When the oldest pop-up market for Native American artists emerges in Santa Fe at the height of summer every year, the city’s narrow streets throb. The glint from bands and chains of silver flows into the sound of the throng of newcomers and old friends like a little river alive with a much anticipated rain that nonetheless splashes past the banks. And this is just where Connie Tsosie Gaussoin is in her element.
In the current act of her artistic family’s story, Tsosie Gaussoin is the strong female lead. She inherited her love of creation from the many lines of her family, but broke out into new forms, teaching herself along the way. And now, with four grown children who are all accomplished artists, it’s obvious the part she has played.
Yet there are other stories in which her role is less overt, but no less meaningful, no less expansive – like how she was quietly instrumental in stewarding a program that brought thousands of kids from pueblos across New Mexico to see performances at the opera house in Santa Fe.
For her profound love of the arts and her dedication to sharing them, Tsosie Gaussoin has been selected as one of this year’s “unsung heroes.”
She grew up in Santa Fe, attending Loretto Academy before it closed. But some of her roots stretch farther north.
Her father is from Dinétah. Her mother, Lydia Duran Tsosie, is from Picuris Pueblo, where the family still gathers every year to prepare the house and celebrate the feast day of San Lorenzo.
The family’s lineage of artists includes R.C. Gorman, her late cousin, as well as painters, carpenters, drum makers, singers, rug weavers and jewelers (many who also served stints in the tribal government at Picuris).
Tsosie Gaussoin’s work “started off” with traditional Navajo and pueblo designs and techniques, but over the years “progressed into something different, a bit more contemporary,” she said. Though she tries to keep modern styling and traditional elements in a fine-tuned yet generative balance, she does admit that she “may have gone a little avant-garde a time or two.”
Many of her pieces arise from tufa casting. She uses a family mine on the Navajo Nation to harvest the good quality, “but hard-to-get” tufa from a hillside of the mountain — without wheelbarrows or even tarps. “You have to drag it down and form it into blocks so we can start working on our designs.”
Tsosie Gaussoin’s love of the arts extends well beyond her jewelry (and sculpture, too).
Inspired by international travels in the late 1960s with an educational organization that fostered cross-cultural experiences with other students and foreign dignitaries, Tsosie Gaussoin looked to the opera as a way of bringing the cultures of New Mexico into closer creative contact for the benefit of pueblo kids.
The Pueblo Opera Program was formed in 1973. Tsosie Gaussoin credits Taos Pueblo’s late John Trujillo, an “elegant man” with class to match, with ushering that program into existence.
By 1980, she was the chair of the opera program for pueblo youth, said Kyle Gray, community engagement liaison at the Santa Fe Opera.
Through the Pueblo Opera Program, somewhere between 400 and 600 kids from 12 or 13 pueblos visit the open-air opera house up to four times a year. At least 47,000 pueblo students have experienced an opera over the last four decades.
“Connie really helped steward the majority of them,” said Gray.
Not only did Tsosie Gaussoin help maintain the relationships that were essential to the opera program’s longevity, but she also found sponsors for preshow dinners and other enrichment activities – such as fashion shows with famous designers like Patricia Michaels, from Taos Pueblo — all in an effort to make sure the opera was a rounded, inclusive experience.
“She was really big about those little details that mean so much, about making sure pueblo kids felt integrated into the opera culture,” Gray said.
“The Pueblo Opera Program is this cross-cultural exchange of hospitality,” he said, where the traditions the pueblo cultures and Western opera come together over the “common ground of dance, music and
Tsosie Gaussoin’s youngest son, Wayne Nez Gaussoin, recalls having gone to the opera as a kid.
“I didn’t know it was prestigious,” he said. “But as I got older and more involved, I realized the commitment it took to take the time, and the real interest and care, to expose pueblo kids to different types of culture.”
He said that more than remembering individual operas, he walked out of those early shows “knowing not to feel intimidated by a different culture or experience.”
And when you see Tsosie Gaussoin navigating the lightly ordered chaos of the Santa Fe Indian Market so flawlessly, you see the movements of someone who certainly cannot entertain feelings of intimidation.
She was surrounded by Nez Gaussoin and her other two sons, David Gaussoin and Jerry Gaussoin Jr. (her daughter, Tazbah, wasn’t at the table, as she just started a job at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.). But the market is a family reunion in other ways, with the pieces of jewelry that, one way or another, make their way back to her for a visit.
Though the market’s a raucous homecoming, the creations that bring her there start in the quiet of the studio.
“You can’t go to your work bench upset. You can’t go mad or things just don’t come out,” she said. “You have to have a good, complete, peaceful mind.”
Empty of the cacophony of thousands of people, with just the metal and Earth’s rocks before her, Tsosie Gaussoin hears the slightest sound.
“My pieces speak to me,” she said.