Native Arts | Ramona Sakiestewa


By Dottie Indyke

Ramona Sakiestewa has been huddling for eight years with a team of engineers, architects, and designers who are building the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC. It’s a huge leap for the 53-year-old Hopi artist, who is known as a weaver of contemporary textiles. Her task is to design an entry plaza, atrium, theater curtain, and various stone, glass, and metal elements for what will be the nation’s most visible monument to Indian art. “It’s like a gigantic conceptual art project. I get to work with professionals who can do anything and people right out of college who still have brain cells,” she laughs. “I’d like to do 12 more projects like this one, but you only get a couple in your lifetime.”

There’s no telling what she might yet accomplish, since Sakiestewa’s life thus far has been packed with challenges. She was only a teenager when she worked for Tobe Turpin Sr. at his Albuquerque, NM, trading post and was left in charge of the shop. She quickly figured out how to negotiate a fair price with the sometimes-nefarious dealers of turquoise and silver who’d come calling.

After graduating from high school in 1966, the small-town girl took off for New York City, got herself an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, traveled to her job at Columbia University by subway, and took classes at the School of Visual Arts. “I’d never been to New York City, and I had no idea what it was like. I went to find out and figured, how bad could it be?” she says. “Everything there was shocking to me, but not shocking in the horrible sense. I remember being really offended by people standing up at counters to eat. But it was also a huge wonderland. I’d go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art every weekend. I’d listen to experimental music. I found lots to do without spending much money.” After a couple of years in the city, Sakiestewa lived for a while in Mexico City and Palo Alto, CA, before settling in Santa Fe, the “familiar pond” she’s called home for 33 years.

While researching and writing about prehistoric Pueblo weaving, Sakiestewa took weaving classes and taught herself ancient tapestry techniques. She earned a living at the state arts agency, where she helped New Mexico’s Indian tribes and other small cultural entities apply for funding. One day she decided to take her own advice: She wrote a business plan, borrowed some money, bought a few looms, and built her own company.

Sakiestewa’s earliest weavings were simple banded floor rugs in the classic Pueblo style with a contemporary palette. She taught herself by reading books and with the help of a few generous acquaintances. She mastered techniques for dyeing yarn and began showing her work at Santa Fe Indian Market. Her first professional representation was with Gallery 10 in Scottsdale. Owner Lee Cohen commissioned her to make 12 tapestries based on designs by Frank Lloyd Wright, and the pieces were shown at the Newark Museum in New Jersey. By the turn of the 21st century, Sakiestewa had created a series of southwestern blankets for Dewey Trading in Santa Fe, established an enduring relationship with art dealer Arlene LewAllen, and designed her own retrospective at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian.

Sakiestewa’s interests extend beyond art making. The former chair of the New Mexico Arts Commission, she serves as an advisor to the National Park Service to improve the quality of arts and crafts at park concessions, a member of the board of directors of the Santa Fe Art Institute, and a lay arbitrator for the New Mexico State Bar Association.

Although she never tires of weaving, her latest interest is in making pieces that blend textiles and paper. Her imagery remains abstract—the style that comes most naturally, she says, and captures the essence of her subject, whether inspired by ritual objects, ceremony, or the landscape of the Southwest. “I’d really like to design more things, whether fine art or products,” she acknowledges. “I wish everything that people use could be as well designed as possible. I wish Home Depot was not dictating our aesthetics.”

Ramona Sakiestewa’s work can be seen at LewAllen Contemporary in Santa Fe, NM.

Featured in May 2002