Award-winning artist Kathleen Wall (Jemez Pueblo, Chippewa) came by her affinity for clay early — and naturally.
“It all boils down to clay — clay figures and clay sculptures,” says Kathleen Wall, a recipient of one of New Mexico’s 2021 Governor’s Awards for Excellence in the Arts, the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture’s 2020 and 2021 Native Treasures Living Treasure, and the subject of the museum’s current exhibition A Place in Clay.
Clay is at the heart of the residency she wrapped up this summer at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. “The piece I did for my residency was a procession of Catholic saints to the [Santa Fe] plaza,” Wall says. “It shows how the Catholic and Pueblo religions have merged together to make this beautiful cultural experience. It’s unique how we have our Native dancing to honor saints and things that honor Catholicism.”
The Basket Maker, 4 feet x 6 inches x 3 feet, acrylic paint on wood panel with mounted traditional clay figure of Jemez clay.
Clay is also central to the inventory she built up for her booth at August’s Indian Market. She rode the excitement of the return to an in-person market — “the thrill of being able to show and talk to everybody, meet with old friends and family” — right into a donation project for IAIA’s August gala — a piece with four women representing Native culture — and collaborations with alumni across the United States. And then there’s her Learn Award from the School of Advanced Research (SAR): For that, she researched Valles Caldera — a volcanic caldera in New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains — and will be presenting a piece based on it in late October.
Wall (Jemez Pueblo, Chippewa) came by her affinity for clay early — and naturally. Her mother and her aunts were all Pueblo potters, and as a young girl, she learned the craft by watching them as they made the popular Pueblo storyteller, the open-mouthed figures first created by Helen Cordero (Cochiti Pueblo) in New Mexico in 1964 to honor the Pueblo storytelling tradition.
As Wall came into her own artistically, she became known for the koshare figure, an evolution, she says, of the storyteller. Koshares are a Pueblo Indian clown society representing ancestral spirits in ceremonies invoking rain and fertility. “The koshare, the way I make it, is part of the storyteller motif,” Wall says. “The simplicity of the storyteller let me focus on the personality and the face of the figure that has become my signature piece. I’m fortunate to have something I’m known for.”
Koshare Storyteller, 18 x 12 x 14 inches, hand-coiled with traditionally processed Jemez clay, dressed with corn husk and leather.
A Place in Clay comprises 10 works from 2014 to the present and includes a diverse collection of multimedia pieces with painting and sculpture pieces, including Wall’s signature koshares. A piece called Place — a portrait of Wall’s Aunt Edna when she was on relocation in San Francisco — holds special significance for the artist. “My grandfather was relocated to San Francisco,” she says, “and my mother and some of her siblings were raised partially in San Francisco. She’s standing in front of a painting of the typography of the reservation where she was born. The sculpture is of her in San Francisco. It represents the kind of turmoil relocation causes a lot of Native people who find it difficult to try and navigate the social dynamic.”
Wall lives and works at Jemez Pueblo, outside of Albuquerque and Santa Fe. “I feel fortunate to be in this lovely space that is not only beautiful but nurturing to my spirit and my creativity. The most inspiring thing to me is my culture — the things around me, not only friends and family, but the scene imbedded in this beautiful state, where we’re surrounded by so much Native American culture.”
Look for Kathleen Wall’s work at Dakkya at Hotel Chaco in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and on kathleen-wall.com. A Place in Clay is on view at the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture through May 16, 2022 (indianartsandculture.org).
From the November/December 2021 issue
Photography: (All images) courtesy Kathleen Wall