Sitting down in front of a lump of clay is like a painter with a full palette in front of a blank canvas or a composer sitting before a piano anticipating the exact moment when a key is struck. It’s picturing the shape that lies as imminent potential, a tactile birth of something that hasn’t yet existed.
Modern artists in clay pursue this magic with a fervor that blanks out all else when they are in their “zone.” This is especially true of those who maintain an ancient tradition — even when it becomes a jumping off point for visual commentaries, as in the work of Santa Clara Pueblo artist Susan Folwell.
Lately, Folwell has been working on a series of clay works inspired by the Taos Society of Artists.
“As you know [my husband] Davison Koenig works for the Couse-Sharp Historical Site and through that I’ve found a love for TSA art,” she said from her home in Taos.
“So, every week I have a new favorite artist, but it tends to fall between Victor Higgins and [W. Herbert] Buck Dunton. Studying their work and incorporating it into pottery has given me great joy. It’s fun because that in itself is kind of satirical: Native thoughts or Native reflections on Taos Society of Artists painters, Anglo painters that were painting Pueblo people – it’s been a lot of fun.”
That element is noteworthy for the simple fact that a Native woman artist making visual commentary on TSA founders’ work might not have been possible back in the day. Exclusivity and arbitrary judgement often were the unwritten standards held by professional artists hoping to make their mark in the world. But, here she is, here and now.
The works she is producing in clay touch upon the universally whimsical and, for Native people, also serve as a kind of cultural touchstone upon which they can relate. “I’ve done a virtual vacation series where I make iPhones or tablets out of clay and then there are scenes of TSA paintings on the [screen],” she said.
“You might have a wildlife scene or a Victor Higgins nude sleeping or things like that. And, then I’m taking it a little bit further, a little more sculptural — They’re out and about. Henry Sharp is deaf, living out of a wagon in Montana painting Indians, so what does he have in his wagon? So, a loaf of bread, canned tuna, a coffee grinder, so literally I’m building these things and putting images on them. Putting TSA images on things they may have. One of the pieces that turned out spectacular, if I may say, is an artist’s palette. It’s made of clay but it has an E.I. Couse nocturne painted on it. It’s the main nocturne that lives in the Couse studio. … Then there’s a paintbrush and two tubes of paint, but that’s all made in clay.”
The ceramic tradition among the Pueblo Indians of the Southwest predates conquest in the 1500s. While archaeological evidence has revealed startlingly sophisticated designs upon ceremonial vessels from the Mimbres region and among the Hopis, most was created as utilitarian ware. They were used for cooking beans and squash, maybe a meat stew. Pots made historically at Taos and Picuris Pueblos were made from locally collected micaceous clay, which resulted in a strong vessel but appeared blackened on the outside from being placed directly on the coals from a fire.
This is how it was until the tourism trade spread with the railroad in the late 1800s and blossomed in the early 20th century. That marked the beginning of elaborate painted designs familiar to lovers of works by artists from Zia and Zuni Pueblos, the Hopi villages and the elegant designs painted and carved into the surface of works among the people of Santa Clara, San Ildefonso, Ohkay Owingeh and San Felipe. As the market grew so did the tradition as the Institute of American Indian Art, Santa Fe Indian School helped teach the art and techniques to new generations.
Along with this newly developed tradition came certain rigid conventions proposed by tribal elders who so valued the unique qualities of their work they established them as part of their identity.
“In my mind,” Folwell said, “I think tradition is very important.
I believe stronglyin that. I think kids should learn the way that their parents [make pottery] or the way their grandparents did it. But, as an artist, I think you need your own voice. I think it’s wonderful no matter what culture you come from to be able to keep your feet in both worlds and give the world your perspective.”
She added, “I think everyone has a place in the world. I do.
hope people keep up the tradition. I hope that we can see traditional pottery – the funny thing is what we call traditional pottery now, nice shiny black, deep carved pottery, was created for the tourist industry. If that’s what tradition is now, more power to you. I hope you keep doing it. I hope you can keep feeding your family with it. And, the same thing with extreme self-expressionism. More power to you in that regard. If you need to break away from traditional material, so be it. I think it’s wonderful.”
Along the way, an unsavory influence subtly found its way into her work by way of a job she took to pay bills while in college.
“This was at the tail end of big camera and video stores, right before the digital age took over. I’m quite certain I was a racial hire. It was a big camera-video store … but the things people would say, the owners of the store, there was a lot of pro football players, baseball players, Kansas City Royals, Kansas City Chiefs, guys would come in and the owners of the store, they’d stand behind the glass in the back where the lunchroom is and they’d say, ‘Oh, here comes that big Black n-word’ or ‘that stupid Jew,’ you know what I mean? Things like that, so when you’re in that kind of environment I can’t believe I lasted that long. I think I quit a year to the day. I couldn’t take it anymore. It was a thing. You realize you don’t experience that in New Mexico, right? As much as I wanted to be in the world and run things I think that was one of the turning points. Just wanting to come home, wanting to be here and just really appreciating what we have in Northern New Mexico. It’s pretty special.”
The experience, though, helped fuel the art, “being able to speak out about certain things in your own way, and I find that doing it with a certain amount of humor is less off-putting for people. There’s a way around that for people to actually hear what you have to say when there’s a hint of humor in it.”
She found she could confront racism without being in-your-face about it.
“And, it’s everything and anything from gun violence to the male-dominant culture that we have in Pueblo society, 9/11 … When I was in college in Detroit, my first roommate, she thought I was – I couldn’t explain to her enough that I was American. I wasn’t Mexican, because I lived in New Mexico, that it’s actually part of the United States. It never sank in. Then, I got a roommate from Germany and she totally understood. She knew more about America and Native Americans than most college kids I went to school with.”
Folwell grew up at Santa Clara Pueblo, where virtually everyone was steeped in the pottery tradition. But, as she went to school, she wasn’t all that interested in pottery. All that changed when she went to college far from her village.
“My mother’s a potter, my sister, aunts and uncles – growing up in Santa Clara Pueblo you can’t throw a rock without hitting a potter … it was sort of second nature. Before you went out with your friends or got an allowance to go to the movies you had to help with some process of helping fire pottery, sift clay. So, as a kid why would I grow up doing chores for a living? But, it eventually got the best of me.”
It was during her first year of art school in California that changed her mind.
“I took a ceramics class because I thought it would be an easy A, but I passed that class by the skin of my teeth … I guess you could say [it was because of] the irreverence, and not understanding what it takes to process. I didn’t realize I had that in myself.”