Native Arts | Nora Naranjo-Morse

Southwest Art

By Dottie Indyke

A Santa Clara sculptor who’s also a filmmaker and poet

One of the ironies in the life of Nora Naranjo-Morse, the esteemed 51-year-old Santa Clara Pueblo sculptor—who is also a metal, clay, and installation artist, filmmaker, and poet—was her early failure as a student. Until she moved from a public elementary school to one at Taos Pueblo in northern New Mexico, her creative perspective put her at odds with her classmates and teachers. But as the youngest daughter of the matriarchal potter Rose Naranjo, she could scarcely escape her artistic bent and urge to create. All 10 children, including her brother Michael Naranjo and sister Jody Folwell, grew up mining and preparing clay. By fourth grade, she, too, knew she wanted to be an artist. What she couldn’t foresee was how many mediums she would eventually master.

Her entry into the marketplace came during the decade it took her in her 20s to complete her studies in social welfare at the College of Santa Fe, from which she received a bachelor’s degree in 1982. Off and on in those years, Naranjo-Morse sold miniature figures and oddly shaped bowls to tourists under the portal at Santa Fe’s Palace of the Governors. Though she had been taught traditional Pueblo pottery-making, she was drawn to create the unconventional.

“It was a very transitional time for me,” she recalls. “I formed a real community with those artists, selling with them day in and day out. I started thinking about being a contemporary Native person. Most of the time when Native people read about their clay work, it’s written by a non-Native, and it’s more clinical and anthropological. I wanted to write something that was from first-hand experience.”

So she did. Naranjo-Morse’s poems from this period formed the basis of her book Mud Woman, which was released by the University of Arizona Press in 1992. Now in its third printing, the book’s publication and the enthusiastic reviews that followed proved a turning point for the artist. Suddenly there seemed no limit to what she might accomplish.

While the honors have steadily rolled in—a fellowship from the Eiteljorg Museum and one from the School of American Research, exhibits at the Wheelwright Museum and Smithsonian—Naranjo-Morse has maintained her focus on innovation no matter what the medium. Commercialism is another matter: When her satirical clay character “Pearlene” became too popular, the artist quit making her. “The idea of commodifying Pearlene was too heart-breaking for me,” she says.

Her creativity and her lifestyle at home at Santa Clara Pueblo tend to be integrated. As her schoolteacher husband and she were building an adobe home there, so too did her work transform. “The mud, straw, and sand were in some ways very similar to clay,” she recalls. “I realized that I was making a very large vessel that my children would grow up in.” Figurative totems emerged, some as tall as 9 feet, assembled of traditional Santa Clara clay mixed with micaceous earth from Taos Pueblo to add strength and grouped together like tribes of sentinels. However, after years of success with the pole pieces, she sensed they were verging on the formulaic and determined no more would be made.

Lately, her preoccupation is bronze sculpture and monotypes—the latter an excuse  to “get color all over me,” she says. And then there are her large installations, such as numbe whageh—the Tewa term for “our center place”—a permanent earthwork facing the Albuquerque Museum that was constructed in late 2004 of earth, plants, and water. A sweeping sight measuring 60 by 60 feet, the piece rises to 8-1/2 feet above sidewalk level and descends to 6-1/2 feet below, reflecting Naranjo-Morse’s vision of a Pueblo worldview prior to contact by Spanish conquerors.

“Making this large piece has really opened my world in terms of how I fill large space,” she comments. “I stand on the berm and I see the lines that move into that center place … those lines are very similar to the lines I create on a smaller level in my clay work.”

Naranjo-Morse is also making a film about the creation of the installation; it’s the 10th short movie she has made in as many years. When her father died, she started casting around for a way to express what seemed her permanently altered identity, and she picked up an old VHS camera and started shooting. Her first film, What Was Taken and What We Sell, a commentary on the commercialization of Indian culture and the corrupting effect of money, was included in the national touring exhibition Who Stole the Tee Pee?

“I’m proud that I’m fearless,” she states. “When I decided that I wanted to make a film, it scared me a lot because I didn’t know anything about it. But then I realized I had to do it to learn about the process. I’m always in a state of asking questions and allowing myself that vulnerability of not knowing. Anytime I attempt something, I’m thrilled by the prospects of what I’m going to learn. Now I’m very comfortable being a student.”

Nora Naranjo-Morse’s work can be seen at Addison Parks Gallery, Santa Fe, NM, and Figarelli Fine Art, Scottsdale, AZ.

Featured in “Native Arts” February 2005