Native Arts | Harry Fonesca: Symbols and Icons

Maidu Creation Story by Harry Fonseca. painting, southwest art.
Maidu Creation Story by Harry Fonseca

By Dottie Indyke

At age 11, Harry Fonseca knew he wanted to be an artist. It was an odd choice for a boy from the backwater California town of Byte, and his working-class parents were understandably bewildered. Fonseca’s father, a janitor, was of Portuguese descent. His housewife mother was a blend of Hawaiian and Maidu, a gatherer tribe from the central California valley; her great-grandfather had moved from Hawaii to work on the railroad.

“Coming from an environment with no books and no art, I first planned on becoming a dentist,” Fonseca recalls. But while attending college in Sacramento, Fonseca took one chemistry class and “that was the end of that. When I discovered there was such a thing as an art department, I realized that was where I belonged.”

At school, Fonseca was drawn to the art of Africa, Latin America, and the South Pacific and in his 20s became enamored of petroglyphs. Visiting a painted rock cave in Santa Barbara some 30 years ago, he was stunned by the grace of rock art. “I saw a lot of playfulness, a lot of Miro. The images were so appealing: There was color, design, shape, and impact.”
So-called “primitive art” is today a Fonseca mainstay. Some of his paintings of Maidu creation tales are stylistically reminiscent of the art of Australian aborigines. In the 1980s, the artist hung yards of canvas on the walls of his California studio and used house-painting brushes and oxide-red colors to make his Stone Poem series.

He is also known for his paintings of coyotes, made long before the trickster of Native legends became a fad among southwestern artists. “I was sitting with a group around a fire and I looked in a doorway, and there was a dancer wearing a stuffed coyote head with two sticks representing the animal’s front legs,” Fonseca recalls about his first encounter with the coyote. “He poked us with the sticks, made fun of us. At first, I didn’t understand, but then I realized the coyote is like a relief valve. I was attracted to his whimsy as well as the deeper qualities. When I put the coyote in my paintings I placed him in funny situations, but I never forgot that he bit.” The coyote was also a talisman, sparking the artist’s move to Santa Fe in 1978 when his paintings of the trickster were featured in a group show at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian.

Much of Fonseca’s work employs age-old symbols in the service of contemporary storytelling. His 1997 series The Discovery of Gold in California voiced a personal statement about the impact of the gold rush on his 19th-century Maidu ancestors. Crafted outdoors in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the paintings evolve from gentle, abstracted visions of the landscape to metaphors of oppression and violence.

A related piece, The Discovery of Gold and Souls in L.A., in which Fonseca uses repeated images of crosses to express social-justice concerns, was shown at the 1999 Biennale in Venice, Italy. There Fonseca, with a group of Native American artists including Kay Walkingstick, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, and Bob Haozous, successfully lobbied the exhibition organizers to treat them as a sovereign entity.

During a 40-year career, in response to his enormous curiosity about the world, Fonseca’s style and subject matter has undergone constant change. Yet the common threads make his paintings immediately recognizable. The artist’s love of beauty is evident throughout his work as is his spontaneity and mastery of materials, which can be seen in canvas patches adhered to the surface of his pieces, lustrous gold paint, crayon scrawls, and outlines of his hands.
“I’ve never been an artist who sells like hotcakes,” Fonseca says. “And it doesn’t help that I change so much. But as I look back, I see that I change when I feel it’s time to. There have been many times in my life when I’ve wondered why in the world I continue to do this,” he says. “But it’s worth it when I make a painting that really works.”

His latest pieces are meditations on St. Francis. For Fonseca, the Catholic icon personifies a subject he knows well: the pursuit of a dream regardless of difficulty. “When I sacrifice so much for my work,” he muses, “it makes me see how important that work is to me.”

Fonseca is represented by LewAllen Contemporary, Santa Fe, NM.

Featured in “Native Arts”  September 2000