Les Namingha | Stretching Boundaries

By Gussie Fauntleroy

In his first few years of working with clay, Hopi/Zuni artist Les Namingha borrowed painted designs from a long line of potters in his family—going back to his great-great-grandmother, the legendary Nampeyo, at the turn of the 20th century. Nampeyo is known for sparking a revitalization of the Hopi pottery tradition with designs borrowed from ancient shards of her ancestors’ pottery found at archeological sites.

Namingha continues to incorporate elements from the past in the exquisitely intricate imagery on his clay vessels. But now, the history he draws from is both more personal and far wider than the legacy of his family’s designs. The 42-year-old artist’s pool of inspiration has broadened in recent years to take in a larger swath of art history. At the same time, Namingha has discovered ways to funnel this rich store of influences through the experiences of his own life. The result is a powerfully creative voice that blends a modernist sensibility—employing contemporary painting techniques such as text, textured layering, abstract imagery, and vivid color—with suggestions of Native symbolism and design.

The truth is, Namingha is a painter at heart, and his graceful vessels serve as “canvases” for an evolving artistic expression. His hands may be skilled in creating a pot by rolling out coils of hand-prepared clay and carefully building and shaping vessel walls. And he is practiced at smoothing, sanding, and polishing the pot, using a burnishing stone in the ancient way. But the artistic excitement that fuels his work reveals itself most clearly in the process of applying paint. This is the stage where diverse sources of inspiration come in—Zuni creation tales, stories from the Hebrew Bible, and work by contemporary painters such as Sean Scully and potters such as Kenneth Price.

Not surprisingly, Namingha not only paints on his pots, but he also creates in two dimensions, especially abstract acrylic works on board. At this year’s Santa Fe Indian Market he is showing paintings, while nearby at Blue Rain Gallery his recent pottery is on view.

“Quite simply, I think I’ve always had a love of art history. There’s so much to learn, so much to see. It doesn’t matter what culture it comes from. It’s a matter of the emotions you feel when you see these artworks,” he reflects.

Namingha sits in the neatly organized studio at his Santa Fe home, where shelves are filled with art books, from Francis Bacon to Willem de Kooning and from Turner to Motherwell. On the opposite wall are two shelves lined with model planes and cars, parked there by the artist’s sons, 9-year-old Joseph and 7-year-old Joshua. “While I’m working, they’ll come in here and play,” Namingha explains, speaking in his characteristically quiet but friendly manner.

He adds that Joseph sometimes will pick up and practice on one of three electric guitars set out on stands at one end of the studio. Namingha encourages his son’s musical interest, while laughingly denying he has musical talent himself. Yet, as with art history, the stories embedded in the history of the guitar fascinate him, and he collects the instruments as much for this reason as for music they produce.

Namingha’s early years, at Zuni Pueblo in western New Mexico, were not what one might expect of someone from an extended family of acclaimed artists; along with several generations of potters, his first cousin is internationally renowned artist Dan Namingha and among other cousins is award-winning Hopi potter Steve Lucas.

As a boy, Les did not have his hands in clay. Instead, he and his Zuni cousins spent their time outdoors, helping their grandfather on his farm and at his sheep camp. Namingha’s parents divorced when he was 2, and his mother strongly encouraged her two sons to apply themselves to their schoolwork.

To foster that education, and to evade self-destructive influences a teen might encounter on the pueblo, his mother sent him to school in Salt Lake City beginning in the sixth grade. There he was introduced to the tenets of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and he discovered surprising parallels with the values and beliefs of his Zuni and Hopi heritage. For example, Mormon scriptures tell of everything being filled with spirit, he explains. “I thought, oh wow, that’s definitely the same as how we think at home: the rocks, the clay, everything has spirit. “I’ve learned,” the artist continues, “that if you are at one with those things, you’re able to communicate with the particles of clay, so that in a sense, the clay and the potter work together to form what the clay will become.”

Indeed, this was among the first lessons Namingha received when, in his early 20s, he sat down to learn pottery making from his aunt, famed Hopi potter Dextra Quotskuyva Nampeyo. The young man visited his aunt during the summer following his freshman year at Brigham Young University, and she offered to teach him to work with clay. Prior to that, two years of missionary efforts in northern England led him to realize he wasn’t cut out for social work, his intended field of study. Instead he earned a bachelor’s degree in design from BYU. The summers he spent with Dextra helped set the stage for his intensified interest in art.

Those first lessons, it turned out, were not what Namingha thought they would be. “I expected to sit down, get a ball of clay, and get lesson one,” he remembers. “But instead I just watched her, and she really didn’t say specifically how to do what she was doing. She talked about the spirit of the clay—how you have to have good thoughts when you work with it, how you have to let the clay be what it wants to be. She talked a lot about her grandmother, Annie, her mother, Rachel (both potters), and about Nampeyo. I didn’t touch any clay for the first several days.”

For a number of years after that, from the late 1980s to the mid-’90s, Namingha worked extensively with clay, continuing to learn from Dextra and spending time with cousins who were also perfecting their pottery skills. Then in 1995, after getting married, he began to re-imagine his pottery, striking off in his own distinctive direction. (His wife, Jocelyn Quam Namingha, is from Zuni Pueblo and also was a potter before devoting herself to home schooling the couple’s sons.) As he turned to acrylics and to more modernist inspiration for the imagery on his pots, the artist found the timing was right for stretching the boundaries of tradition.

In those years, Native clay artists such as Roxanne Swentzell and Tammy Garcia, both of Santa Clara Pueblo, were exploring unconventional forms and unapologetically firing their work in kilns, rather than over an outdoor fire in the age-old manner. Soon, guidelines at Santa Fe Indian Market began to change to incorporate the new directions these and other artists were pioneering: contemporary visions that still held true to the spirit and many pottery techniques of generations past.

“Roxanne and Tammy were taking the lead—the door was opened and I followed through,” Namingha relates. “That was an important transition point for me.”

Another creative spark was a painting class taught by Charlene Teters (of the Spokane tribe) at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. Inspired by the youthful energy of his fellow students and by Teters’ use of text in painting, last year Namingha produced what he views as a seminal piece. Titled WORDS, it is composed of a vessel and base joined with simulated elk sinew. The top portion uses Zuni words to tell a creation tale, but in a scrambled form that respects his people’s tradition of only telling such stories at a certain time of year. On the lower section are Hebrew words relating a portion of the story of the Ark of the Covenant. “In Zuni tradition, words are the breath of power if they are used correctly, especially in prayer,” Namingha explains. “And in my Mormon faith, the power of that story (of the Ark of the Covenant) has stayed with me over the years.”

By merging traditional and contemporary elements in a piece infused with deep personal meaning, Namingha opened a door for himself—one that not only leads to continued developments in his pottery, but also one he also hopes will blaze the path to being recognized as a contemporary painter. With all his painting these days, whether on board or the rounded surface of a pot, Namingha allows the process to guide the imagery-—just as he allows the clay to co-design a pot.

He is represented by Blue Rain Gallery, Santa Fe, NM.

Upcoming Shows
Blue Rain Gallery, opening August 21.
Santa Fe Indian Market, August 22-23.

Featured in August 2009