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Dialogues in Indian artworks

Artist Courtney Leonard in her Santa Fe studio. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Artist Courtney Leonard in her Santa Fe studio. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The word “conversation” echoes throughout Courtney Leonard’s vocabulary like a mantra.

The Shinnecock Nation-raised, Rhode Island School of Design-educated artist explores the intersections of language, image and culture through ceramics, sculpture, painting and mixed-media. Her focus is to produce a dialogue between artist and viewer.

Leonard is one of more than 200 Native artists who will show their work at the Eighth Annual Winter Indian Market at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center Thanksgiving weekend. A miniature version of the mammoth summer market, the event will feature five open studio artists demonstrating their work and a screening of Class X film winners at 11 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday. World champion hoop dancer and Cirque du Soleil star Nakotah La Rance will perform with Native flutist Brian Frejo in a mix of hip-hop beats.

These sculptures feature whale teeth with decals and Delft patterns on top; a buoy shape is attached at the bottom.

These sculptures feature whale teeth with decals and Delft patterns on top; a buoy shape is attached at the bottom.

Raised on the Shinnecock Reservation at the east end of Long Island, N.Y., Leonard’s work spans both cultures and geography. The reservation’s location near both the Hamptons and New York City brings the contrast between the various worlds into sharp relief. Viewers will see the classic blue and white of Dutch Delftware next to transfers of antique whale drawings. Coiled micaceous clay sculptures curve into the shape of whale’s teeth. A tall vase/seed pot bears the imprint of cord-marked Jomon, an ancient form of Japanese pottery, with indigenous seed holes dotting the lip. Its S-shape resembles an Etruscan vessel minus the handle.

Porcelain shell-shaped bowls with Leonard’s “Pathways” line designs embellish a table. Representative of the magnified records and paths we take in life, the patterns come from Eastern Algonquian vessels. Leonard notes that the “mouth,” “neck,” “body” and “foot” become metaphorical links to human architecture. She reinterprets these traditional clay vessels that act as the carriers of tribal history through the currents of contemporary culture.

“I’ve been making the lines outside the pot,” she explained from her Santa Fe home studio, where she lives with her husband Frank Buffalo Hide (Nez Perce/Onondaga). “I’m out in the desert and I miss home.”

Water and whaling course throughout her work, from her tooth-shaped sculptures to the dangle earrings she crafts from porcelain. An artist-in-residence at the Museum of Contemporary Indian Art, she also teaches at the Institute of American Indian Arts.

This porcelain dish by Courtney Leonard features traditional tribal “pathway” designs. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

This porcelain dish by Courtney Leonard features traditional tribal “pathway” designs. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

“I always say tradition isn’t stagnant. When it’s stagnant, it’s like dead water,” she said.

Leonard’s piece “Contact 1,609” (2009) was featured in MOCNA’s 2011 “Counting Coup” exhibition. Leonard created a canvas and clay map of New York state to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the founding of the Hudson River.

“She did these porcelain thumbprints out of clay and incorporated the number of years. They hang off the canvas.”

Leonard embellished the shell-like pieces with her trademark Delft patterns, as well as images of both Henry Hudson and Jennifer Hudson.

“The idea of discovery is no one was there before,” MOCNA chief curator Ryan Rice said. “But the thumbprints represent all the people who were already there.”

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