This panel discussion was co-sponsored by the Indigenous Art and Culture Round Table, the Decorative Arts Round Table and the Public Library Division, and was moderated by Madelyn Cook of the University of Arizona in Tucson.
ARLIS/NA member Paula Baxter, Curator of the Art & Architecture Collection, Research Libraries, New York Public Library opened the session. She recounted how serendipity played a part in forming her passion for collecting Southwestern Indian jewelry during a visit to Santa Fe while on the ARLIS/NA Executive Board. From that beginning, she has progressed in knowledge and expertise to a point where she has written articles and books on the subject. One of the greatest obstacles for the Native American artist to overcome is the restrictive nature of the market. Because buyers are predominately non-Indian and tourists, many will not accept designs other than traditional ones. Artists must come to terms with their own cultural identity while dealing with this situation. Only recently has this begun to change, with the first to break free of these stereotypical expectations being jewelry designers. There has also been a renaissance of decorative basketry in the last 20 years, and good pieces command very high prices. In the area of Navajo pitch pottery, recent years have seen the market encourage creation of "folk art" pieces rather than traditional ones. This involves clever carving, non-traditional shapes and somewhat controversial use of sacred symbology as decorative elements. Beadwork has also made a resurgence, and not only in the Southwest. Although most beadwork is still low-end tourist trade quality, some of the best individual artists have a high-end market. Ms. Baxter detailed the recent history of jewelry design, beginning with the "Classic" era of 1940s silversmithing. These are what we think of today as traditional designs - baroque shapes, heavy settings, symmetrical design. After World War II, more unusual materials, not just turquoise, and more modern designs came into use. Artisans enjoyed displaying their lapidary skills with these pieces. As the popularity of native jewelry increased, the potential for a certain garishness has seeped in to some designs, as imitators and less-talented artists take up the art. These can become so stereotypical, or avant-garde, that they lose impact. As for the literature, the old traditional boundaries are shifting. Many recent articles can be found with serious consideration of the decorative arts. Major periodicals include Southwest Art (popular, and includes Cowboy art), American Indian Art (scholarly) and Native Peoples (deals with cultural identity questions). For the inside scoop on the ethnic art market in the Southwest, nothing beats The Indian Trader. As for books, the native perspective was lacking until recently, with several titles actively challenging traditional views. Especially important titles are: Zuni: A Village of Silversmiths, by James Ostler (1996); Dialogues with Zuni Potters, by Milfor Nahohai (1995); Inventing the Southwest, by Kathleen Howard (1996); and Imagining Indians of the Southwest, by Leah Dilworth (1996).
The next speaker was Theresa Gold, expert on the German immigrants to Texas. She spoke enthusiastically about the sometimes overlooked contributions of the German Texans to the arts of Texas and the southwest in general. Starting in the 1830s, many Germans came to Texas, and were especially concentrated in the Austin, New Braunfels and San Antonio areas. They came in several waves, with each group having a somewhat different socioeconomic makeup. They brought finesse and orderliness to local craftsmanship and design. Important nineteenth-century artists included Karl Iwonski, Richard Petrie, Hermann Lungkwitz, who was the official photographer for the Land Office, and Louise Wiestie. Elizabet Ney was an important painter, sculptor and eccentric. She executed statues for the Chicago World's Fair, the Texas State Capitol, and many other public buildings. Her studio, named "Formosa", became a gathering place for the local art world, and was the first fine arts museum in Texas. In architecture, the Germans built log houses, stone houses, and half-timbered buildings. Many of the architects were also builders, carpenters and artists. There were also many cabinet and furniture makers in the German community. After the railroad was built, bringing manufactured furniture to the area, the popularity of hand-made items declined. Women were proficient with the domestic decorative arts, doing much fancy work and textiles. German artisans were also responsible for many lovely iron fences, wrought-iron gravestones, and painted stencil work in churches. Although the Germans made many contributions to Texas culture, one must look for it today.
Julie and Bruce Webb, artists and gallery owners, spoke entertainingly and warmly about their search for and collection of southwest folk art. They have come to know and respect many of the artists, who can be described as outsider, self-taught, eccentric, or obsessives. Many of these people are from poor and/or minority backgrounds, and, though they may have little education, they have great stores of imagination and creativity. Some of the artists use found objects such as bones, farm equipment, or other discarded items. Many are obsessive to the point of taking months to finish large projects which spill out into their yards. They use a wide variety of media and methods; marking pens, glitter, wooden constructions, hand-lettered signs, etc. Most of the work reflects an intense personal vision about the life and culture of the artist and his or her immediate surroundings; the works become environments, some are like shrines. Julie Webb believes that the art world will be hearing more about some of them, such as the Rev. Johnny Swearingen. A traveling exhibit featuring some of these artists, entitled Spirited Journeys, will be opening soon in Austin. Bruce Webb sees a common thread running through all cultures -- the urge to beautify things using colors and forms. The Webbs stressed that most of these artists are elderly; some that they had come to know have already died. They feel that this may be a vanishing culture and they are trying to capture as much as possible before it passes away.
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