A Modern Revolution

In 1958, Lloyd Kiva New was alone at the top of the Native American fashion world. Six years earlier, he had become the first American Indian to participate in an international fashion show. His designs were featured in the Los Angeles Times, and in 1957, Miss Arizona wore one of his dresses at the Miss America Pageant.

Yet for all his fame and commercial success, the Cherokee farm boy from Oklahoma never forgot where he came from, and when it came time to take the next big step, he said, in the Arizona Republic, “My next project will be the establishment … of a design laboratory. We’ll teach Indian boys and girls … how to make a living with their own native craftwork. I’d like to put the bead work of the Yuma Indians, and the native fabrics of the Navajo, Hopi, and Sioux into high fashion!” Astonishingly, New fulfilled that promise four years later, in 1962, when the Institute for American Indian Arts (IAIA) opened its doors in Santa Fe. His vision, however, went far beyond simply teaching young people how to sew beads on handbags. In IAIA’s first decade of existence, the school’s first generation of teachers and students would not only redefine Native American art, but establish themselves as stars in the world of international contemporary art.

Growing up on an Oklahoma farm, New saw washes of color and texture in riverbeds. He formed paints out of different pigments in dirt from the surrounding countryside, and created small sculptures from local clays. New’s mother nurtured her son’s artistic nature, and pushed the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to grant him a scholarship to attend the school of his choice: the Art Institute of Chicago. He flourished there, and became the first Native American to graduate from the Institute, in 1938. He taught art classes at the Phoenix Indian School for a couple of years, then decided to try out the world of Native arts business and sales. By the mid-’40s, he’d opened a fashion boutique in Scottsdale, where he sold leather purses, and was managing his own Indian arts–themed shopping complex.

New’s knack for integrating Native design elements into popular clothing styles established him as a notable designer. Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt even wrote about New’s complex in 1946: “On the whole, I think this will become a place where one can get truly American gifts of real value for those who enjoy craftsmanship and original design.”

New’s breakout success was an early victory in the battle over representations of Indian artists and definitions of Indian art. He recast Native American cultures as buzz-worthy and, most important, modern: Hosting fashion shows by resort pools, he advocated the importance of Native cultures to contemporary American identity. He was smart, adaptive, audacious, and charismatic.

At one point in the late 1950s, New had 15 assistants working under him; with the time for contemplation this mentor-apprentice system bestowed, he began brewing ideas for his “design laboratory,” and turned his focus back to Indian art education. These ideas came to fruition when he co-founded IAIA and became its first art director.

New wasn’t the only one in the 1950s advocating for new directions in Indian art. The Studio Style of traditional Indian painting established in the 1930s was fatiguing, and falling out of step with the spirit of the times.

 

Santa Fe was home to Dorothy Dunn’s Studio School for Native artists, based at the Santa Fe Indian School. The Studio had opened in 1932, and for 30 years promoted a flat style of watercolor painting, with subject matter limited to ceremonies, dances, and traditional stories. Several important artists came out of this school—including Pop Chalee, Joe Herrera, Allan Houser, Oscar Howe, Geronima Cruz Montoya, Quincy Tahoma, Andrew Tsinajinnie, and Pablita Velarde—but throughout those three decades, the Studio resisted change by institutionalizing a set of rules for Indian painting that aimed to keep it both sentimental and static.

When IAIA opened its doors 50 years ago, on October 1, 1962, all that changed. Although it started as an arts-based high school for Native students, it quickly grew to become the premier institution for the study of contemporary Indian art. The first decade of the Institute is often referred to as the Golden Years—a time when the school blossomed and became a nationally and internationally acclaimed institution that had a profound impact on the art world.

But before that could happen, its classrooms needed students. Recruiters went out into Indian Country to find kids like Kevin Red Star, who was living in Montana at the time. “I wanted to pursue art but I didn’t know where to go in Montana. There were fine schools there, but they weren’t emphasizing the arts in the universities,” the painter said in his video, From the Spirit. Red Star had never ventured south of Wyoming, and the thought of traveling to New Mexico was exciting; he decided to go for it. He boarded his first airplane and became a member of the IAIA’s first class of students.

The students were all young and not quite artists yet, and the campus still needed some finishing touches when classes began. Red Star remembers helping to unpack the furniture. What the school lacked in readiness, it made up for in the electric energy the students felt from the moment they arrived on campus. They found a high school, built on the old Santa Fe Indian School grounds, that had been revamped to reflect the new arts focus. The first class also helped set up some of the studios, stocked with top-of-the-line materials.

The first Superintendent, George A. Boyce, another co-founder of IAIA, made a concerted effort to hire Native faculty. The instructors at IAIA were known for creating avant-garde art, and they had an immense influence on the young student body. Red Star and students like him came from communities where Native American teachers were a rarity. Now their teachers were mentors and role models they could powerfully relate to.

For instance, Onondaga artist Peter B. Jones went to IAIA intent on studying commercial art (because that’s where the money was, he says), but he was strongly influenced by Otellie Loloma, a highly acclaimed Hopi potter and one of the Institute’s first instructors. “She could have been more famous than Fritz if she wanted,” he once said, referring to another instructor, Fritz Scholder, himself one of the most important artists to redefine Indian painting. Another established artist, Charles Loloma, had worked with New in Scottsdale creating Modernist Native jewelry. Allan Houser, who had been a student of the old Studio School in the 1930s, was respected as a good teacher and doubled as a father figure to many of the teens at this boarding school. The faculty and students of the Golden Years didn’t just witness the change in Indian art—they were creating it, while being mindful of their histories.

Red Star recalled that he didn’t really appreciate how unique and valuable his cultural heritage was until he went to IAIA. “I knew I was Indian and that was it.” For one project, instructor James McGrath had Red Star research Crow history in the library. To tell a Crow Indian to look up his own tribe in the library seems like a silly thing to do, but at this point in history, assimilation was a reality and cultural knowledge had been forcibly taken from many Native communities. Red Star was beginning the process of reclaiming his own history. After this project, Red Star was encouraged to compare his tribe with other Plains tribes, and through this route discovered just how distinct each tribe is. At this multi-tribe institution, Red Star stated, “We were all eager to understand each other and each other’s cultures.” Many students’ artwork began to take on a pan-Indian style, due to their exposure to each other’s cultural influences in courses with titles like Indian Aesthetics.

Karita Coffey, an assemblage artist who was a member of the second IAIA class and is now an instructor there, recalled, “Once I was aware of my identity, the only thing left was to give me materials, tools, and space to work. I was guided on my way, but the way was not dictated. I was encouraged to be truthful in my expression, not to simply duplicate that which was said by my ancestors.

“This became a curious mix of ancestral tradition and who I was at that time, in 1963,” Coffey continued. “It was believed that in this manner I could perpetuate the thread of my unique cultural heritage. This was an unusual way of teaching for the BIA [one of the IAIA’s original principal backers] in that day and time.”

Lloyd Kiva New took his experiences as a fashion designer to the classroom, where he had a reputation as not only a dynamic textile artist but someone who pushed his students to realize his early visions of success for the Native art community. “We had sessions once a week where Lloyd New or Dr. Boyce would address the student body on how to conduct yourself, how to go about having integrity in your work,” Red Star says, “and I think those pep talks were influential, in that we needed that encouragement for striving for quality, doing the best you can, never giving up.”

“Lloyd was an innovator’s innovator,” Native artist Marcus Amerman stated in a 2003 article on New in Indian Market Magazine. “I always say that you can’t teach innovation, but he knew how to identify talent, nourish it, and allow it to become.”

The IAIA students had a ball while they learned the foundations of art; it was, of course, the ’60s. They wore mod clothes and danced the latest moves. “We had Bob Dylan records blasting in the studios day and night,” Fritz Scholder says in the video Indian/Not Indian. But these students weren’t so much assimilating into pop culture as making it their own. Native drum music was heard in Modern Dance class and Beatles songs played in the Traditional Techniques classroom. Peter B. Jones says, “We created our own styles. That was the beginning of this movement.”

And there was more to the movement than art. The early 1960s was a critical time in Indian Country. Government policies of relocation and termination, which sought to end the nation-to-nation relationships between the U.S. government and tribes, were in full swing, threatening to dissolve Native people into the fabric of America. Racism and oppression were coming to a boil, and America couldn’t predict the changes that would come in the next 10 years. Indian Country was emerging from a dark time in its history—this was the moment just before the era of self-determination would begin.

Prominent writers and actors, along with influential political figures such as First Lady Lady Bird Johnson and Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, visited the campus to see what all the buzz was about. Student work surfaced in exhibits in New York and Washington, DC, and was enthusiastically received. Everyone wanted to see the successes of this experimental school. With this type of recognition, the idea was reinforced that, as Red Star explains, “This is possible and this can happen. You can be whatever you want to be.”

Life magazine even checked in with IAIA, publishing a special issue on Native peoples in 1967 and dubbing it “Return of the Red Man.” One passage highlighted the classrooms’ unique fusion of Indianness and American pop culture: “Shrill chanting and the beat of tom-toms echo across the campus while the sound of Diana Ross and the Supremes fills the workshops where students are engaged in pottery, sculpture, beadwork, and weaving.” Questionable word choice aside, Indian art was finally understood on a national scale as capable of being a contemporary creation.

During this decade, a number of influential artists attended IAIA, including T. C. Cannon, Doug Hyde, Linda Lomahaftewa, and Earl Biss. These students were the first generation of artists to effectively break free of the Studio Style.

Painting, sculpture, jewelry, performance, creative writing, fashion: Each of these forms fused a distinctive sense of Indianness with a 1960s bent. While students were encouraged to draw from their cultural backgrounds, they also drew inspiration from their contemporary experiences with popular culture. Bright pop colors, abstraction, and political messages all found their way into their art. Students created work that critiqued pop culture or ideas about identity—such as Peter B. Jones’s original ceramic piece Red Paint Can, which comments on hippies and Indian wannabes, and Alfred Young Man’s brightly hued painting My Family, which questions definitions of family and highlights how he, much like other alumni, saw IAIA as his family. Their raw and vibrant portrayals of Indians were an abrupt shift from what had been produced in the years before the school was founded, and continue to influence students to this day.

In 1966, a selection of student artwork was shown abroad—in Scotland, Berlin, Turkey, Argentina, Chile, and Mexico City—in a critically acclaimed traveling exhibit organized by James McGrath. This work catapulted Native American art beyond the boundaries of the United States, establishing contemporary Native art on an international level.

Half a century later, IAIA is experiencing another golden age. After its move in 2000 to its 140-acre Rancho Viejo campus just south of Santa Fe, the school was vitalized by a growth spurt. Several new buildings opened: the Center for Lifelong Education, the Sculpture and Foundry building, and the Science and Technology building, the last housing the Museum Studies and New Media departments, the Museum collections, and the innovative Digital Dome.

The current Institute’s leaders—president Dr. Robert Martin, academic dean Dr. Ann Filemyr, and Museum of Contemporary Native Arts director Patsy Philips—are faithful to the IAIA mission, always striving to provide students with the best possible tools to nourish their creativity and empower them with the ability to become leaders in the international art world. IAIA endures as the only institute in the world dedicated to the study and creation of contemporary Native American art. It never would have existed without Lloyd Kiva New, who long served as its president, and president emeritus, until his death in 2002, at age 86—his life’s mission accomplished.

“The Institute was vital to my creative development and that of many other Indian artists,” says Karita Coffey. “From this legacy of Institute artists came the core of what became known as contemporary Indian art.”