Spectacular Native American ceramics and the artists who create them have taken their rightful place in the pantheon of American fine arts. We talk with gallerist Charles King about collecting clay arts.
Forward-thinking gallerists, museum curators, and clay artists themselves are fostering a deeper understanding and appreciation of Native clay arts. In the forefront is Charles King. Owner of King Galleries in Santa Fe and Scottsdale, Arizona, he is considered by many to be the dean of contemporary Southwestern Native clay arts.
King grew up in a gallery family in the Rocky Mountain town of Estes Park, Colorado. “My parents had a gallery there called Serendipity which specialized in Native American jewelry. We owned it from approximately 1983 to 2000.” He opened his own gallery in 1996 focusing on Native clay arts. “The history of the pottery and the artists fascinated me,” he says. “I was intrigued with the process as well as the culture. There was a patience present in the art form that I also saw in the artists.”
Today King represents virtually all of the top Southwestern Native ceramics artists. He respects tradition but also encourages artists to stretch beyond expectations of what Native art should be, challenging ethnocentric constraints that force artists into derivative and “safe” work. According to King, the great Native artists we consider the mothers of the art — Hopi-Tewa potter Nampeyo and Maria Martinez of San Ildefonso — revolutionized pottery a century ago. Their breakthrough work is now heralded as classic. San Ildefonso potters in the 1920s epitomized an “exuberance of experimentation” that King is happy to see reverberating today.
King believes that artists’ riskiest work is sometimes their best, and he advises collectors not to shy away from work they don’t understand. “By the time you decide you like the work, you may not be able to afford the artist,” he says.
In his 2017 book Spoken Through Clay: Native Pottery of the Southwest, documenting the Eric S. Dobkin collection, King discusses the works from the artists’ points of view, in their own words. Researching the book, he found that artists were nearly unanimous in wanting to change perceptions and not be organized by pueblo, family, technique, or time period. So King collaborated with them on a holistic view of the pots as works of art.
Since there are no formal “movements” in Native arts such as impressionism or abstract expressionism, King looked instead at what unified artists in their own unique expression. He found the ultimate commonality Native potters share is the clay itself. In the book he groups artists into six categories based on the artists’ insights, style, intent, or impact. While the categorizations are fluid — artists might move from one to another as their careers evolve — the categories prove useful in understanding and appreciating Native clay arts.
We talked with King about his holistic view of Native American clay arts, a helpful new context for collecting, and artists who exemplify their categories.
DREAMERS are potters who literally dream their designs or are inspired to create from life experiences.
Dextra Quotskuyva, a granddaughter of Nampeyo, chose not to limit herself to “the big six,” as she called the perceived canon of Hopi-Tewa designs.
“Dextra said, ‘I dream about different designs. I dream this should be here and that should be there. The dreams lead me to something new.’ Envisioning a piece of pottery before it is made is a hallmark of many artists,” King explains. “Dextra’s inspiration from dreams and their reflection on daily experiences is a beautiful part of her pottery-making process. The result is both unique and mysterious; as Dextra also said, ‘Nobody knows except myself, unless they ask for the meaning.’ ”
Quotskuyva inspired and taught the next generation of her family, including her nephew Les Namingha. Following her dreams and her own creativity allowed her to change perceptions and expectations of Hopi-Tewa pottery.
TRADITIONALISTS seeek to maintain and honor the traditions of their cultural past through clay, form, and technique.
“Tradition at times may seem to be an indefinable concept, as all potters using native clay see a part of themselves as traditional. However, I consider a potter such as Daryl Whitegeese a traditionalist because he stays close to established Pueblo forms and designs,” King says. “Daryl is part of the Tafoya family of Santa Clara potters. Researching and reviving older shapes along with continuing to use family designs are an integral part of his pottery. He also has his own distinctive style of carving and highly polished surfaces. In each piece there remains the whisper of his great-grandmother SaraFina Tafoya, or grandmother Margaret Tafoya or mother LuAnn Tafoya.”
Other artists King calls traditionalists include Linda Tafoya-Sanchez and James Ebelacker of Santa Clara. King also considers San Ildefonso potter Popovi Da a traditionalist, while classifying his mother, Maria Martinez, and son Tony Da as “visionaries.”
TRANSITIONISTS are the important bridge between the traditional past and the visionary future.
“The pottery of Daniel Begay is a distinctive bridge in the art form,” King says. “He blends his Diné (Navajo) and Santa Clara heritage, and his carved pottery is inspired by both cultures. The style and complexity of carving on his uniquely shaped vessels give them a kinetic sense of motion and space. His pottery is the transition from historic forms and designs to a multicultural future of creative imagery. As a younger artist, he is also opening doors for the next generation of potters.”
Begay combines the traditional and modern worlds in his life beyond art as well. He holds a master’s degree in business administration and works as a program manager at the University of New Mexico.
MODERNISTS create new imagery inspired by their individual artistic reinterpretations of the ancestral past, culture, or modern worldwide influences.
“Nathan Youngblood of Santa Clara relies on his Pueblo culture along with outside artistic influences as the foundation for the designs and shapes of his pottery,” King says. “His lifelong interest in Asian art speaks to his complex style of carving. He often blends Pueblo iconography with that from other cultures to create dynamic new and modernist works in clay.”
Youngblood’s grandfather potter Alcario Tafoya told him the pot tells the potter what it wants. Sometimes the pot says no to a design, so Youngblood sands it off and begins anew. Chance occurrences in everyday life also make their way into Youngblood’s art. When his Labrador retriever’s tail bumped an unfired pot, he translated the misshapen result into a graceful, asymmetrical design he continues to use.
VISIONARIES change the dynamic of the traditional pottery shape, design, or technique and inspire a new lexicon to explain their expansive ideas.
“Tony Da of San Ildefonso was not content to make the popular black-on-black style of pottery for which his family was famous when he began making pottery in 1968,” King says. “He envisioned a new aesthetic in clay with designs etched lightly into the vessel’s surface and incorporating various clay colors along with stones and heishi beads. He was constantly seeking new ways to change the clay surface texture and talked about how his paintings and pottery were going to converge conceptually.”
In his short career of only 15 years, Da’s technical sophistication and aesthetic broke every barrier in clay arts. He was an artist whose work redefined expectations in Native pottery and whose creative vision of the clay remains influential among potters working today.
TRANSFORMISTS alter perceptions as they redefine the technical or visual expectations of Native pottery.
“To say that Susan Folwell is a transformative potter might be an understatement. She has transformed expectations of the materials used on the surface of her pottery as well as the narrative of the design,” King says. “Insightful and often funny, there is a panache in her ability to see beyond the mundane and capture a moment or mood in clay. Her recent Taos Light series is remarkable as the surface designs give voice to a Pueblo woman reinterpreting the paintings of the Taos Society of Artists from the early 1900s.”
Folwell can be playfully irreverent, as with Attack of the 50 Ft. Collector. She worked on it in the car while riding from Tucson to Indian Market in Santa Fe. She was still painting when she showed up 15 minutes before judging closed and was honored with the Tammy Garcia Spirit Award for the piece.
Tips For Collectors
Charles King offers pointers for building a clay-art collection.
Building a quality collection you love requires careful navigation of the art world, a journey in which a trusted gallerist can be an invaluable guide. Charles King of King Galleries has been mentoring collectors and cultivating artists for more than two decades from his galleries in Scottsdale, Arizona, and Santa Fe.
“Native ceramics has moved from a folk art to fine art,” says King, who specializes in the field. “Pottery, after paintings, is one of the most immediate art forms to be used to create content or a message. There is more immediacy in the voice of the potters. I think it is the beginning of a trend of artists claiming their culture, their narrative, the history of the pottery, and its significance.”
C&I asked King to share some advice for collectors.
Cowboys & Indians: How would you advise collectors to train their eyes?
Charles King: Read books, magazines, and go online. Find an artist you like and look at the variety of their work and learn about their work and culture. Look for consistency in quality or variations in size or design, and get a sense of pricing and how quickly their work sells.
The internet is great. You can see years’ worth of work by an artist. But stop by a gallery or an art show and see the pieces in person. Pottery has to be held to get a sense of weight and how good the piece is on the surface, and how well the bowl is made.
C&I: How can a gallerist help define and grow someone’s collection?
King: Ask lots of questions. Ask the gallery what they like and why. Maybe they see something you don’t notice or understand, and it will be a great learning experience.
Pay attention to styles or designs or shapes that you like.
A gallerist can help you discover young, emerging artists, which is always exciting.
If you love an artist but can’t afford their work, maybe commission a smaller piece through the gallery or use their layaway. Don’t pass up that interest-free opportunity!
C&I: How do you find a gallerist you can trust?
King: You want someone who works ethically with both artists and collectors. See that their aesthetic and personality match yours. I have a few customers who have almost identical taste to mine in pottery, so when something comes in that I love, I know that they will want that piece.
Do your due diligence: Talk with other collectors and check reviews online — Facebook, Instagram, Yelp, Google, etc. If someone loves a gallery or is unhappy, that might give you some insight into whether you want to work with them.
C&I: A final word on building a collection that will stand the test of time?
King: Think of the artisan versus the artist. The artisan may be technically perfect in their work, but the artist has the technical quality plus the creativity to grow their art over time.
Trends last, but fads pass away and are forgotten.
Watch what is going on in a variety of mediums, which suggests that a larger concept is being incorporated beyond the ideas of just one artist. What are galleries and museums featuring in shows? Exhibits take more time and thoughtful organization than what’s happening on social media. Social media gives you the pulse, while the shows give you the heartbeat. The heartbeat is the trend.
For more information about King Galleries, visit their website.
From the August/September 2018 issue.