Our first acquisition of a painting by the artist Mateo Romero (b.1966) marked a significant change in our collecting of Native American art. We had been totally focused on works by the Hopi until we “discovered” this artist from Cochiti and Pojoaque Pueblos and fell in love with his work. He has since become one of a very few artists that we have collected in some depth.
We met Mateo in 2002 when he was just finishing up on a Dubin Fellowship at what was then called The School of American Research, today, The School of Advanced Research. The fellowship offers a two-month residency program where the artist can develop his work on the School’s campus in Santa Fe.
At the end the artist gives a brief talk about what his aims and accomplishments are. The audience is invited to the studio where he or she has been working and many of the works of art are for sale. That is when we bought our first Mateo. It is called “Pot Hunters” referring to archeologists and collectors who have illicitly taken ceramic objects found buried on Indian land and grave sites for their personal collections or that of their institutions. The painting also includes many of the other subjects of interest and concern to the Indians. On the right you can see men working at Los Alamos Laboratory suited up for their hazardous work on nuclear energy polluting the land. Lower left though very difficult to see in the photo are a number of Pac-man like heads with feathers mocking the logo of the Cleveland Indians baseball team. In the center is a portrait of Mateo in a Buffalo dance.
Mateo’s father, Santiago Holly Romero, was from Cochiti Pueblo and studied with Dororthy Dunn at the Indian School in Santa Fe. He met Mateo’s mother, Corneria, when he was recovering at a Naval hospital in Oakland California from wounds suffered in Korea. Corneria was studying anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. Mateo grew up in Berkeley, California and went to Dartmouth College where he graduated cum laude and then went on for an MFA at the University of New Mexico. His partner for the last 20 years is Melissa Talachy from Pojoaque pueblo where they live today with their 3 children. She worked at the Poeh Museum on the pueblo and is currently working in the tribal government offices where her brother is Governor of the Pueblo.
Melissa is a noted ceramicist in her own right but to my knowledge has only collaborated with her husband on one piece and that was a vase of micaceous clay on which Mateo has used a photo transfer process to impose images of a number of native dancers. The piece was in a vitrine at a special exhibition at the Poeh Museum in Pojoaque. From our knowledge it was a unique effort and there might never be another opportunity to acquire such a collaboration, we asked the price and bought it then and there.
Mateo’s nephew came back from Iraq suffering from all the stresses that many other soldiers do and stayed with his uncle and Melissa for a while trying to decompress. He brought with him an album of photos of his exploits that became the genesis of a body of work for Mateo. He presented it in an exhibition called “War Paint”, 2007, for which he was a co-curators. The show was an incredible expression of artists against war spanning work from Vietnam to Iraq. Before it opened Mateo showed us the work in his studio. I remember an upside down Pieta, which was far too big for our house. There was, however, a medium sized painting of a soldier with his rifle standing over five body bags. We knew the subject because we had seen the original graphic photo but here the bags were somewhat impressionistic. It was rather upsetting particularly when Mateo added that his nephew had 5 definite enemy kills, 5 possible and 5 kills from “friendly fire”. Here is the painting in Mateo’s studio.
Though my wife appreciated the poignancy of the painting she was very worried about living with it and asked where I planned to place it. I said I would store it if I had to, but it was important and needed to be preserved. I must have been prescient in this case. These paintings were a total break with Mateo’s usual pueblo themes. A museum that was a big backer of Mateo’s work and a curator that had been encouraging him to push the envelope felt that they could not acquire such anti-war images when the war was still going on. It was a sad commentary on the courage of our public institutions and unfortunately no surprise. Mateo became so discouraged that he painted over his “War Paint” canvases. Sadly ours is the only souvenir of that moment in his oeuvre and it hangs in my office.
As you know or can tell from this Missive I like the unusual and probably the most unusual Mateo we have acquired is a pair of Toms shoes. In case you are not acquainted with Toms they fall between a moccasin and a sneaker. A number of Indian artists were asked to paint these shoes for a benefit auction event at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts. All the other artists painted on top of the shoes as if people would buy them to wear. Mateo painted the soles with images of deer dancers. As soon as I saw them I knew I had to have them and as a result caught auction fever and behaved truly stupidly. As I put my first bid down on the silent auction sheet someone came over and stood over my shoulder and every time I put a bid down he took the sheet and raised the ante. I was furious at this unsportsmanlike behavior and said, “I am going to buy those.” Finally the other man stopped and I got them. As any poker player knows, you don’t show your hand! Later I found out he was the Anglo president of the board of the museum and he was just making more money for the benefit. I can promise you, however, I would be much more upset today had I walked away and not gotten them!
I will end this missive with what we consider his best painting in our collection in terms of painterly mastery. It started out when Mateo asked us to do him a favor and he asked could he give us a painting as a thank you. We told him that I had seen a very small picture once in a gallery of his daughter and that we would love it if he would make us a similar portrait of his partner Melissa, a subject we had not seen before. When Mateo came with the painting it was about 6 times the size that we expected and was a total masterpiece. It shows Melissa with a mesa in the background. When I asked him to identify it, Mateo call the mesa “Tunyo” in the Tewa language. “Kind of like if Black Mesa and Pedernal south of Abiquiu had a baby together (The Pedernal is the mesa that Georgia O’Keeffe said was god’s personal gift to her and she painted it often!)
Mateo recently asked if I would consider opening a gallery and handling his work as well as other very talented members of the Romero family. It was certainly one of the greatest compliments an artist could possibly pay me. I am afraid, however, I am not prepared to start another gallery but I certainly want to support his efforts to go as far as he can go.