Native Innovators

A look at some of New Mexico's 'It Artists'

Rose Simpson

As emerging artists go, Rose B. Simpson has been coming on really strong really fast: Five years ago she was a college art student, playing in a band called Chocolate Helicopter. Now she’s a delegate to Santa Fe’s UNESCO Creative Capital sister city, Icheon, South Korea, and at 28 years old is one of the youngest artists represented by Chiaroscuro Contemporary Art, a major Santa Fe gallery. An Albuquerque Journal art critic praised Simpson’s sculpture Reach (from her 2011 Chiaroscuro show) as being “as surefooted and convincing as a sculpture can be.” Simpson’s follow-up show, at the gallery through September 8, will, she promises, feature work inspired by “empowerment and freedom [rather] than attempting to understand life’s complications.”

Growing up at Santa Clara Pueblo in a family of world-renowned artists, writers, and poets, Simpson has been surrounded by art and creativity all her life. As a child, she often sat beside her mother, celebrated sculptor Roxanne Swentzell, as she worked with clay. Her father, Patrick Simpson, is an artist who orks in metal and wood.

It all shows. Beyond the aesthetic strength of Simpson’s art lies a powerful and profound sense of spirit and a deep, ever-flowing connection to the Pueblo culture of the Tewa people. Her work, she says, is all about challenging stereotypes and bridging gaps between the Indigenous and European cultures represented by her parents.

Simpson’s early-childhood-as-master-class in clay work undoubtedly forged an extraordinary bond between the artist and the medium of clay. It also shaped her outside-looking-in perspective on mainstream culture. In an episode of Artisode on New Mexico PBS, Simpson expanded on the concept of media while sculpting feet and legs out of clay, her impassioned words never derailing the hypnotic movements of her hands: “I think a lot of media is really abusive to our consciousness. … I work with media, media being comic books—even graffiti art is media. And how do you take control of the media and make it something positive that induces consciousness rather than unconsciousness? When I watch TV, I feel so detached from the earth, from the way I feel, from the things around me.

“I was homeschooled,” she continued. “We grew all our own food. I wanted to be mainstream. We didn’t have a television, I didn’t get most of the jokes, but I did find my own perspective of seeing something. What my parents gave me—those perspectives—was a gift.”

After attending the University of New Mexico for three years, Simpson studied Studio Arts at the Institute of American Indian Arts, receiving a BFA in 2007. Shortly thereafter, she enrolled at the Rhode Island School of Design, graduating in 2011 with a Master of Fine Arts degree in Ceramics. Last year’s show at Chiaroscuro, Thesis, comprised RISD work. Its fragmented figures—“fierce and fragile,” said the Journal—depicted human forms locked in struggle.

“My expression is a boil-over of soul, a reflection-provoking evolution,” explained Simpson in her artist’s statement. “By processing what is very personal, I may present a predicament, suspend disbelief, or explore an alternative in order to harmonize with humanity.”

Simpson’s greatest artistic influences include her aunt, prominent sculptor Nora Naranjo-Morse; her stepfather, Cochiti potter Diego Romero; and, of course, her parents.

“What is so brilliant and enjoyable about Rose is her ability to enrich the world around her,” says Swentzell. “Everything in her world becomes more than a person, place, or thing. It is Rosie-infused: rich with meaning and feeling.”

When asked where she sees herself and her work in the future, Simpson replies, “I see myself loving growing up, enjoying life and its gifts of experience more gracefully than before. I am already appreciative of how much my perception of the world has changed in the last few years. I am less reactionary and [more] open to view experiences as opportunities to learn something new, rather than judging them quickly. If I keep moving in this direction, the next 10 years or 20 years are going to be glorious, no matter what happens.

“I feel that if I can learn from something I make, maybe, just maybe, it can reach someone else in the way it reached out to me. If I feel awakened by a product of a creative experience, then I hope to awaken others, too.”

By Rosemary Diaz

Rulan Tangen

Rulan Tangen brings a background in ballet, modern, and Native dance to her choreography.

Rulan Tangen

Thirteen years ago, when Rulan Tangen, founder of Santa Fe’s Dancing Earth—one of the preeminent companies of contemporary Native American dance in the U.S.—came to live in her adoptive state, her arrival was not exactly heralded by trumpets and obscured by confetti. She hitchhiked into town.

“I was going from job to job to job, then suddenly one of the jobs got canceled and I was sleeping on someone’s floor in New York. Again!”

Tangen had been thinking about New Mexico for 10 years, but none of her touring jobs ever brought her here. “And then that weird magnetic pull was happening. I had maybe $300 in my pocket, and hitchhiked with a powwow dancer from New York to Albuquerque. I took a bus to a youth hostel in Santa Fe and then walked to the Plaza.”

Tangen almost immediately met a fellow dancer, a stranger, who invited her to his dance class. In the class she met many of the other serious dancers in town, some of whom were soon asking if she wanted to travel to a Pueblo to teach a class, others offering to teach her to drive.

The kismet of that day had a lot to do with her characteristic approach. “Rather than arriving here and saying, ‘OK, Santa Fe, what can you do for me?’ ” she recalls, “I arrived with gifts to share.”

In the ensuing 13 years, Tangen has had a significant impact on dance in New Mexico, working tirelessly as a teacher in tribal communities and pursuing a revolutionary vision of creating a contemporary path for Native dancers, work that her Narragansett colleague, Anemone Mars, describes as “bringing into living motion the dreams of First Nations.” Since she founded Dancing Earth in 2002, Tangen and her troupe have performed their creations in four countries, 10 states, and dozens of venues. Dancing Earth’s musicians, dancers, videographers, and designers represent 30 indigenous nations, from Hopi to Blackfoot, Mayan to Maori.

 

Tangen was born in Oxford, England, where her backpacking mother alighted briefly during a European trip. Her father, a Metis (a partially indigenous ethnic group recognized in Canada but not in the U.S.), struggled with mental problems and was never a part of her life. Her peripatetic single mother raised Rulan and a younger brother in Cambridge, Massachusetts, San Francisco, and points between. Determined to be a dancer, Tangen finished high school in San Francisco when she was 16 and moved to New York to study ballet.

As Tangen broadened her education to include modern dance, the late choreographer Miguel Valdez Mora encouraged her to explore her indigenous heritage through her art. She attended powwows all over the Northeast, the upper Midwest, and Canada, and in the process, she says, was adopted “in a naming ceremony by Grandmother Geraldine of the Lakota/Dakota Sioux after a long period of initiation.”

Though she was enjoying success in both ballet and contemporary dance with a schedule that was filled nearly year-round, Tangen struggled to unite her non-Native expertise and training with her quest for an indigenous cultural identity. “Could the stories and mythologies, the histories, the science, the ways of managing a society,” she constantly wondered, “be translated into dance?”

She felt that New Mexico was more evolved in being able to see Native Americans as contemporary people, and “with a strong Native American visual art presence, I felt it would be a great place for performance art as well.”

Those first few years in New Mexico were a whirlwind: housesitting for actor and fellow choreographer Raul Trujillo in Madrid, teaching dance classes on the Pueblos, learning to drive, working with prominent Santa Fe choreographers Rosalee Jones and Julie Brett Adams, and then, in 2000, joining Robert Mirabal’s production Music from a Painted Cave and going on tour to 80 cities in three months.

When she returned from the road, Tangen was plagued by constant headaches, and eventually discovered that she had developed squamous-cell carcinoma of the head and neck. It took her nearly two years to fully recover.

“When I came out of it, I could no longer serve anyone else’s vision, because I was too weak,” she recalls. “I couldn’t even tie my own shoes, but still I had to work.”

Tangen embarked on several collaborative projects, the most notable of which was with artist Virgil Ortiz, for La Renaissance Indigene, at the Heard Museum in Phoenix in October 2004. She describes the event as a “contemporary expression of ancient principles. It was exactly what I was aspiring to … gathering music, art, performance, fashion and film. All made by collaborators, all of whom brought their worldview into the process.”

Tangen’s efforts to contemporize indigenous art and performance have brought her to the attention of academia. She has lectured and led workshops at schools such Stanford, U.C. Riverside, and Humboldt State. In 2010, Dancing Earth received a prestigious grant that allowed them to tour their original production Bodies of Elements to 45 performance sites across the U.S. and Canada. Tangen and company will premiere their newest work, Walking on the Edge of Water, at the Lensic Performing Arts Center on September 28 and 29, and have invitations to perform it through 2015 in Mexico, New Zealand, Canada, Colorado, and California. The piece is based on traditional indigenous views of water and ecology, and Tangen hopes that, each time the dances are performed for a community, she can integrate some of that community’s perspectives into the work.

“I see my work more in terms of mosaic and metaphor,” she says. “Then I gather these up and come back to the company and see how it resonates on their bodies.”

By Kent Black

 

Virgil Ortiz

Virgil Ortiz displays a VO limited-edition Kootz silk scarf.

Virgil Ortiz

Fashion Designer and Artist Virgil Ortiz joins Nikki and Candace Gonzales Walsh, Managing Editor of New Mexico Magazine on a recent KASA Fox TV segment to share his art and fashion designs. Watch it here

Cochiti Pueblo, 54 miles north of Albuquerque, is most widely known as the home of Tent Rocks National Monument: surreal slot-canyon formations, sculpted over geologic time, that elicit disoriented, gobsmacked wonder.

Cochiti is also the home to artist/designer Virgil Ortiz. From the outside, Ortiz’s live/work adobe studio blends in with the modest structures around it. But once you step through the door, the interior reveals itself to be the doppelgänger of an urbane, hush-hush underground club. Chill beats pulse from a sound system. Low, black-leather furniture hugs the floor. Large, bold paintings jump off gunmetal-painted cinderblock walls. Ortiz’s striking model/muse, Leslie Elkins of Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, strikes poses against a roll of seamless paper spooling down from the ceiling—once again, disoriented wonder is the natural response.

It’s hard to kick the (not unpleasant) sensation of being in a movie—Ortiz’s movie. Immersed in his multimedia laboratory, amid projects both complete and in progress, various creations compete for attention. Where to begin? Fashion design? Sculpture? Photography? Let’s start at the beginning, with pottery.

“We were always just raised with clay in our hands,” Ortiz has said. “And I just thought that everybody did pottery. It never dawned on me that it was any kind of artwork.”

Ortiz has been selling clay work at Indian Market with his family his entire life (he remembers piling into the station wagon packed with family and pottery before dawn), and won his first awards from the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA) at the age of 14. He began innovating with his family’s traditional monos (figures) after coming across late-1800s Cochiti figurines that depicted the carnivalesque folk seen in traveling sideshow acts: bearded ladies, conjoined twins. The black-and-white graphic patterns used on his figures and pottery are not merely decorative. Each motif is a Cochiti symbol: A sine-wavy line means water, groupings of vertical lines represent rain and kiva ladders, lines with spiraled ends represent creative force, and circles represent the sun, moon, and ova. The wild spinach symbol depicted on his work (two overlapping leaves with a circle between two leaf points) is the plant used to make the black dye used on his pottery—and it’s his family’s signature.

A decade ago, such imagery caught the eye of Donna Karan’s design director, launching a collaboration. In the spring of 2003, supermodels walked down New York’s fashion-week runways in smart frocks emblazoned with Cochiti prints.

“It gave me the guts to do my own line,” says Ortiz, 43, who has a boyish smile and salt-and-pepper hair. He introduced a line of leather outerwear, handbags, and scarves, while also creating more pottery. Ortiz also launched his own fashion line, Indigene, and a Made in Native America T-shirt collection, sold on his website (virgilortiz.com). Solo shows of his pottery at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, the New York National Museum of the American Indian, and the Museum Het Kruithuis in the Netherlands (to name a few), followed. He was named a United States Artists Fellow in 2007 (USA is a philanthropic organization that gives 50 artists $50,000 grants each year). In May, Ortiz traveled to Paris to present a piece called Vertigo at the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art, within a larger exhibition of 40 indigenous artists called Histoire de Voir: Show and Tell. While he was there, his clothing line was picked up by the Parisian boutique Colette.

Vertigo: A Spin on Tradition, Reviving the Past is aptly titled. A riff on a photo taken in the 1880s by George Benjamin Wittick, a photographer primarily known for the (often staged) pictures he took of Native Americans and their culture in New Mexico, it depicts a gathering of monos arranged in front of a trompe l’oeil background of Santa Fe. Ortiz restaged the photo using an almost identical composition, but this time it was a gathering of Cochiti monos with the backdrop of a photo Ortiz took of the Charles Bridge in Prague. Ortiz has reclaimed the imagery and made it a part of his story of global wandering in search of inspiration and experience.

Another model rolls in a few minutes later: Steven Paul Judd, a Kiowa and Choctaw filmmaker in town for the Gathering of Nations Powwow, in Albuquerque. Within a few minutes, he is transformed from a post-party guy in aviator shades and jeans to a futuristic warrior in black-leather pants and heavy boots, adorned with graphic body paint and tradition-tinged weaponry.

Ortiz explains that his latest project, Venutian, is a futuristic mashup of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and a Star Wars–like epic drama. “It shows the Pueblo Revolt in a superhero kind of way. When I was growing up, we didn’t have those heroes to think about.” When a related show, Velocity, debuted at King Galleries in Scottsdale, Arizona, last March, the work included both photographs and pottery figures whose streamlined silhouettes were a marked departure from traditional monos. Yet they are still storytellers —characters that play specific roles in Ortiz’s futuristic mythos—and they bear the signature markings of their maker.

Ortiz is not just devoted to providing a sustaining body of lore to younger generations of indigenous Americans. He hopes to discover, mentor and inspire young Native American aspiring fashion designers across the country with a program that is now in the planning stages. “I’m also willing to share all the manufacturing knowledge that I’ve gathered,” he says, noting that it was hard-won. What’s on the horizon? Ortiz hopes to create a film of the Venutian story, as well as a series of comic books—not just to slake the country’s thirst for action fantasies, but to provide younger Native generations with “a story of where they’re from … that gives them something to look up to.”