Why I paint Kachinas


I was born in Williams, Arizona and grew up in Northern Arizona, in the shadow of the Navajo and Hopi Reservations.

At the age of nine, I visited Taos, my mother’s birthplace. In the galleries of Taos, I realized that I would be an artist.

Following High School, I studied independently, and painted in my spare time while working at jobs that included managing a small private museum and Indian shop, working as a trader on the Navajo Reservation, and as Preparator at the Museum of Northern Arizona, under Kachina expert and author Barton Wright.

In 1967, I began camping and traveling among the Navajo and Pueblos at every opportunity; sketching, painting, and attending ceremonials.

Oil on Masonite panel
48" X 48"
Collection: Terry Thomas

In 1968, I decided to devote myself to painting full-time. I continued painting Indian and Indian related subjects for the next ten years, with a year off to paint in Mexico in 1973.

(Koyemsim, or Mudhead Kachinas)
Oil on Masonite panel
48" X 48"

Then, in 1977, I quit painting Indian subjects. I was feeling burned out; as though I’d been run over by the band-wagon of Indian-subject popularity. I also stopped attending Kachina dances because of my embarrassment over the crowding and rude, thoughtless behavior of so many non-Indians.

After a couple of years, however, the Kachinas found their way back into my consciousness. While I now paint many different subjects, ranging from animals to people, from still life to landscape, Kachinas remain an important part of my work.

Kachinas, like the Mexican Masks that I also paint, interest me not as artifacts; I've seen them painted that way, and, somehow, always felt the point has been missed. They are so much more than that. When one puts on a mask, one takes on a different identity. Becomes someone or something else. It is primarily this sense of life, of otherness, of enhanced possibilities, I believe, that attracts me. There are many other reasons, such as these from a piece I wrote for the UCLA Fowler Museum exhibition catalog KATSINA by Zena Pearlstone:

they are there.
they are beautiful.
they are a part of me.
they are timeless and enduring.
they are intriguing and mysterious.
they are powerful and evocative and alive.
they are carved and textured and painted and aged.
they are feathered and masked and costumed or unclothed.
they are primordial and sophisticated and speak of other worlds.
they are carriers of messages and of prayers and bringers of rain and life.
they are subtle and complex, terrifying and comforting, animal, man, spirit, cloud.
they are hope and fear, promise and admonition, deliverance and instruction, comfort and song.
they are of the earth and of the sky and of the air and of the water that flows through every thing.

The Kachina dolls from which my paintings are usually derived are in the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles, The Heard Museum in Phoenix, the International Folk Art Museum in Santa Fe, or the Millicent Rogers Museum in Taos. Some are from private collections, including my own.

I am sometimes asked whether the Hopi and Zuni people are offended by my painting the Kachinas. I have never known them to be. I am not trying to replicate or imitate Kachinas. Like the many non-Indians who have written about them, I am merely reporting on them, and on their visual beauty by which I have been so moved.

Acrylic, oil, oil pastel, pastel, watercolor, drawing, photography, and various print forms have all been used in my Kachina works. In fact, I often depict a given Kachina in more than one medium; sometimes in several.


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