SANTA FE, N.M. — The word “conversation” echoes through 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. She focuses on producing a dialogue between artist and viewer.
Leonard is one of more than 200 Native artists showing 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 both Saturday and Sunday. World champion hoop dancer and Cirque du Soleil star Nakotah La Rance will perform with Native flautist Brian Frejo in a mash-up of hip-hop beats.
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 two 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 whales’ 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. Symbolic of the magnified records and paths we take in life, the patterns come from Eastern Algonquin 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 Hyde (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.
“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. The artist 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,” MOCNA chief curator Ryan Rice said.
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,” Rice continued. “But the thumbprints represent all the people who were already there.”
Rice chose Leonard as the museum’s next artist-in-residence in part because of that multiple focus.
It’s “the ecological work she is doing on whaling and how it was a tradition there but has now become non-practicing,” he said. “She’s looking at that disjuncture. And her jewelry incorporates images from the traditional pottery from her area.”
The whale motif strands directly from Leonard’s heritage; Shinnecock men were dugout canoe-paddling whalers until the government banned it off the coast of Long Island in the late 1800s. The daily lives of the tribe had revolved around the land and the waters surrounding it.
Today, the Shinnecock number about 1,400 people, according to the tribal website. Federal recognition came in 2010 after thousands of years of documented history and 32 years of struggle with the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Leonard juried into her first Indian Market last summer. She sold enough work to cover her expenses and claimed two ribbons: both an honorable mention and a second place in sculpture. She was happy to talk about her work to curious shoppers more accustomed to pueblo pottery and silver jewelry.
“My life is layered,” Leonard explained. “I’ve travelled a lot. A lot of the blue and white is a reflection of Delft pieces.
“I’m not saying, ‘This is the rain cloud.’ I’m referencing my human relationship to yours.”
Her pieces commenting on the monied playground that has become the Hamptons slice deeply into both humor and hubris. Two paintings show slinky runway models topped by seagull heads.
“We were the shore people,” she explained. “Then we moved inland during the winter.”
The Hamptons gentrified during the ’20s and throughout the “Great Gatsby” era, mushrooming into a wealthy haven by the 1970s. Today this enclave of the uber-rich borders the Shinnecock reservation.
“When I grew up there were a lot of berries,” Leonard said. “We would go out strawberry picking. But the wealthy people raised the fences for their views.
“My bay neighbor is Calvin Klein’s summer home,” she continued. “Two weeks out of the year you see the lights on. In the ’70s, those homes weren’t there.
“It doesn’t matter about the environment; it’s about money.”
One of the famed designer’s models also appears on a whale tooth sculpture, complete with an antique whale decal and Leonard’s signature blue and white Delft motif. She reproduced the antique whale block print using digital manipulation.
Lately she’s been adding the image by burning a laser jet printer into watercolor paper.
“This becomes my canvas to paint,” she said. “I’ve made my own whale log stamp.”
Each of her siblings boasts connections to the water. Her brother is a marine biologist at the New England Aquarium; her sister is in law school studying water policy.
Her 3-year-old daughter Néepa Wotáhomon, or “Strawberry Moon,” has other ideas; she loves to hike.
“I thought I’d have a water baby,” Leonard said, “but I have a mountain baby.”