Currents of tradition flow through generations of Taos Pueblo artists
Story and Portraits by Rick Romancito
In the winter not too long ago, Taos Pueblo kids would bundle up to carry metal buckets down to the Rio Pueblo from their adobe homes in the village. Sometimes they’d have hatchets in hand, which they’d use to hack holes in the ice. Armed with cold, clear water, they’d stagger back to their houses, where the heavy buckets would be placed on wood stoves to warm for use as wash water. Taos Pueblo artist Jonathan Warm Day Coming says this is what he often did to get ready for school.
It’s easy to romanticize this as a cultural snapshot of a time past, but the tribal council decided long ago to never have plumbing or electricity in the central pueblo area. So, if you need water for washing or drinking or cooking, you go down to the river to get it. In the mind of a Taos Native, there has always been something holy about it. Back when the people collected water in micaceous clay ollas, they did so knowing that this water originated at Blue Lake, high in the mountains above their village.
The lake’s sacred significance is ever present, especially this summer, as tribal members commemorate the 50th anniversary of its return from federal government control in 1970.
“Back when Theodore Roosevelt took our land in 1906 and made it a national forest, our people couldn’t hunt up there anymore and go up for religious doings,” renowned sculptor John Suazo says. “My grandfather, Jim Suazo, used to say the men used to go up there to hunt, hiding from the rangers. And they would hide during Blue Lake ceremonies, waiting until the tourists were done fishing.”
Blue Lake was revered for centuries before Spanish contact in the 16th century. The ceremonies conducted there are so sacred that the tribe prohibits sharing any information about them with outsiders. So, when President Roosevelt established the Carson National Forest in 1906—without informing the tribe that it included Blue Lake—this was an epic offense. Jim Suazo, in fact, was beaten over the head with a pistol by rangers who caught him hunting in the area, as chronicled in Frank Waters’ seminal novel The Man Who Killed the Deer.
Like the river connects the villagers with the lake, there are currents that connect the village with its artists, stemming from long-practiced traditions and beliefs, of which the Blue Lake is an integral part. These traditions and beliefs have influenced generations of Taos Pueblo artists, past and present, such as John Suazo, DeAnna Autumn Leaf Suazo, Dawning Pollen Shorty, and Jonathan Warm Day Coming.
The stone sculptures of John Suazo have a mythic grace, and much of his work stems from his love of stories, typified by imagery that often depicts women and children. He says his works are inspired in part by his late uncle Ralph Suazo, whose sculptures reflected the people and nature around the Taos Pueblo, and also credits his experience working with renowned Chiricahua Apache artist Allan Houser.
While Ralph worked primarily in cedar wood, John works in alabaster, limestone, and granite, which he may travel hundreds of miles to locate. Although now in his late 60s, Suazo says he is fighting the years as much as the weight of his medium. He feels that his efforts to forge ahead are always done with the shadow of his ancestors looking over his shoulder—and in the knowledge that his grandfather might approve.
DeAnna Autumn Leaf Suazo, a much younger artist, takes a turn from convention, drawing from Native traditions along with the aesthetics of Japanese anime. Her multimedia paintings, rendered in India ink, colored markers and pencils, and acrylic paint, have made patrons at Santa Fe Indian Market step back and reevaluate their ideas of what Native art really is.
The daughter of well-known artists Gary David Suazo and Geraldine Tso, Suazo began making art at an early age. One of her fondest memories is from the time she attended the Taos Pueblo Head Start as a young child. “We were drawing on the floor with crayons and I remember one of the teachers was like, ‘Oh wow, DeAnna, you put a neck on your person!’ And, for some reason, that memory always stuck. Why wouldn’t you put a neck on a human figure?”
This past spring, Suazo exhibited with the 63rd Annual Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair & Market in Phoenix. It was the first week of March and signs of the coronavirus emergency were already evidenced by diminished crowds. Suazo’s work, though, did not fail to impress, especially those works recalling the style of Plains Indian ledger art for which she has gained quite a following.
“My art now is about Indigenous women present today, so what I’m doing is incorporating traditional attire—of course, it’s pre-contact attire,” she says. Ledger art, created by Plains Indians, is rooted in pictographic imagery created on buffalo skins and other materials. Around the 1860s, this imagery was transitioned to the discarded ledger books of accountants. The lined and numbered pages notwithstanding, these drawings create an indelible account of life ways before the advent of photography. “The stories of ledger art, how these warriors and prisoners put down their stories on ledgers given to them while imprisoned, that’s what I do,” she says.
“We’re deep into our traditions. I’m Taos Pueblo and Navajo, but we’re also very modern and know how to balance the two . . . . For our tribe to be one of the first to get our land back from the US government was monumental. For so many Indigenous communities, their land was taken and they’re no longer able to do their ceremonies.”
Meanwhile, ceramics artist and teacher Dawning Pollen Shorty initially tried not to become an artist. She was born into a family steeped in the arts; her late grandmother Geri Track was a model for Taos Society of Artists painters and other family members, including her uncle, John Suazo, are well known. Still, as a teen, Pollen Shorty bristled at the idea that people would have “these preconceived ideas about who I was based on who my parents or my grandparents or my uncles are, you know, and I just thought like, hey, ‘Know me before you think about me! Maybe I want to be a scientist or I might want to be a veterinarian.’ I just felt like put into this box. I didn’t like it.”
She delved into archaeology and photography instead and now tells stories with clay. “I’m always looking to the past,” she says. “You just see this continuation of patterns that started a long time ago and are still being used today. And then you have a connection.”
The ceramic tradition at Taos Pueblo is primarily utilitarian, including the wide-mouthed olla used to collect water from the Rio Pueblo and small bean pots used for cooking, both made from local micaceous clay. It wasn’t until the 20th century when the tourist trade popularized the decorative pottery of other Pueblo tribes that Taos artists began incorporating figurative designs into pots made only as works of art.
“When I was developing my style, I was doing it from a purely aesthetic point of view,” Shorty says. “I just want to show people beauty and simplicity.” Always an innovator, Pollen Shorty’s work is becoming more satirical and political. “I don’t really show those pieces,” she says, “because the public isn’t ready. It’s from life. It’s from what happens. They’re too controversial.”
Jonathan Warm Day Coming also hails from an honored lineage that includes the Taos Pueblo painter Eah-Ha-Wa (Eva Mirabal), whose gouache and watercolor cartoons famously depicted World War II as well as pastoral Pueblo scenes. Works by both were shown together in a special exhibition at the Harwood in 2013.
Warm Day Coming grew up at the Pueblo, unlike many members today who live outside of the village, and that experience informed his personal vision. Within his artwork, one can glimpse an ideal image of Taos Pueblo life: women in traditional attire picking chokecherries and men singing at night on the middle bridge in the village, harvesting corn, and gathering water from the river. He works primarily in acrylic on canvas with a representational, illustrative style. In each of his paintings, there is an attention to detail without the hard-edged adherence of an academic’s approach. That’s because these are memories, and when fellow tribal members see his work, they nod in assent, for these moments are shared, part of the village community.
As Warm Day Coming began to develop his signature style, made famous by his painting Night for Songs and Stories that was used to promote the now-defunct Taos Talking Pictures in the 1990s, he was also writing. For many years he’s been working on a novel rich with personal insights from his upbringing. Another book nearing completion, written in collaboration with Lois Rudnick, is Eva Mirabal: Three Generations of Tradition and Modernity, the first comprehensive book about her art and life.
The contemporary art of Taos Pueblo flows from water, stone, earth, and the deep traditions of its people. During the fight for Blue Lake in 1969, tribal elder Severino Martinez said, “The Blue Lake is the lifeline of this country. This is what has been told by our forefathers and their elders. This Blue Lake is not only a lake, but the blessing that we get from that lake belongs to everybody.”
Western culture often has a need to understand by full disclosure, even if that admission may ultimately be discarded because it doesn’t fit a preconceived idea. In some respects, it would rather hold to a stereotype than a simpler truth. Martinez said as much when he stated, “We know this is true, although we do not know how to explain it or prove it to you who are not Indians.”
John Suazo puts it more directly. “We were here first. This is our land.” As is the Blue Lake.
A Blue Lake commemorative show at the Harwood Museum of Art in Taos, to be rescheduled to 2021, will exhibit works by local artists as part of a citywide initiative to acknowledge the fraught—yet ultimately triumphant—history of the neighboring Pueblo. R