Monday, August 7, 2023

Roxanne Swentzell and Her Heritage

In 1997 I met a woman from Santa Clara Pueblo who changed my world view, the late Rina Swentzell, a Santa Clara potter, a teacher, an author, an architectural historian and a lecturer.

The other night we heard a talk by her daughter Roxanne Swentzell (b.1962-) an eminent pottery artist. She had asked what subject she should address as she might well have lectured on Permaculture as she is an active proponent of, “the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems.” For this audience however the organizer asked her to address her art.

Roxanne creates figural sculptures and her primary medium is clay. I wrote about the importance of clay in the Pueblo culture some months ago.

One of Roxanne’s most monumental pieces was commissioned in 2008 for the Santa Fe Community Civic Center and according to their website is 14 feet in diameter. The title is “Family”. At the time when she was asked about her choice of subject she replied, “If I were given one image to capture the "seed" or beginnings of this state of community consciousness, it would be a child born within an extended family in which they come around him/her in total support.” (Images of “Family” and Creating Family)

Roxanne explained that due to a medical issue as a child she was very late in beginning to speak. From the age of 3 she made clay figurines as her means of communication, a skill she learned from her mother. The extenuated hands and feet that are part of her mature work continue to be a way she expresses herself. Think of who you know who speaks with their hands.

I loved the story she told of her mother driving all the kids somewhere and suddenly stopping on the side of the road and telling her children to take off their socks so she could use them to collect mud (clay) for her pots.

Another of Roxanne’s monumental sculptures, “Mud Woman Rolls On” (2010-2011), was created for the Denver Art Museum. It is almost 11 feet tall, and she explained that she had to make it of adobe, straw wattles mixed in the clay, to support the weight. She collected the clay along the way up to Denver, a five-and-a-half-hour drive.

Two major themes in her work are mothers and children. In her presentation Roxanne spoke of women of the earth. She stated, “Clay is our mother” and repeatedly referred to “remembering the mother”.

Roxanne and her mother, Rena, built Roxanne’s Tower gallery off the main highway north of Santa Fe with the same adobe used for “Mud Woman Rolls On”. Here is the finished gallery with a cast bronze by Roxanne; and Rina working on the building.

Near the end of her talk Roxanne quoted her mother speaking of “An Understated Sacredness” in working with clay. I am going to end where I began, with her mother, Rena. In order to understand where Roxanne has come from and how her work expresses that culture, when you have time, spend 18 minutes listening to the PBS episode where her mother speaks of the world from the Pueblo point of view and the lessons that it holds for us today.

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