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The Spirit of Storytellers: The Penfield Gallery of Indian Arts

By Jim Caton

On San Felipe Avenue in Old Town Albuquerque, art enthusiasts will find the Penfield Gallery, one of the most vibrant hubs of Native American art in the country. Hundreds of Southwest artists of the Navajo, Zuni Pueblo and other tribes are currently represented by the gallery. A gallery of Indian arts bears important differences, though, to more conventional art galleries. Owner Ruth Reidy describes the important difference between native art and traditional European curated art: native art, she says, originated from "the evolution of more functional and utilitarian objects to their refined states as gorgeous pieces of pottery, baskets, and weavings. Native artists were trained with few exceptions by their family or friends on their tribal lands rather than formally in esteemed schools and universities as were many European artists."

Tunstall Store and Museum aka The Penfield Store in Lincoln, NM

Such family training and tradition are vividly on display at the Penfield Gallery, where some families are represented by as many as nine artists. Simply browsing the lists of artists on display at the gallery, seeing how one family member after another has mastered the art of stone carving or rug making, conveys a sense of living tradition. Whereas the focus of most American art galleries is on the individual artist in a kind of creative isolation, the art displayed at the Penfield Gallery is a celebration of family, community and heritage.

Among the gallery's most well-represented families are the Quandelacys, who carve some of the finest Zuni fetishes today. Zuni fetishes - small carvings of animals and other subjects in beautiful stone such as Picasso marble, jet, turquoise and lapis lazuli - are one of the most popular forms of Southwestern art, and to the aficionado, the Quandelacy family is well known. Each carved animal represents its own set of qualities; for example, the bear represents strength and independence. The trait is both symbolized by the fetish and thought to be conveyed by it. A line from the animal's mouth to its middle represents the heart, or spirit line by which life both emanates from the core of the being and is brought in. Faye Quandelacy, the family's artistic matriarch, specializes in carving corn maidens, while other family members have their own signature subjects. Particularly arresting is the way in which a fine artist works with the shape and colors of a stone, adapting the attitude of the carved being to the qualities of the material. When a pair of small, bright turquoise eyes is added, the effect can be brilliant.

Perhaps the most iconic Southwest native art form, however, is rug weaving. The Penfield Gallery represents over thirty Navajo artists who weave rugs in several distinct styles. Some of the styles, such the Chief and the Germantown, recreate designs that predate white settlement in the Southwest. While synthetic yarns and dyes are used, it is also common to find rugs woven of natural sheep's wool and using traditional, natural dyes. Other art forms on display include Adrian Leon's miniature Hopi kachina replica dolls, the beautiful cedar-carved santos (saints) by celebrated santero Ricardo Salazar, and woven baskets of many styles. Particularly captivating are the Navajo sand paintings. Intricate and delicate, these creations have only been permanently mounted and preserved since the late 1940's. Their religious ceremonial function, much like the sweeping up of the sand mandalas of Buddhist monks, includes their erasure at the end of the ceremony, and those Navajo sand paintings that are displayed and sold are altered somewhat from their original form in order to preserve the religious integrity of their making.

Then there are the storytellers. These ceramic figurines represent familiar figures, tales and storytellers themselves, embodying the very transmission of native cultures from one generation to the next. When asked what work she thinks best represents the overall mission of the gallery, Reidy knows just what it would be: "Either a Mary Toya Jemez storyteller with many, many children on her lap and arms on the receiving end of many wonderful stories about their Pueblo lives and their art forms evolving from primitive to advanced forms. Or a Navajo Tree of Life Weaving or Rug with many colorful birds and flowers giving life to the native creative instincts and spirit. That is, giving voice to all other forms of native art."

The Penfield Gallery of Indian Arts is located at 422B San Felipe NW in Albuquerque.

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An English teacher for twenty-five years, first at a college near Buffalo and then at...

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