Sunday, July 14, 2019

Judy Tuwaletstiwa: The Dream Life of Objects


We met Judy Tuwaletstiwa at a pig roast!  Our friends from the Hopi Reservation took us along to a birthday party of a Hopi friend of theirs outside of Santa Fe. For this occasion, the entire pig was roasted… delicious and enough for all. Their friend turned out to be married to an extremely dynamic artist, Judy Tuwaletstiwa. 

Until September 15 the Center for Contemporary Arts (CCA) in Santa Fe has an exhibition called, “Judy Tuwaletstiwa: The Dream Life of Objects”. Judy is a very intellectual artist with a degree in English Literature from the University of California at Berkeley and a Masters in the same field from Harvard. When I was speaking to the young artist behind the gallery reception desk he said  you need to “feel”  this show as much as observe it.  If you give it a chance it will speak to you.

My thesis has always been that you should walk through any exhibition and then if you wish to dig deeper read the labels, take the audio guide, if it exists, and, if you are really serious, buy the catalog… and then read it!

In this show, however, I was told that Judy wished the visitor to see the 9-minute film first and then see the show.  Unfortunately, too much light poured into the room when I was there and the sound too low for my old ears, but I had watched the 3-minute version on line which I will share with you here: https://vimeo.com/335994167 

Judy speaks of language and how materials speak to her.  She tells us that the first language we hear is our mother’s heart beat before we are born.  The second language is our sense of touch.  She is shown touching a rock which she tells us holds history.  It made me think of an infant of touching its mother’s breast or clutching a rattle, that is how learning begins.

Judy had no formal art training, but allowed her materials to speak to her.  She speaks of working with the fragile medium of glass and weaving at the loom which the layman might find tedious, but it is there, she said, that she learned patience.

This brought two experiences to mind.  When my wife, Penelope, was a curator at the Metropolitan Museum she gave a lecture once in conjunction with a Corning show called “New Glass” at the Met.  She did not allow anyone to sit in the front 3 rows because she began the lecture by smashing a glass on the side of the lectern … yes glass breaks! 

The second was a personal experience.  The only art I was ever half way good at was photography, in the days when one could bulk load one’s own film and process it in one’s bathroom.  My enlarger and chemical trays were all on a board over my bathtub and I stayed up half the night working.  One certainly had to be patient getting the image that one wanted out of the negative.

Judy is not Native but Jewish. She was born and grew up in East Los Angeles, which she said was a melting pot of various ethnicities and “they all played together”.  Her family was from Poland and her first husband was Armenian. In 1993 she married Phillip, a Hopi Indian. His grandfather’s name, Tuwaletstiwa, was changed to Johnson at Keams Canyon boarding school in the late 1800’s because they could not pronounce his Hopi name!  Phillip wanted to take back his grandfather’s name and they both agreed to do so. The name Tuwaletstiwa has a beautiful meaning, “ripples made in the sand when the wind blows”.

The first room of the show is a wall of photographs of the Warsaw Ghetto, lent by the Hollocaust Museum in Washington D.C., and families that were slaughtered there at the orders of Heinrich Himmler.  Judy writes about the figure of a little boy with his hands up. “This image has haunted me since I was young:  I identified with the boy in the foreground who was only a few years older than I in 1943. If my grandparents had remained in Poland, I might have huddled in this group.”


Associated with these images is a series of works which one sees and feels in particular, for me, these hands cast in glass. Are they charred?


In another gallery a fair amount of wall space is used to show what look like a series of abstract banners.  They are 72 photographs showing a process.  In 1987, Judy decided that her first attempt at painting was going to be a red painting, but she would work her way there…again a process. In a public discussion she had with David Krakauer, American evolutionary biologist, who is President and William H. Miller Professor of Complex Systems at the Santa Fe Institute, she speaks of Native American kivas.  These holy places have images painted on the walls for a ceremony, which are then painted over for the next event. Often hundreds of images are layered on top of each other.  For doubters of process she asked her audience how many were writers?  Then she asked whether they ever rewrote and effectively wrote over what they had written, sometimes having to delete their favorite words in a quest for the final result.  Count me in that group and sometimes I keep the sentence or phrase for another time.  Here is the end result and one wall of the photographs recording the process.





Bringing you up to date here is a piece in one of the artist’s favorite media, kiln-fired glass adhered to canvas. It is titled “Text. Shards 2, 2019”.  Shards in this part of the world usually refer to the broken remnants of Native American pottery that have survived over time.  In fact, there is an archive in New Mexico of pieces of pottery collected at building sites when excavation starts.  These are important evidence from which we can learn of earlier Indian generations.



In this show Judy Tuwaletsivwa gives us much to feel and think about and I have only scratched the surface.

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