The handwork of the founding father of Zuni fetish carving, the quirky beast seems to signal what has been long overdue: the first exhibition to honor the patriarch of this dynamic pueblo art form.
“The Leekya Family: Master Carvers of Zuni Pueblo” opens at the Albuquerque Museum on Saturday, June 24. The exhibition gathers 350 carvings of Leekya Deyuse, his contemporaries and descendants. Organizers borrowed the objects from 42 lenders, including Phoenix’s Heard Museum, Santa Fe’s Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, the School of Advanced Research, the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, Keshi: The Zuni Connection in Santa Fe and author Kent McManis, the owner of Grey Dog Trading in Albuquerque’s Old Town.
Known for his gently undulating forms and whimsical expressions, Leekya, along with Teddy Weahkee and Leo Poblano, was among the first few Zuni lapidarists in the early 20th century to move from carving traditional fetishes for personal and religious use to carving figures for the Indian art tourist market. The 1975 auction of the C.G. Wallace collection kindled the Zuni fetish craze, bringing prices of up to $21,000 for a Leekya necklace.
The collection of more than 2,500 objects had been housed inside Albuquerque’s old De Anza Motor Lodge, where Wallace showed it off to everyone from Will Rogers to Museum of Modern Art Director René d’Harnoncourt.
The exhibition is showcasing 95 pieces from the 1975 auction. They haven’t been seen in 40 years.
Museum curator Deb Slaney tells Leekya’s story through the voices of his grandsons Freddie and Francis Leekya and his daughter, the late Sarah Leekya.
Freddie begins his own carving by bringing offerings of cornmeal, some food and a prayer before he digs for earth-toned Zuni stone, or travertine, at a secret pueblo site.
“He’s the one who told us where the mine was,” Freddie said of the grandfather he never knew. “He taught us how to get it and what to do with it.”
Freddie’s easy laugh punctuates his stories. He says he never knows what animal he’ll discover within each stone.
“You just look at it and you eventually see there’s something that’s going to be in there and something starts popping out,” he said. “It takes patience.”
Freddie carves mostly farm animals —— longhorn steers, horses, pigs and turkeys – as well as Zuni men and women and his famous frog man.
“My clan is the frog, so I like to do a lot of frogs,” he said.
The Zuni people use horses for healing,while medicine bears are for hunting, he said.
Leeyka was a sheep farmer and laborer before he found work carving animals, figures, leaves and other shapes for the tourist market through Wallace. Freddie’s father, Francis, told him Leekya was inspired by ancient fetishes discovered at an archaeological dig. He soon progressed to carving, using turquoise, coral, abalone and spiny oyster, as well as Zuni stone. Leekya used grinders, watchmaker’s files, and emery cloth to create highly polished, rounded forms.
“He’s so important because he brings visibility to the art of carving to Zuni,” Slaney said. “His name has been a household word to those who appreciate the art form.”
What Maria Martinez was to pueblo pottery Leekya is to fetishes, said Bronwyn Fox, co-owner of Santa Fe’s Keshi: The Zuni Connection.
“He epitomizes what fetishes are,” Fox said. “They’re just so beautifully carved, and they’re very exuberant. They’re happy. They make me smile. He had an amazing sense of humor.”
Leekya created movement in the angles and details of the heads and feet of mammals and in the turned heads and fluttery wings of birds and butterflies. He specialized in bears, wolves, foxes, birds, frogs, turtles and snakes. The bulging eyes and squat bodies of his fat frogs nearly croak with personality.
In doing so, he created a new art form.
Freddie Leekya sees his grandfather’s spirit in his own carvings.
“When I finish my stuff and come back to his stuff, it’s kind of similar to his work – the smile.”
Leekya died in 1966.