JEMEZ PUEBLO – In the graceful world of Kathleen Wall, the clay sifts beneath her fingernails, rounds into figures and squares into adobe, its moistness as fragrant as rain.
Recognized for creating sacred koshare clowns with Chicklet grins, the Jemez Pueblo artist has returned home from 10 years in Albuquerque to create a body of work intertwining clay with painting. The results of “Harvesting Tradition” will be in Santa Fe’s Pablita Velarde Museum of Indian Women in the Arts beginning July 5.
Featuring figures of various tribes gathering, preparing or harvesting Native foods, the idea had been percolating in the artist’s mind for years.
Wall has been making storytellers from Jemez Pueblo clay for as long as she can remember, following in the traditional steps of her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. The open-mouthed and seated clay figures are usually surrounded by a clutch of children.
Wall learned how and where to dig the clay and the pumice used to strengthen it, sifting, mixing and hand-coiling it into works of whimsy. She began selling her figures at 16. One day, a storyteller body dried before she could attach the children. It sold anyway, cementing her style.
But Wall longed to evolve beyond the beguiling figures with the chocolate eyes and button noses. She returned to school at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe to complete her bachelor’s in fine art degree, graduating this year. “Harvesting Traditions” is her senior thesis.
Determined to start another body of work, she had been contemplating the idea of food when her husband was diagnosed with diabetes.
She decided to return to the clay.
The family (she has three young children) moved back to the pueblo and into the two-room adobe home Wall’s grandfather built to raise 11 children in the 1940s. The Ponderosa pine vigas he dragged from the mountains on horseback hang over the kitchen table where she coils her clay.
“There was the whole health aspect,” she said, her smile mirroring the perfect dentistry beaming from her sculptures. “I found myself over-consuming and getting involved with things that weren’t healthy. One of my cousins used to tease me and tell me when he went into my son’s room it was Toys R Us.”
The family also had become addicted to junk food, she added.
“My kids can run out the door and I’m not freaking out,” she continued, glancing at the red cliffs looming above the Rio Grande like sacred awnings. “We’re surrounded by family. They’re not asking to go to Walgreens or Walmart.”
Wall’s fingertips reach for the clay like diving rods for water, smoothing a rope into an extension of a woman’s arm. She discovered clay in a nearby arroyo while she was living in Santa Fe. She found it again in Oklahoma during a trip to her husband’s Cherokee homeland.
The new pieces stand in various stages of production around both the kitchen and living room/bedroom corners.
Three damp Cherokee figures stand and stoop, carefully rendered “woven” clay baskets at their feet. An acrylic painting of a wild onion field will hang behind them.
A walking Navajo woman wearing socks and moccasins strides across the kitchen counter, awaiting her backdrop of a winding trail of sheep.
Ojibwe women winnow rice from a river in a painting behind a clay canoe decorated with winding floral vines.
A pair of grinning Hopi women kneel and grind corn atop metates (traditional grinding stones) before a painting of their adobe home, clay baskets holding ears of corn.
Three Iriquois sisters await their palette as dancers symbolizing beans, corn and squash.
“As the corn grows, the beans vine up the corn and the squash shades it so weeds don’t grow up,” Wall said.
Her clay “Rabbit Hunter” figure wields a “rabbit stick” before a painting of a prancing jackrabbit.
Wall knows her family has already outgrown their tiny pueblo home. She will eventually build a larger house on her family’s pueblo land.
“I lived here as a child,” she said. “Sometimes there was no electricity. It was just this old adobe house. But I was happiest here.”