Rose B. Simpson thinks in clay

ESPAÑOLA, NM – Artist Rose B. Simpson sat in her 1985 Chevy El Camino inside her metal shop, trying to get the car started. She opened the hood, turned on the ignition, then lightly pressed the accelerator pedal. After repeating this several times, the car began to rumble loudly.

It wasn’t her everyday car, but closer to a work of art she’s made over the past 10 years, here in the self-proclaimed car lowrider capital of the world. Simpson fixed big dents while learning how to shape metal at a body school. She replaced the motor with one she bought from a racing store in Phoenix. And she painted the exterior with a black-on-black, glossy and matte geometric design and named the car Maria after the famous potter Tewa. Maria Martinez of San Ildefonso Pueblo, died in 1980.

“Maria is as close as I am to making traditional pottery,” said Simpson, 38, a registered member of the Santa Clara Pueblo (Kha’po Owingeh), based just south of Española. She belongs to a long line of ceramic artists that goes back hundreds of years. But instead of making the strong, shiny red or black pottery her pueblo is known for, she is acclaimed by the art world for her powerful androgynous figures of clay, often with metal adornments that look like jewelry. or to armor or both.

After showing off Maria (“I have to work in slow motion”), Simpson walked across a patio to her ceramic studio on the property, a small adobe structure with a “clean room” for sewing and sketching out back. A dozen of his tender and fierce figures stood in front, huddled together. Some wore pearl necklaces while others waited to be adorned with car parts – metal gears and brake discs – like a motley band of warriors preparing for battle.

Several of these sculptures, which she calls “beings” or “ancestors”, are now heading to museums on the East Coast: 11 recent works to CIA Boston in August, and a new commission for the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Pittsburgh in October. And on June 18, a series of 12 slender figures in cast concrete will preside over a property in Williamstown, Mass., known as field farmpart of a public art program run by preservationist group The Trustees.

Called “counterculture,” the nine-foot-tall hermes-like figures have an otherworldly presence thanks to a startling visual effect: Simpson has carved eye holes that go all the way to the back of their head, letting light – or life – flow through.

“When you see the light pass through their eyes, it will be as if the sky sees you,added the artist, explaining that she reflected on the global exploitation of natural resources. “I wanted to flip this script so that these resources look intimidating on you.”

Fearing that ceramics on this scale would be fragile, Simpson made his molds for the “counterculture” by carving life-size versions out of wood. But even these works began with clay models.

“I think on clay,” she said. “Clay was the soil that grew our food, was the house we lived in, was the pottery we ate in and prayed with. So my relationship to clay is ancestral and I think it has a deep genetic memory. It’s like a member of the family for us. She remembers seeing her great-grandmother, the artist Rose Naranjospeaking to her clay, and she said to her mother, Roxanne Swentzellearned to carve figures as a means communicate well before you speak.

While Swentzell makes beautifully smooth sculptures of native women engaged in daily activities, Simpson tends to make things harder. She leaves her figures’ surfaces uneven and adds embellishments of metal, leather, and other materials to create, in the words of Los Angeles curator Helen Molesworth, “a badass, ‘Mad Max,’ ‘Blade Runner’ vibe.”

Molesworth first saw Simpson’s work in 2019 at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian while vacationing in Santa Fe. She was so struck by the “mixture of different textures, soft and hard” that she said that she wondered if she was not just “happy on vacation”. Back home, she was still fascinated and decided to present Simpson in a group show, “Feedback», last summer for the New York gallerist Jack Shainman. Next year Simpson will have a solo show with Shainman and another in San Francisco with his three-year-old gallery, Jessica Argentman. (Gallerists would not provide the price range for Simpson’s work.)

Molesworth compares Simpson to artists Simone Leigh, Wangechi Mutu and Karon Davis, who breathed new life into the tradition of Western figurative sculpture, with a heavy emphasis on memorials and monuments. “Most figurative sculptures offer an impermeable, strong, powerful body,” she said. “But for these women, the body also has a certain quality of intimacy or vulnerability. I think that’s unusual to see. In Simpson’s case, she added, the clay plays a big role. : “There is a fragility and a vulnerability in the material.”

While Simpson works in Española on a homestead, she lives with her young daughter on the Pueblo de Santa Clara where she grew up. She was raised there primarily by her mother after her parents divorced. She said her father, a white artist, took her rock climbing and taught her how to navigate a local reservoir. “He had time to play with me, while my mother survived,” she said, calling the situation “extreme poverty”. She went on to praise her mother’s ingenuity and her “deep connection to the land”.

“We grew most of our food. We ate our pets,” she said, mentioning turkeys, chickens and pigs. She also remembered her mother making her shoes by hand: cutting flat tires salvaged from the dump with a jigsaw, then sewing leather straps onto the rubber.

Simpson was homeschooled until high school, when she attended Santa Fe Indian School, joined the yearbook committee, and filled her classmates’ book with drawings in styles inspired by his favorite comic artists, including The Hernandez Brothers from “Love and Rockets”. After graduate studies in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, she joined the Rhode Island School of Design for a master’s degree in fine arts. There she discovered that her more refined, lifelike sculptures created “a visual language that others did not speak or understand.”

A turning point came during a 2010 school trip to Kashihara, Japan. Encountering Japanese aesthetic traditions that prioritize acceptance of process over perfection of form – and don’t distinguish between art and craft – helped her think more seriously about her pueblo’s creative heritage. and his. “I was dropped into a world where I was completely unable to communicate, which to me was reminiscent of the western art world,” she said. “I realized that my works needed to become much more precise and clear.”

Her clarity came in the form of a technique she devised that she calls “slap-slab”, which she still uses today alongside traditional pottery methods. It involves laying a slab of clay on its side on a floor or table until it is very thin, perhaps one-sixteenth of an inch. Then she tears off pieces by hand and affixes them to each other, with an effect that looks like papier-mâché. “You can see the seams, the pinches, the fingerprints, all of it,” she said.

Slap-slab embraces imperfection and intuition. “If you can get into an intuitive place, I think you can really tickle other people’s intuitive place.” It also gave her a metaphor for learning to accept herself, the bits and all – or “building a muscle of acceptance and finding compassion for the most complicated and complicated parts of ourselves”.

Almost six years ago, Simpson became a single mother, which also shaped her work. As hollow clay forms, her sculptures were already vessels to some degree, but now she explicitly plays with the notion of the female body as a vessel, a vehicle for nourishment. Some of her silhouettes are rounded and carry babies on their shoulders. The one who appeared in “Feedback” is crawling with children – held together by a steel frame that appears to be both a cage and a gym in the jungle. Their faces resemble those of the artist and his daughter. “You can’t tell someone else’s story. You can only say yours,” she offered.

Although she considers her work to be spiritual, Simpson is careful not to share details about Santa Clara Pueblo’s religious practices or beliefs. “Indigenous people have been subjected to so many stereotypes that I have to be very careful about that – we’ve seen throughout history how spiritual work is just swallowed up, spat out, exploited,” she said. “People have been expelled from the tribe for making art that references a specific spiritual belief.”

She developed her own symbolism, with ‘+’ signs to mark the four cardinal directions, suggesting travel, and ‘x’ signs to represent ‘protection’. (Of what? “Negative forces,” she says.) The signs are tattooed on her fingers and appear on her sculptures.

Then there are the bold jewels that adorn her sculptures. Miranda Belarde-Lewis a Zuni/Tlingit scholar and conservative who teaches at the University of Washington, sees it as a way for Simpson to convey both ancestral and individual identity. “The strength she learned from her mother, the strength to be herself as a Pueblo woman, shines through so strongly in her artwork,” she said. “You can see that confidence in the expression of defiance on their faces, but also in the amount of jewelry they wear and the size of their earrings,” she said, adding, “C is very important in Indigenous communities – we love our earrings.”

The idea of ​​”Counterculture”, which will last for a year, is a cascade of pearl necklaces. After making it herself, Simpson also invited the Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of Mohican Indians, on whose ancestral land the Field Farm sits, to make bead necklaces from clay from their land to adorn his sculpted bodies. Her plan is to add more necklaces from native communities as the characters travel.

“Wherever they go, I will connect with the people whose ancestral homeland is there to build some kind of relationship,” she said. “Many tribes have been displaced, displaced from their own lands. So I wanted to have the opportunity to put their clay court back in their hands.

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