Sunday, December 16, 2018

LiT: The Work of Rose B. Simpson

I made a good friend in Santa Fe by the name of Rina Swentzell (1939-2015).  Rina and her family are from Santa Clara pueblo and though Rina became an anthropologist she, like her daughter Roxanne Swentzell, and grand-daughter, Rose Simpson, was an incredible artist.

We first saw Rose Simpson’s work in clay when she was still young enough to be called Rosie and was making small clay dolls.  Now over two decades later she is an established artist whose clay sculptures can be found in museums, private collections and many exhibitions.  She is from the  renowned Naranjo family of ceramic artists, but as you must know by now, artists never wish to pigeon hole themselves in one medium any more than actors wants to be typecast. 

Rose is currently having her first retrospective exhibition at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe.  Not bad for an artist in her mid-thirties.  It is a very original installation without real walls but rather framed veils of muslin separating the pieces.


At the end of last year the artist sat down with the designer, Louis Emmanuel Gauci, who lives in Knoxville, Tennessee and comes to Santa Fe to design the Wheelwright’s shows. He presented alternate sketches of his ideas of how the gallery might be set up to show her work at its best and within a day he and Rose had worked it out..

The lighting, which was also superb, was done by a local lighting person, Todd Elmer, who worked with the designer until all was just as they wanted it.  Jack Townes is the preparatory and exhibit installer.  All have worked together at the Wheelwright for over 15 years.  When you have a team like that on a regular basis, they get it right! 

I bring all these details up because they were crucial in getting the effect the artist wished to convey and making the work look its best for the visitor.  This show is one of the most dramatic I have ever seen. Of course, the artist’s works are mainly responsible but it takes the right setting to maximize their effect!

The curator for the exhibition was Yve Chavez (Tongva-Gabrielino).  Yve was the Wheelwrights’ first Andrew W. Mellon fellow.  She had to learn about the artist’s many facets to write an essay for the catalog which should be coming out next month.  She had to work not only with the artist but with the artist’s gallery, Chiaroscuro, to pick out the best pieces for the show and learn in which collections the sold ones were.  To put on a museum exhibition takes a village and then some. 

You may be wondering as I did, what the LiT in the title of the exhibition is supposed to mean.  It is typical of this artist’s in depth thought process which can, frankly, be difficult to follow sometimes.  This is a very self-aware artist whose work, as you will see, can be very tough.  Rose is thinking of LiT as “she is lit or illuminated from within while shining light on ideas captured in her work.”  She goes on to say, “I want my work to be accessible enough that it doesn’t scare people away, and I don’t know if I am always successful in that way.” 

Rose see’s much of her work as self portraits undertaken in order to analyze herself.  Here is the figure that greets you when you arrive at the show.   When her daughter was born a couple of years ago, Rose like most mothers became very protective of her daughter.  In this sculpture she portrayed herself as a V8 engine.  Rose said that before giving birth her body felt like a machine but, “After I was a human again, It was like the building of the baby that felt like my body was out of control, like a ’69 Chevelle going full speed, and my brain was a deflated balloon hanging off the rear bumper.”  I think any woman who has had a child can relate to that.


Rose first learned from her mother, a major sculptor in clay, Roxanne Swentzell. Like any great artist she did not say I know all there is to know but went on to get her BFA from The University of New Mexico where her focus was studio arts, writing and dance, then further to graduate with an Honors MFA in Ceramics from the Rhode Island School of Design.  You would think she would stop there, but no, she attended Northern New Mexico College’s Automotive Science Program with a focus in Auto Body and is currently enrolled in the Institute of American Indian Arts in their Creative Writing MFA program!

What I find so wonderful about Rose’s work is that one can appreciate it without any background information whatsoever,  or you can get another layer of stimuli by looking at it through her eyes with her mystical and ethereal interpretations.  This baby, for instance, Rose identifies as a self- portrait although it also might make one think of her own child, but her daughter was born two years after the piece was completed!


The untitled sculpture which Rose refers to as “Horned C-section” is a collaboration with her mother and father, Patrick Simpson, who owns this piece.  Rose sees this as her mother giving birth to her.  Her father is an artist who works in clay and metal and as a youngster she helped him carve wood. sculptures  She learned that if you put your mind to it you can do anything and she eventually mastered sewing, drawing, painting welding and automotive design and repair.  If your car is stuck on the side of the road, hope that Rose will come by!


At the end of the show is “Rose’s Cabinet of Curiosities”. She sees it as kind of a kunstkammer (my word not hers)but these are pieces that have special meaning to her. So what is an oversized bullet doing there?  Bob Haozous who also has an exhibit at the Wheelwright that I hope to write about in the next weeks, gave Rose this oversize dud as a high school graduation present. The label states “She has had it with her ever since. It represents the power of not going off even when provoked, but still has the power and capacity to do so. Boom”.


The show will be up until next October but if you go now you will miss the summer crowds.