Susan Folwell

Untitled pot [2001], 9 1/2 x 6 1/2. pottery, southwest art.
Untitled pot [2001], 9 1/2 x 6 1/2.

By Diza Sauers

Born into a family renowned for its contributions to Pueblo pottery, Susan Folwell was raised in a traditional fashion in Santa Clara Pueblo. Early on, Folwell, now 31, experienced the contradictions of living in a traditional world surrounded by a fast-paced contemporary culture. In fact, some of her first memories involve trying to reconcile the conflicts between traditional Native art and the profitable commercial art world.

“My very first feelings about pottery were anxiety and hope,” Folwell says. “I was a young girl at the time my mother [Jody Folwell] was first working with clay, trying to make ends meet. She came home one day saying a man had come to her booth and loved her work. He wanted to buy everything she made to carry in his gallery. I will never forget the look on my mother’s face. My own gut reaction was anxiety, since I knew my mother made pots differently than everyone else did. I remember wondering if this man realized how unusual my mother’s work was, and if he knew, would he change his mind? But I also felt hope a deep hope that we would now have a better life with the money this opportunity would bring.”

That man at her mother’s booth was the legendary Native American art dealer Lee Cohen, and the rest is now history. Together, he and Jody Folwell and a handful of other now-premier Indian artists went on to place Cohen’s Gal-lery 10—and Indian arts in general—on the map.

Untitled pot [2001], 5 3/4 x 4 3/4. pottery, southwest art.
Untitled pot [2001], 5 3/4 x 4 3/4.

Growing up with the sensibility of making art that was different served Susan Folwell well. Not only was she steeped in traditional ways of honoring the artistic process, she was also a witness to new ideas about what pottery could accomplish, what message the art could carry.

“In essence, my mother was part of the first generation of potters to have their work taken from the ‘curbside’ and put in a gallery,” says Folwell. “I am just the second generation of Indian artists who have been given this privilege. As ancient as our art forms are, it has only been in the last 30 years or so that there has been a market that recognizes the actual artist or craftsperson making the objects instead of just selling a commodity for profit. But although we have moved off the curbsides and into galleries, I think the idea of selling our culture hasn’t changed as much as we’d like to think it has. As a contemporary artist, I fight with the idea of creating what is going to sell and put food on the table as opposed to what my heart wants to say.”

As a contemporary potter, Folwell deeply believes it is her duty to show people a new pathway in Native American art. Whether her subject is dragonflies or dragons from the Harry Potter books, she shows us the world from the eyes of a young woman who has her feet firmly planted in both the Native and Anglo worlds. And clearly the art world has responded. At 25, Folwell had her first big win at the Santa Fe Indian Market, taking home a first-place ribbon. At 27, she won best of show at the Eight Northern Indian Pueblos Artists and Craftsman Show. Most recently she received the award for best nontraditional pottery at last year’s Indian Market for Goblet of Fire, a traditionally built and fired vase decorated with Harry Potter iconography.

Abstract [2001], 8 1/2  x 9. pottery, southwest art.
Abstract [2001], 8 1/2  x 9.

Visiting Folwell’s sunny studio reveals the effort behind her artistry. Her shelves are filled with pots in every stage of production. Some wait, just formed and slick. Others have just been sanded, their walls smoothed to a stonelike finish. Still others will be melted back down—pots that didn’t quite meet their maker’s demanding aesthetics. A purist, Folwell spends a great deal of time on every stage of crafting a pot, from gathering and making the clay by hand to following traditional firing methods. At least 10 separate steps are involved in the creation of each piece. And though the entire process is extremely time-consuming, Folwell insists that honoring it is essential to making pottery that will endure. “I will not compromise these steps because I believe the process must be preserved,” she says. “This is living history, and I am a part of that.”

Equally important to her, however, is finding a way to integrate the traditional role of a Native American artist with being a contemporary artist. “To be born and raised in Santa Clara Pueblo has been a deep blessing,” she says. “I am deeply rooted in the tradition, and I find artistic inspiration from moving back and forth between two worlds. The world I find around me is deeply turbulent, and yet there is beauty there. As the world reveals itself to me, I find my inspiration. What I have learned from my mother and sister, what they have been taught from others through the generations of potters, may or may not consciously pass through me as I empty myself into what I am making. The intriguing secret about clay and the heart is that they are always in control. Time and space become irrelevant. Everything I have ever learned, experienced, held, or let go of becomes instinct. Every lover, friend, enemy, ancestor, or emotion culminates for a moment in time to be laid out for all the world to see—coil by coil, breath by breath. I bend the coils and shape the pot, and I know the clay is doing the same to me.”

Untitled pot [2001], 14 3/4 x 8. southwest art.
Untitled pot [2001], 14 3/4 x 8.

It is exceptionally difficult to carve out a successful niche in the competitive and tightly knit world of Indian art. One must not only perform consistently and well but also resist succumbing to popular fads. By staying true to her own sense of aesthetics, daring to be different, and honing her craft, Folwell is setting trends and defining the new directions in which Native art is headed. She perceives this challenge as an opportunity.

“What is frustrating is how limited many people are in their ideas of what the pottery is supposed to be saying,” she says. “They want a white buffalo or a howling wolf, a bear claw or ‘the Indian with wind in the hair’—you know the picture, the ‘beautiful’ Native American staring serenely into the distance with a faraway look in his eye while the wind whips his hair. Usually an eagle feather dangles somewhere in the background. This romanticized version of stereotyped Native imagery makes me angry and frustrated, since to me it represents how our people have always been exploited by providing images of what non-Native people think we should look like or be like. This is what people think Indians are, so this is what we must make or do. No one likes to think about it because the word ‘exploitation’ makes us uncomfortable, but to ignore it is to perpetuate it.”

Folwell speaks about what many artists are afraid to say or shy away from. Yet even as she does, her voice remains calm and reflective. A deep sense of gentle humor and well-being surrounds her, and she chooses her words carefully so as not to chide or rebuke. Listening to her, one senses that the artist is on fire with her own vision and passion for what she believes to be a critical moment in history.

“As our art movement takes shape, I am hopeful that a wider, more educated, more socially conscious class of supporters will emerge,” says Folwell. “Many people complain about the rising cost of Indian art, but if you pull us out of context and sit us side by side with artists in any other art movements there is no comparison in the pricing. It is the educated client who will help Native artists forge new boundaries and be recognized as artists and not merely an ethnic group. A wider range of collectors buying art for art’s sake will become a necessity. When we do join together, we can ensure that Native artists not only preserve a vital part of their culture but also document what is important about their moment in history. And that’s happening right now.”

Given the radical paths her mother once forged to redefine the way contemporary Indian art was perceived, it is a sound bet that Folwell is well on her way to forging the next important inroad for Indian art. And chances are, hers will be an influence that will direct future generations.

Photos courtesy the artist and King Galleries, Scotts-dale, AZ; Blue Rain Gallery, Taos, NM; Adobe East, Del Ray Beach, FL; and Grey Dog Trading, Tucson, AZ.

Featured in August 2001