Native Arts | Laura Fragua Cota

By Dottie Indyke

In the early 1980s, Laura Fragua Cota was a student at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe and a pioneer of sorts. Perhaps because she was perceived as an unwelcome intruder in the male domain of stone sculpture, she found some of her instructors skeptical at best and, at worst, downright patronizing. “I don’t know if [it was because] the faculty felt intimidated by women sculptors, but they’d say sarcastic things,” Cota recalls. “The attitude the men had really turned off a lot of women. But it didn’t weaken my spirit.”

Cota grew up at Jemez Pueblo in central New Mexico where both her parents have lived all their lives. When she told her grandmother that she wanted to be an artist, she was admonished to find a secretarial job instead where she could dress up and have a nice office. Alive today at 94, Cota’s grandmother has been a proud witness to her granddaughter’s commitment to that dream.

After high school, Cota became interested in art therapy as a way to use her creativity to help people heal. While studying in the social work program of the now-defunct University of Albuquerque, she decided she needed more hands-on experience. “I thought if a client comes to me and he’s a sculptor or a painter, I need to understand the language of the medium,” she says. So she enrolled at IAIA.

Her years at the institute were formative, and they continue to influence her life and work today. Some on the faculty were condescending, but there were others who provided key support and mentoring, including Ottilie Loloma, Charles Dailey, and celebrated Apache sculptor Allan Houser. Cota moved beyond drawing to other two- and three-dimensional media and discovered the allure of sculpting in stone. Most importantly, IAIA offered a home away from home.

“I met people from so many different tribes tribes I [had] never heard of,” Cota says. “There’s a whole generation of kids who met at the school. It’s like a family. The friendships I made were the ultimate.” Elected president of the student council, Cota led her fellow students in protests demanding that the school build its own campus. She had to wait nearly two decades, but that wish became reality in 2000 with the purchase of 140 acres of land south of Santa Fe. “I’m glad that I am able to see the new school, which gives students a different kind of strength,” she says. “Whatever seeds we plant are our choices to make. We don’t have to worry about ever being uprooted.”

In the intervening years, Cota has painted and sculpted elegant pieces in limestone and alabaster. Some are traditional depictions of Indian figures, but she particularly enjoys working with abstraction because of its universality and emphasis on emotion and movement.

Once in a while, and sometimes without conscious intention, she will craft a piece of social commentary. One such mixed-media construction was created for a Christopher Columbus-themed exhibition. Made on a piece of animal hide shaped like the United States, A Pathway of Our Future depicts a line of dying babies, men, and women rising into the sky. The first man on the path is pierced with a long sword. At Santa Fe’s 1994 Indian Market, this piece was honored with the Patrick Suazo-Hinds Award for creativity.Cota’s work is part of the permanent collection of the IAIA Museum, where she has also served as an exhibition curator. In 1998, she received New Mexico’s highest artistic honor, a Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, which was accompanied by an exhibition of her work at the Governor’s Gallery in the state capitol building.

And a few months ago Cota came full-circle, going back to school in Santa Fe to earn the degree in art therapy she abandoned more than two decades ago. She still draws, paints, and works in clay and stone. And she is ever mindful of the spiritual foundation and great artistic tradition that underlies her work.

“I think of Easter Island and the people who lived there long ago. The sculptors who carved huge figures were held in high esteem because of their ability to create. As artists, we are special because we can let that expression out,” she says. “I am grateful for the talent the Creator has placed in me, and I must share that vital part of who I am. I am a human being created by the Great Spirit, a woman, an artist, a Native American from the continent of North America, and the list goes on. Eventually the cycle leads us back to people who are one with the earth, with the world, and the universe.”

Laura Fragua Cota’s work may be seen at Native Beauty and Studios Gallery in the Traditions! marketplace in Budaghers, NM, and at the IAIA Museum in Santa Fe.

Featured in October 2002