By Dottie Indyke
Years ago Evelyn Fredericks was working as a librarian at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe when her friend and husband-to-be, the sculptor Doug Hyde, would show her his works. And her limited art background didn’t stop her from critiquing what she saw. “I’d make suggestions—I’m very opinionated,” she admits, laughing. “Finally he said, ‘Leave my stuff alone and do your own.’”
In this roundabout way, Fredericks’ career as an artist was launched. She worked as Hyde’s office manager and supervised his employees, so she was forced, during crunch periods, to pitch in on the production side. But when the couple separated in the late 1980s, her future was uncertain. “You can market other people’s work, but it’s very difficult to step out on your own,” she muses. “You think, ‘What am I going to say? No, I can’t say that—it’s immodest.’ The obvious answer, though, was that I could do it.”
She began modestly, in her home studio, crafting small stone figures. Her motif was images of mothers and children, a theme that has continued to this day. Making the rounds of Indian arts and craft fairs, she was encouraged by avid collector interest. Then, at the annual Heard Indian market, she met a Scottsdale couple who commissioned her to create a 6-foot marble sculpture. For the last 15 years since then, she has been a working artist.
“At this point in my life I feel like a veteran of the art wars,” she remarks. “I’ve seen a lot of changes in Indian art. Look at the evolution of pottery and kachina dolls. A pot is still a pot, but you have to do something different every time to make it stand out. Artists are free to develop their own styles.”
For Fredericks, who is Hopi and grew up on Third Mesa, that style has evolved over time. Early on, she approached her materials with preconceived ideas. Now she knows better than to try and impose her will. The work goes better when it’s in harmony with the stone, she says. And as a beginner, she tried to make sculptures that recreated real life down to the last detail. Today, her goal is to depict a feeling. Many of her figures are uncomplicated, fluid shapes with little embellishment. “I want to simplify the form and bring out the essence of the material,” she says. “What I admire about sculptors like Allan Houser and Henry Moore is that they use simple lines to say so much—something recognizable but also emotional. I think that’s very difficult to do.”
Growing up, Fredericks’ parents made it clear she was to become a teacher like her aunt, the pioneering Hopi educator Elizabeth White. Though Fredericks grew up around art—her father was a weaver and kachina carver, her aunt a potter, and her grandmother a basketmaker—and loved to work with her hands, she never questioned her parents’ expectations.
She chose to study at Arizona State University, knowing no more about it than that a friend was attending. It took a while for the culture shock—moving from a high-school class of 25 students to a university of 25,000—to subside. After graduation, during the political ’60s and the insurgence of Native American pride, she took a job with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. “I thought I’d teach at all the Indian reservations. For three years I was at the White Mountain Apache reservation in Arizona. It was harder work than I thought. I decided I didn’t want to be stuck in a classroom all my life.”
She went back to school, earned a master’s degree in library science, and was offered a job at IAIA. There, she was thrilled by her exposure to the arts and to many of the most creative Native American artists of her generation.
In her choice of career and artistic genre and her insistence on marketing her own work, the 55-year-old has bucked tradition and asserted her individuality. Recently she was invited to join the Indigenous Sculptors, a group of nine Native American stone carvers who exhibit together and promote their non-traditional form, particularly to youth. “Lots of young people are caught up with the hype of popular culture,” she says. “Working physically is very grounding. You’re so tired at the end of the day, you can’t go out and make trouble. Hopefully one day I’ll mentor young people.” Fredericks just might wind up fulfilling her parents’ expectations after all.
Evelyn Fredericks’ work may be seen at Turquoise Tortoise Gallery in Sedona, AZ; Sanders Gallery in Tucson, AZ; the Heard Museum North in Scottsdale, AZ; and the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff.
Featured in September 2003