SANTA FE, N.M. — Google “bobbleheads,” and you’ll come up with everyone from Einstein to Joe DiMaggio.
These pop culture mainstays have been around for at least 150 years, according to bobbleheads.com. In the 1920s, a New York Knicks basketball player bobblehead launched an avalanche of sports-related figures. All of the toys contained spring-connected heads that bounced and nodded at the touch of a finger. By the 1970s, a bobblehead set of the Beatles became one of the most famous and rare of all time.
Cue to Cochiti Pueblo.
One night Jonathan Loretto (Cochiti-Jemez) was up late watching a Geico TV commercial. He watched the Geico gecko jump for joy after spotting a group of bobbleheads made in his image.
“I said, ‘Boy, that’s the happiest lizard I’ve ever seen’,” said Loretto, demonstrating his work at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian on Monday. “I want to be that happy, too.”
After multiple Googling and seemingly endless trips to the hardware and big-box crafts stores and back, he made his first hybrid piece about three years ago. He calls them “storyteller bobbleheads.” Loretto will be demonstrating at the Wheelwright again today and selling his work at this weekend’s Santa Fe Indian Market.
He shapes the head separately from the body, beginning with a plastic foam ball from Hobby Lobby. He slices it in half, then inserts a spring and some wooden pegs using staples and glue. When Loretto demonstrates at the Wheelwright, the figures always produce a smile.
“People love them,” he said. “They laugh.”
Loretto’s work is more than a joke. He combines traditional pueblo figures with basic bobblehead technology. His first piece was a traditional Cochiti drummer. He’s also made traditional female singers.
His repertoire includes a bobblehead “rainman” and a bobblehead “pumpkin,” each painted in traditional symbols incorporating jewelry, headbands, moccasins and sometimes drums. He was recently awarded a Rollin and Mary Ella King Fellowship at the School for Advanced Research. He wants to create a Catholic priest bobblehead.
Collectors can’t resist playing with them.
“They’ll display them in their homes, but they like to play around with them a lot,” Loretto said.
At the Wheelwright, a row of his moving clay figures lines the back of a display table. They range from the uber-traditional (pueblo singers) to figures with a decidedly contemporary bent. There’s “Batman,” complete with the “Dark Knight” logo splashed across his chest.
“I try to keep up with the times,” he said.
A “Music Man” incorporates a traditional pueblo belt, but a galaxy of stars, treble clefs and quarter notes spangle his chest. A tribal tattoo embellishes his right arm.
The piece could be semi-autobiographical. Between building, painting and firing, he plays the guitar — specifically Dylan, Hendrix and U2.
The more traditional figures incorporate Mimbres designs and traditional pueblo clothing. A corn mother figure comes with a tiny ear of corn and a grinding stone. A kneeling female in prayer wears a gold medallion and comes with a tiny blanketed baby to be placed at her feet or cradled in her arms.
“I was thinking about how much the Catholic Church has impacted pueblo society,” he said. “They kneel down and pray. It’s that spiritual connection between that person and their God.”
And canteens are a new item he started making about two months ago as a break between bobbleheads. He decorates them with Mimbres designs or a more contemporary face: Mickey Mouse. Corn husks sprout from the spout, while multicolored parrot feathers dangle from a braided leather strap.
He gathers the red clay from a spot off Interstate 25 and La Bajada. The paints are a mixture of traditional and commercial pigments to ensure that they adhere properly. He polishes each piece thoroughly with a stone before firing to rid it of all cracks.
“In the spring of this year, I had three pieces bust on me,” he said. “Sometimes, it’s moisture. Sometimes it’s the clay itself. There’s not too much (you can) control. It’s a lot of faith. It humbles you.”
He fires his pieces with piñon and cedar, using both a kiln and the traditional outdoor pueblo firing.
“They don’t come to life until I do the outdoor firing,” he explained. “The fire element touches life into it. When you just have a kiln fire, it’s too commercial. There’s no zest. It’s the soot that imbues itself into the piece.”
Before turning to clay, Loretto worked in construction and made jewelry. But silver and turquoise can be pricey.
He started making pinch pots as a cash-strapped teen after walking past the artists under the Palace of the Governors portal.
“It clicked to me that these people weren’t paying for their material because it was free,” he said. As he slowly grew from pinch pots to the Native coil method, he consulted with his cousin, famed Cochiti potter Diego Romero. Soon he was creating bowls.
“I tried a couple of storytellers, but it never really stuck with me,” he added.
Then Ralph Lauren hired Loretto to make a line of concha belts. Oprah Winfrey bought one. But Loretto soon tired of the factory-like atmosphere of the production line. He made from 500 to 700 a month.
“It was just cutting, cutting metal and soldering,” he said. “I went back into construction.”
He doesn’t mind teaching other potters his methods; he doesn’t care if anyone copies him.
“I’m not selfish,” he said.
He’ll gladly take commissions. So far, no one has asked for DiMaggio.
“I don’t put too many boundaries on art.”
Loretto’s bobbleheads sell for $900-$1,500. The canteens are $300.
Loretto studied at the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute and the Institute of American Indian Arts. When he was making jewelry, he worked with noted designers like Bagley & Hotchkiss and Ralph Lauren. His work has been featured at the Wheelwright, at IAIA, the Tower Gallery in Pojoaque, the Hui’noeau Visual Arts Center in Hawaii and at the Vermont Studio Center. He made his Indian Market debut in 2011.