkeys, and horses contentedly roaming their pens and distant views of the snow-capped Sangre de Cristo mountains. She has built this home herself on Santa Clara Pueblo land surrounded by many relatives. There are Swentzell touches everywhere, including an eloquent clay face on each kitchen cabinet. Her kiln, and the studio she shares with her boyfriend, noted Cochiti Pueblo potter Diego Romero, are just outside the door.
Today she is serene, kneading dough for homemade bread, despite the fact that projects are pressing. A show of contemporary art by indigenous people at the Paris folk art museum will include her work. The museum wants pieces that reflect the artists’ feelings about modern life, and Swentzell is thinking about making a figure that expresses her ideas about the contemporary art market, about selling one’s soul for money. Long ago her mother taught her to shun materialism; although she could command far more than the $4,500 to $5,000 she charges for her figures, she says she must move forward at her own pace.
Framed, bronze, 17 x 14 3/4 x 9 3/4, edition 25.
She is also considering a sculpture of a woman struggling with her self-image. This is a frequent theme for the artist, who recently made a figure of a woman holding back from attacking herself with a long red fingernail, a piece so fiercely hilarious it cracked up even Swentzell. “There is so much propaganda on TV about how you’re supposed to look,” she says. “I like to play with that.”
Some of her most poignant pieces concern the loss of cultural identity, such as the clown, a Santa Clara symbol of the spirit world, who looks down sadly as he peels off his stripes. “The clown is trying to find out who he is again,” Swentzell says. “There’s so much influence from the outside world. We all have cars, TVs, go to Safeway, and wear western clothes. The biggest thing I try to hold on to is a traditional perspective.”
A trip to Brazil is also imminent, where Swentzell will work with the indigenous Guarani people whose tradition of pottery-making has been lost. She is experimenting with different firing methods for their clay. Meanwhile, she’s begun work on a long-term project to produce up to 20 figures that will be installed in a diorama depicting the history of the Pueblo people at the Poeh Cultural Center Museum at Pojoaque Pueblo in New Mexico.
In an ideal world, Swentzell says, she’d concentrate on such prestigious projects and leave some of the daily grind behind. “I get tired when the work is non-stop, when I feel like a factory,” she says. “At a factory pace, I feel like I’m headed for a major burnout. I’d prefer to work only when I am moved.”
Indeed, what distinguishes Swentzell’s pieces is their heart. Each figure embodies a spark of life as unique as any human being, imbued by the artist as she coils and shapes her clay. It’s a process that can’t be forced and requires no small measure of love as well as some magic from the age-old muses at Santa Clara Pueblo.
“I love my life,” the 38-year-old artist says. “I love my kids so much. I love a pretty day. I can see myself as an old person with a big smile on my face. If I lose that, I’m empty. If I have that, I have life and love to give. My sculpture comes from that place.”
Photos courtesy the artist and Four Winds Gallery, Pittsburgh, PA; Hahn Ross Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; Faust Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ; Blue Rain Gal-lery, Taos, NM; and Tribal Expressions, Arlington Heights, IL.
Dottie Indyke writes the monthly Native Arts column.
Featured in August 2001