SANTA FE, N.M. — A first-generation Navajo potter, Christine McHorse spent 23 years selling her wares – and winning awards – at the Santa Fe Indian Market.
But then, she decided, “I’d done that long enough.”
Instead, she expanded her horizons beyond the traditional shapes and began looping her favorite micaceous clay into fantastic new forms.
“Now I can do things I pull out of my brain, instead of the same old shapes,” she said recently in her Santa Fe studio. “I like to experiment.”
Her experimentation has led to her show, “Dark Light,” which has been traveling to sites such as Houston, Kansas City and Norman, Okla., before opening Jan. 24 at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in Santa Fe for her first one-woman show there.
The show grew from the interest of curators Garth Clark and Mark Del Vecchio, who sold her work at their gallery in New York before they moved to Santa Fe. They set up two shows of her work in New York City and one in the Netherlands, she said.
“Leaving Indian Market gave me freedom,” she said. “They are not interested in my work because I’m Native American, but because of its contemporary appeal.”
Ceramics experts Clark and Del Vecchio – they sold their gallery but run the international contemporary ceramics website cfileonline.org – said they discovered McHorse when they went to see the “Art Without Reservations” show at the American Craft Museum in New York in 2002. They were expecting, you know, an “Indian show,” when they saw “these three incredible pieces.”
“They had such spectacular form and were so well-produced,” Del Vecchio said.
“Her pieces are dynamically beautiful,” Clark said. “We ran the top gallery in the world for contemporary ceramics … . To us, it was the most innovative work we had seen.”
They immediately contacted McHorse to invite her to show her pieces in their gallery and got on a plane to meet her. In the process of becoming friends with her and her family, they also fell in love with Santa Fe and moved here six years ago.
Their connection with her cemented her move from the label of “Indian artist” to simply “contemporary artist” – but both men say they can see Native traditional forms and themes in her work. She simply carries them out to a more abstract level, they said.
Many people say they let the medium tell them what it wants to be – but that’s not the case with McHorse, they said. She sketches out her ideas and plans the design she wants, using tubing, double walls and other innovations.
“She has to force the clay to do something different,” Del Vecchio said.
With her work, McHorse says, “I’m speaking, not the clay,” Clark added. “She is breaking the line between sculpture and pottery-making.”
Museum curator Candice Hopkins calls McHorse’s work “groundbreaking.”
“I can see the indebtedness to (sculptor Constantin) Brancusi,” she said. At the same time, many artists such as Brancusi were getting inspiration from Native forms, so McHorse’s work in a way completes the circle, she noted.
“To see her forms with micaceous clay is a revelation,” Hopkins said.
Artist at work
In talking about her art, made by the very traditional and meticulous method of stacking coils of clay atop each other, McHorse’s hands move both tenderly and sensually over her vessels’ rounded surfaces.
“To me, they’re like embryos,” she said, stroking a work in progress, whose current light brown surface will be dried, sanded, covered with slip and polished before it is fired, with the oxygen sucked out to transform the clay to a black sheen.
McHorse said she has watched the color change through a window. “It was like a shadow came over it. It was so beautiful,” she said.
Her designs, which she sketches out as the ideas bloom in her mind, include intricate, sometimes almost Escher-like loops and spirals and spikes.
The challenge, once she has thought like an artist, is to then think like an engineer to figure out how those designs can hold their shape in clay.
“I get excited to where I can’t sleep at night thinking about it,” McHorse said.
She pointed to the lip she had created on a current project, explaining that it dries a bit and strengthens the bottom of a curving tube as she coils clay across the top to extend it.
“It drives me crazy sometimes because I think I know what I am doing,” but it doesn’t always turn out that way, she said.
Growing up in the copper mining town of Morenci, Ariz., McHorse said she had little exposure to the arts. But that changed in 1963 when her older sisters, already attending school in Santa Fe, lured her to join them at age 14. The Indian boarding school they attended was the precursor to the current college-level Institute of American Indian Arts.
“I was introduced to Picasso, to Gaudi, to Henri Matisse,” she said. “It opened a whole new world to us.” An inspiration wall in her studio includes postcards of works by some of those artists – and you also can find creations by her children and grandchildren, including a paper mâché rendering of ET by one of her sons.
That school also was where she met the boy who eventually became her husband, Joel McHorse, with a mixed heritage from Texas and Taos Pueblo. It was his grandmother, Lena Archuleta, who guided Christine McHorse’s potmaking with the local clays.
The couple also learned metal-working and jewelry design – and hauled down firewood and vigas from the mountain forests to sell on the pueblo, she said. Now they joke that they both work with mud: Christine with her pots and Joel with his business in adobe construction.
McHorse said they dig the clay for her works once or twice a year from veins between Taos and Picuris pueblos.
“I love the clay. It’s so beautiful. I use it to cook in,” she said, explaining that the mica gives it valuable thermal qualities.
It also gives a subtle sparkle to her work. In applying the slip to the final surface, she sometimes adjusts the application to give more sparkle in different parts of the sculpture, depending on how the light hits it, she said.
Nevertheless, metal and more may be in her future. She already has made a work in bronze.
“I get bored very easily,” McHorse said. “My work just has to evolve.”