Best Of The West 2012: Charles Loloma, Hopi Jeweler
Photography: Courtesy Heard Museum
Charles Loloma (1921 – 91) was born on Third Mesa of the Hopi Reservation near the little village of Hotevilla in northeast Arizona. Growing up in an artistic household (his father was a weaver and his mother a basketmaker), he received attention early on for his skills as a potter and painter.
By his late teens, he was collaborating with artist Fred Kabotie on murals for the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco. Then, in 1941, he was drafted into the Army and spent the next four years working as a camouflage expert in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands.
After the war, the GI Bill allowed Loloma to study ceramics at the School for American Craftsmen at Alfred University in New York; while there he used a research fellowship to study ceramics on the Hopi Reservation. Following the pottery path, he and his wife opened a pottery shop in 1954 in Scottsdale, Arizona’s Kiva Craft Center.
But in 1955, Loloma turned his attention from his popular pottery line called Lolomaware to jewelry, a decision that would revolutionize Southwestern art. By experimenting with modern lines and nontraditional materials such as gold, diamonds, lapis, pearls, and ivory, Loloma recast the turquoise-and-silver face of Native American jewelry. His bold sculptural pieces — characterized by their geometric mosaic designs — led to international acclaim and some impressive celebrity clients, including Mamie Eisenhower and Mrs. Frank Lloyd Wright.
Rejected three times by the Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial art show, Loloma would go on to win first prize in the Scottsdale National Indian Arts Exhibition seven years in a row. His museum-worthy jewelry would eventually fetch six figures, and he would become an inspiration to countless other Indian artists. When the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe was founded in 1962, Loloma, who had been teaching for years, was appointed cohead of the department of Plastic Arts.
For Loloma, art remained the bridge between the Hopi tradition he revered and the sophisticated circles fame thrust upon him. He addressed the apparent disparity with the comment: “We [the Hopi] are a very serious people and have tried hard to elevate ourselves. But in order to create valid art, you have to be true to yourself and your heritage.”