SANTA FE, N.M. — Though she goes in to each piece with a plan for what she wants to create, sculptor Kathleen Wall says she can’t fight what her figures want to be.
She talked while working at her Jemez Pueblo home/studio, forming the head of one of her signature Koshari figures. As she was coiling small bits of clay to develop the shape of its face, she mentioned how – without intention on her part – the chin was now pointing upward.
She didn’t choose that pose, she says, explaining that she often lets this kind of thing happen on its own.
“I’m very comfortable letting the clay make a lot of the decisions,” Wall said.
The award-winning artist, known for taking cultural pottery traditions and evolving them into her unique style of playful, multi-sized figurative sculptures, describes her work as a translation of her “personality and spirit” into a physical form.
“I believe all artists, when they make art, they’re making self-portraits in different lights of themselves and different mediums of themselves,” she said. “However passionate you feel about a certain subject or a certain idea or just you yourself, it comes out in your art.”
Wall, who has been showing her work at the Santa Fe Indian Market for more than 20 years, will be one of the nearly 1,000 artists participating in the two-day spectacle next weekend.
Wall was also one of 26 female market artists selected to decorate a series of hand drums to be auctioned off as a part of this year’s theme of showcasing the strength and resilience of Native women. U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland is also creating one of the drums, according to Amanda Crocker, spokeswoman for the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts Association. Twenty-five percent of the proceeds will go toward the Albuquerque-based Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women.
Wall, 47, who has been participating in Indian Market since she graduated from the Institute of American Indian Arts in her mid-twenties, described the market as a “family reunion” of sorts, a get-together with both her fellow artists and long-time clients she has grown close to over time.
“It’s just icing on top of the cake being able to make these connections with people and having this wonderful reunion at market every year,” she said.
Wall was raised in a family of artisans. She said her mother, potter Fannie Loretto, her father, educator and stone carver Steve Wall, as well as her grandmother and several aunts, helped influence her work. She described what she does as an evolution from storytellers, the traditional pueblo figurine that typically features a female figure and several babies, which she grew up creating and selling in stores across the state. She doesn’t remember how young she was when she started, but said the Covered Wagon shop in Albuquerque purchased a small storyteller baby figure of hers when she was eight years old.
As she got older and attended a magnet high school in Albuquerque that helped her pursue art, Wall says she noticed herself beginning to experiment with new ideas, and the pottery started to transition from “super traditional art to a contemporary voice.” And as she advanced her techniques to utilize coiling – adding on pieces in increments to create one larger form – as opposed to using just the pinch-pot techniques she learned growing up, she saw herself move from storytellers to more detailed figurative works.
Her sculptures today are largely of people – mostly traditional images of pueblo girls and women – as well as her popular Kosharis, whimsical pueblo figures often accented with corn-husk hats and leather cloths.
When asked what keeps her coming back to Kosharis, Wall said, “I honestly think that it allows me to express my joy. It allows me to express this really fun part of my personality, and I don’t have to be reserved in my stoic Native-ness.”
“And it’s really not me, anyway, to be this very serious Native person,” she went on to say. “I mean I am, of course – everyone is serious when they have to be, but overall I’m pretty light-hearted.”
And as her artistic style evolved, she said, so did the size of her pieces, setting them apart from other pueblo clay art. Though she makes a variety of small, medium and large pieces, some of her sculptures and bronze casts come up to Wall’s waist or higher.
“I don’t know how that happened,” Wall said. “When I learned how to make larger pieces, I had so much fun.”
Using the ‘gift of clay’
When speaking to the Journal last week, Wall said she was in her “crunch time” leading up to Indian Market.
“It’s about 18 hours a day from here on out; I don’t mess around,” said Wall, who had about five pieces still being put together, and a couple of dozen more figures and accessories like pots and platforms that were waiting to be sanded and painted.
During this pre-market period, Wall said she wakes up in the morning and gets straight to work. She said she likes to prop her computer up on her work table and marathon Netflix shows as she goes.
She makes her sculptures in the kitchen of a home on Jemez Pueblo that used to belong to her grandfather. She often spent time there as a kid, and although she moved around to different cities growing up, she described this space as her “home base.” Wall has used it as her studio for more than 20 years. She, her husband and three kids lived in Albuquerque until about four years ago when they relocated to the old home full-time.
Wall plans to bring about 20 original clay pieces to the market, and she typically puts out her figures cast in bronze – a medium she has been working in for the past 15 years – on Sunday as her other work begins to sell out.
She also plans to debut a set of paintings she created with clay sculptures placed front and center that act as three-dimensional extensions of the canvas. She has only shown them so far at the Heard Museum of Native art in Phoenix.
One that she plans to bring to Indian Market was a part of her “Native names” series. She made a clay figure inspired by her cousin, whose traditional pueblo name is “Shu nu pah’,” which she said translates to “all of the flowers.” On the attached canvas, Wall painted a variety of desert flowers.
For all of her clay work, Wall said, she still uses the traditional materials and gathering processes she learned from family members while growing up. Her clay is gathered about a half mile from her home, and the powdered pumice, a type of volcanic rock she mixes with it, is found in the foothills of the Jemez Mountains.
“My basis is very traditional,” she explained. “I live here, I respect the land I come from and I understand the gift of clay has been such an important and special part of my life.”
Wall showed how, after she combines the sifted clay and pumice, she adds in water and works it into the dry powder, which she noted is one of her favorite steps.
“It smells like rain,” Wall said as the water was seeping in. “Especially on a dry day.”
As she hand-builds her works – a process she feels is particularly “freeing” – nearly every sculpture starts out with a simple pinch pot, whether it’s for the figure’s feet or a torso. From there, she said, it’s “basic refinement” with the coiling.
Wall works on several pieces at once. She rotates through them, adding on small pieces of wet clay and covering up the exposed areas with plastic bags until they’re dry enough for more. She explained that if she builds too much, the piece will fall apart. This is how she has able make large pieces, Wall added, because by allowing edges to dry slightly before adding on, it effectively creates a strong base capable of bearing more weight by the time she reaches the top.
“This is what holds me captive to the studio,” she said of the building stage, explaining that the works need wet clay added on to them every couple of hours – sometimes shorter in the summer when the water in the air evaporates more quickly.
“I can’t go too far or else they’ll get too dry and you can lose them.”
Once the sculptures are completed, dried and smoothed, she sands and paints before they are fired in the kiln. The materials Wall melts down for pigments – she sticks to a traditional palette of brownish-red, black and creamy white – are also extracted from the ground near Jemez and closer to Santa Fe.
When talking about her pieces, Wall often refers to them as “he” or “she” rather than as inanimate objects. While sanding a sculpture of a girl in a flower-patterned dress, she referred to her as “sweet” and “precious.” And when pointing out one of her Kosharis on a table in her living room, she said she had recently made a pot for him because she felt bad that he didn’t have an accessory.
Many of her figures have some kind of handcrafted appurtenance, like decorated pots or stars. Wall said she won’t give those items away separately.
“They belong to the sculptures,” she said.