Painter Diana Stetson and Hopi jeweler Steve Wikviya LaRance shared their art in shows and their technique in lectures and demonstrations in Ashgabat as the two visual artists joined a delegation of three scholars from the Smithsonian, a chef from New York City and three bands – jazz, rock and bluegrass.
“I was honored to be invited, and went on a whim, not knowing much about the country,” Stetson says. “What I discovered was a sophisticated, proud, hospitable people and a delegation of Americans that was easy to resonate with.”
“It was definitely a unique adventure,” says LaRance, over tea recently at Stetson’s home and studio in the far North Valley. “We were treated like rock stars there. We were proud to represent New Mexico and the United States. It placed New Mexico in an elite category.”
Stetson and LaRance were part of U.S. Culture Days in Turkmenistan in late November, organized by the U.S. Embassy in Ashgabat, the country’s capital, an oasis city in the Karakum Desert on the ancient Silk Route.
The country, independent for 21 years, is one of the southernmost former Soviet Republics, just north of Iran and Afghanistan. Turkmenistan also borders Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and has a western coastline on the Caspian Sea.
Ojuljan Young, formerly of Turkmenistan and a resident of Albuquerque for a dozen years, is the local Sister Cities Foundation chairperson for Ashgabat. In a phone interview she says the cultural exchange was very beneficial for the developing relationship of the cities and the countries: “Albuquerque is the only Sister City of Ashgabat in the United States.”
Representatives from Ashgabat came to Albuquerque for the city’s tricentennial celebration, she says. The recent cultural exchange had many sponsors including Albuquerque Sister Cities Foundation.
“I think this is the kind of peacekeeping, peacemaking we can do as artists,” Stetson says at her home. “It was a cultural exchange: human to human, heart to heart. When I spoke to young painters there, I know I had an effect on them. We had discussions about us coming back.”
LaRance, of Hopi and Plains Indian descent, says he found out little about the country before he left, but what he found encouraged him: “I read that the guest is higher than the father, so I knew we would be treated well.”
Stetson, a full-time artist since 1985, has made fine-art printmaking her focus for more than 20 years, but began as a mixed-media artist, she says. She graduated from Reed College in Oregon, and with honors in advanced studies at the Roehampton Institute in London. She also studied in Japan and Hong Kong, with Asian influences still present in her work. Along with the recent show, her work has been featured in shows and galleries around the world and in the United States.
Stetson says because she has been making large-format prints in recent years, it was challenging to know exactly what to hang in the show at the National Museum of Art in Turkmenistan. She had to pack it all to fly with her, so more recent 4-foot by 4-foot paintings didn’t make it, she says.
“Scale matters to me,” she says, but she represented that with panels that could pack, but hang as a unified work. “I also very much appreciated their choice of a woman as a painter, especially as the delegation was presenting in a Muslim country, where there can be issues for women.”
Although much of the population is Muslim, Turkmenistan is a democratic, secular country with equal educational opportunities for women and men, Young explains.
LaRance played his Native flute and talked about Native American culture in one presentation and demonstrated his jewelry-making techniques in other master classes.
He and his wife, Marian Denipah of Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, use traditional tufa rocks, volcanic rocks that can be carved, to make their jewelry casts and then pour the molten silver or gold into them.
LaRance was a Smithsonian Artist Fellow in 2007 and his work has won many awards. It has been featured in museums in Washington, D.C., British Columbia, Canada, and Germany.
In many ways, LaRance says he found the people of Turkmenistan similar to American Indians of the Southwest.
“Their jewelry is timeless. Many of our ancient petroglyph symbols resemble their symbols. Culturally they are a tribal people and live in an arid land,” he says. “They had symbols for thunder, rain and clouds. They have respect and reverence for nature. Theirs was a horse culture. They were very interested in American Indians.”