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Award-winning artist is first Native American featured in fair

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Upton Ethelbah Jr.’s sculptures rise above his spiritual home at Santa Clara Pueblo and bloom into corn, deer, buffalo, eagle, elk and ram dancers.

“Apache Sunrise Ceremony” by Upton Ethelbah Jr., Carrara marble from Italy, won first place in stone sculpture at the 2015 Santa Fe Indian Market. (SOURCE: Upton Ethelbah Jr.)

The corn dancers wear ornate headdresses called tablitas, swaying and blessing the people as they wave an ear in each hand. Their finest jewelry dangles from their ears and neck as they send their prayers into the clouds.

“We’re praying for rain and for water in whatever form it comes,” Ethelbah said from his Albuquerque home near Old Town.

The winner of a constellation of awards, Ethelbah – also known as Greyshoes, his father’s Apache surname – is the first Native American artist to be featured at the New Mexico Arts & Crafts Fair, opening on Friday, June 23, and running through Sunday, June 25. Visitors can choose from more than 150 national and international artists selling clay, digital art, drawings, fiber, glass, jewelry, metal, mixed-media, painting, photography, printmaking, sculpture and wood.

Born to a White Mountain Apache father and a Santa Clara Pueblo mother, Ethelbah carves the graceful, flowing movements of dancers into Italian, Belgian and Portuguese marble, alabaster, limestone and onyx. He casts the most specialized (i.e. “perfect”) pieces in bronze at a foundry in Prescott, Ariz.

Upton Ethelbah Jr. holds a cardboard template for his Santa Clara Pueblo ram dancers. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

The University of New Mexico graduate earned his degree in sociology/psychology. At 55, he retired after working as the director of student living at the Santa Fe Indian School for 14 years. He decided to reinvent himself.

“I had a mentor who encouraged me to take up stone carving,” he said. “I’d never done anything in art before.”

Ethelbah took sculpture classes at the Poeh Cultural Center outside Santa Fe. A year later, he was accepted into the Santa Fe Indian Market.

His first piece, a drum perched on kiva steps carved from Utah alabaster, sits on a glass tabletop in the living room of the spacious home he shares with his partner, Julie Garcia.

“I liked the physical part of it; it reminded me of football,” he said. “You’re in a hitting position with a big grinder. It’s like blocking with football but with very sensitive fingers,” he said, spreading his fingers in the air in twin fans.

“There was labor, but it wasn’t work.”

He usually begins with a sketch, sometimes on a napkin, other times on a tablet. He enlarges the drawing on a copy machine, then transfers it to a cardboard template.

“Some of my best art has begun on a napkin in a restaurant,” he said.

He’s particularly proud of a piece depicting the Apache Sunrise ceremony. Made of Carrara marble, it stands 4 feet high and weighs 400 pounds. He drew it on a tablet while watching an episode of “Game of Thrones.” It won first place in stone sculpture at the 2015 Santa Fe Indian Market.

“It’s the coming-out ceremony for a little girl,” Ethelbah said. “There are five crown dancers. It’s a four-day event.”

He’s working on a pair of ram dancers in snowy Portuguese marble on the porch in front of his studio.

“My work is stylized; it’s not literal or representational,” he said. “You can tell what it is, but you have room for your imagination.”

He began traditional dancing at the age of 35 to pass it on to his two sons, Upton III and Lucas. His headdress, a basket sprouting deer antlers, crowns a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf stashed with Santa Clara pottery.

An uncle led him into the kiva and taught him the steps and the language needed to perform them.

“In six months, I was an elk,” he said.

Solidified in stone, the ram dance honors the animals, giving thanks for their lives. The dancers wear sashes, kilts and moccasins. The grinder screeches like a dental drill as Ethelbah smooths the curving top. He polishes his work using power tools in the flat areas and 60-grit sandpaper in the curves.

“Marble has integrity,” he said. “It’s consistent. I know what I’m getting; it’s not going to crack on me. It polishes like glass.”

At 74, Ethelbah still rides his bicycle 21 miles a day. On Aug. 12, he’ll dance all day in the heat at Santa Clara’s Feast Day.

“It’s who I am; it’s my identity,” he said. “I’m so thankful I’m still physically able to do it.

“It’s still so deep inside of me that that’s the first thing I think of when I’m carving stone.”