Editor’s Letter | Reinventing Tradition

David Johns, Midday Plaza, acrylic, 32 x 42.,painting, southwest art.
David Johns, Midday—Plaza, acrylic, 32 x 42.

By Margaret L. Brown

In 1922, a group of Native American craftspeople gathered in the old National Guard Armory behind the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe to display their works. This was the first Indian Market. One of the early participants in the exhibit was a young potter from Santa Clara pueblo named Margaret Tafoya, who went on to become a renowned artist and win the Best of Show award at Indian Market twice in the 1970s.

Today, at 95, Tafoya continues making pottery and has passed her knowledge on to her descendants. Among them is her grandson Nathan Youngblood, whose carved vase appears on the cover. In our profile of Youngblood, he describes learning from Tafoya. “My grandmother and I would sit directly across from each other,” he says. “I would mirror everything she was doing.” Although Youngblood’s pots contain traditional Santa Clara symbols, he has incorporated innovative forms, such as an egg shape, into his style.

Another Native American artist who is reinventing tradition is Preston Singletary. The first Northwest Coast Native American artist to be trained at the prestigious Pilchuck Glass School, Singletary incorporates the symbols and forms of his Tlingit heritage into his glasswork. Creating glass totem poles and rain-hat forms with animal imagery, Singletary says he takes comfort in knowing he is paying homage to his Native American roots.

Painter David Johns is pushing the boundaries of traditional Native American art as well. Although best known for his figurative paintings of the Navajo people and members of other North American Indian tribes, Johns has recently taken a leap into almost complete abstraction. Still, the colors and forms in his abstract paintings have meanings that relate to his heritage. As Lynn Pyne writes, “Johns seeks to transcend the realism of an object and capture its essence.”

Contemporary Native American artists are carrying the legacy of their ancestors into the next century while creating new traditions of their own. Perhaps future generations will speak of them as Nathan Youngblood does of Margaret Tafoya: “Grandma is the uniting factor. She inspires all of us to continue the tradition so that it is not lost.”

Featured in August 1999