SANTA FE, N.M. — With work spanning decades and media, Judy Tuwaletstiwa sees her solo show as a chance for her works to “speak to each other.”
For the first time, years of her art career will be sampled in the same space, ranging from work centered around healing after the Holocaust and the dropping of the atomic bomb, to her early explorations in paint, to a short film made recently about her artistic process.
But it won’t be until the actual installation of the exhibition at the Center for Contemporary Arts is complete, and as she returns over the next several months, that will she understand what the conversation is.
“I’ll better understand the relationships, in a sense; these different aspects of the psyche that are speaking to each other and then speaking to the viewer,” she said during a recent visit to her Galisteo home and studio.
Tuwaletstiwa’s “The Dream Life of Objects” opens Friday, kicking off CCA’s 40th anniversary programming. At the announcement of the solo show in April, Mayor Alan Webber – a friend of Tuwaletstiwa – called her “not only an artist, but a teacher.”
“She shares her art with others, and brings them into her life and her experiences,” said the mayor. “That really makes an artist more than someone who exhibits things, but really somebody who produces the connections that grow a community and passes along knowledge from generation to generation.”
The name of the show, Tuwaletstiwa explained, evolved from a phrase she heard from friend and local artist Tom Joyce: “the unpredictable life of objects.”
Joyce had told him about how she was using a water gourd, which he had gifted to her years before after a trip to Africa, as a stencil for a glass artwork. Later that same day, she also started to use her son’s childhood shoes as a stencil for shoeprint-shaped glass pieces that were eventually placed onto a large canvas.
“And I started thinking about how, 50 years ago, when I bought them for my son Robert, there was no way I could imagine that one day they would become a part of art,” Tuwaletstiwa recalled. “And then I thought, oh, the ‘Dream Life of Objects.’ ”
She said the shoes got her reminiscing about her kids as innocent children playing together. She compared it to how the mere outline of a child’s shoe made with glass could evoke a similar feeling of innocence.
“And I’m always amazed by that, how those shoes actually in their essential quality – some would say abstracted, I think of it as essential – they end up being very innocent and we can all identify with them,” she said. “And they seem to touch something in us. I didn’t expect that to happen … .”
At the center of her exhibition will be photographs of objects that have personal significance to Tuwaletstiwa and helped her “dream” the artwork for the show: a 1940s-era typewriter; a ladder made by the Dogon people in Mali; old family belongings; sand from Iwo Jima; a photo of the wing of a crow that she used for an art piece. Visitors can take an image that speaks to them, but in return they have to leave a message about an object that means something to them. The writings, she said, will become the catalogue for the show.
Life as a ‘woven structure’
Though the work in the show goes back to 1987, she described the collection as an “introspective” rather than a retrospective. Most of the works, she said, haven’t been shown publicly and are being borrowed back from collectors.
The 78-year-old Los Angeles native, who has had a home outside of Santa Fe for nearly 15 years, lived on the Hopi reservation with her husband for about 12 years before coming here. Since age 30, she’s been began creating art across all media. But she says she doesn’t feel like she’s worked in different materials, because every material has felt like it led to the next.
She started with weaving, which evolved into working with paper. That later turned into painting, and the painting eventually was mixed with natural materials, like feathers and sand. Now she works primarily with sand, but by turning it into glass. The sand is fired very low so the glass for her canvases is opaque and sandy-feeling.
All of her work, she said, is rooted in tapestry weaving. It made her see the world as a “woven structure.”
“Everything is woven,” said Tuwaletstiwa. “You can’t treat it as separate. And it’s the material that taught me that.”
Part of the show that dates back to 2006 is a 25-part piece made from remains of a dead crow she found on N.M. 41 leading to Galisteo. The 12-by-12-inch display boxes that will be hung in a line in the CCA Tank Garage feature arrangements of the feathers and bones. She explained that the display honors the crow’s spirit and beauty in its death, noting the way birds have been revered in societies across the world throughout centuries.
“They are some of the most beautiful creations in this universe,” she said. “So to find the bedraggled dead crow on the side of the road was a gift in a sense, a strange gift in a sense, that I had to honor”
Another part of the show is inspired by finding “resolution” as a way of healing after the Holocaust and the U.S. dropping of two atomic bombs during World War II.
A large triptych, made between 2007 and 2013, was in part inspired by a now-famous 1943 propaganda photo of Nazis taking Jewish people out of the Warsaw ghetto. She spent time looking close up at the image’s faces and items. She noticed that the child at the center of the photo, known as the “Warsaw Ghetto boy,” had a patch on his jacket. In the midst of terror, that patch was “sewn with love,” she said.
Focusing on that, two parts of the triptych are full of lines sewn with linen and camel hair. In the middle, she constructed cocoon-like structures from paper to represent protection.
She named the piece “Das Buch der Fragen,” or “The Book of Questions.” Following tragedies like the Holocaust, she said, there are no answers.
“Being an artist to me is not about answering (questions), it’s about speaking, from where you’ve been placed as an artist, to the question of our day, not expecting to find any answers, only to be able to enter into the mystery more deeply,” she said.
A series she calls “Trinity/Ashes” was made several years ago with the help of Karen Willenbrink-Johnsen. One of them, a 3-inch-diameter black sphere, symbolizes the amount of plutonium it took to destroy Nagasaki, Japan, which, along with Hiroshima, was hit by an atomic bomb in 1945. She showed how the ball is small enough to hide in her hand. A picture she took with the black sphere was inspired by a similar one in photographer Robert Del Tredici’s 1987 book, “At Work in the Fields of the Bomb.”
“I was very struck by the fact that the human hand can make and destroy,” said Tuwaletstiwa.
In another set of three clear glass spheres, she and Willenbrink-Johnsen filled them with ash from a burnt tree and gold leaf from her days on the Hopi reservation. Though each contained the same materials, they all came out differently. In one, the gold leaf spread around the sphere, while the ashes bound together and floated as a clump. In the second, the materials formed a shape resembling a nuclear bomb’s mushroom cloud. The third created a cocoon-like shape, similar to those made of paper on her triptych.
It’s unplanned moments like that, she said, in which the materials symbolize what the artist is thinking.
“That goes to the heart of the creative process for me,” she said. “Sometimes the work transcends us.”