Museum of Contemporary Native Arts

Karita Coffey

By Michelle McGeough

When Karita Coffey was twelve years old, a Comanche elder gave her the name Tsat teh mo-oh khat, or “good with her hands” — a name  that in retrospect, seems to be prophetic of a lifetime in the arts.[1] Coffey’s early career was one in which she consistently challenged the distinctions between fine art and craft. Using a medium usually associated with craft, Coffey’s clay masks and pottery are the mainstay of her artistic practice.

Following a three-year hiatus that ended in 1999, Coffey re-emerged and began creating small-scale sculptural assemblages created out of lost-wax cast metals, a medium that gave her a visual vocabulary she now employs to give voice to issues that affect children and in particular young girls — a part of society whose rights and needs are often overlooked. Her juxtaposition of found objects is steeped in metaphors. Coffey does not see her work as political statements, but intends for her art to act as a catalyst, creating an awareness of issues that affect hildren, serving as reminders of the importance children play in Native America’s future.

Growing Up Hungry (1999), one of Coffey’s first assemblages in what she identifies as the doll series, is a statement about children living in economically depressed situations. Her juxtaposition of two seemingly incongruent objects — a spoon and a lost-wax cast of a doll’s head — creates a complex visual metaphor, reminding an audience that in a wealthy country such as the United States thirty-nine percent of its children live in families with a household income that is less than half the federal poverty level.[2] The complexity of this assemblage confronts the viewer with a very emotionally-charged subject that America seemingly does not want to confront.

Although the vulnerability of childhood is a theme that Coffey often revisits, the artist explains her concern is not victimization, but rather recognition that childhood is a temporal state and that the vulnerability and powerlessness that is experienced in childhood are transient conditions. Safe Passage (2000) is an assemblage that encapsulates the temporal powerlessness of childhood. Coffey creates a magical vehicle in which a bronze cast of a celluloid doll is transformed into the body of a car. Toys collected from  McDonald’s Happy Meals and a white bird from a Disney’s Aladdin toy set are transformed into symbolic representations of protection and movement. Just A Play Thing #3 (2007) is Coffey’s most recent work in which she utilizes doll figures and transforms them into toys that critique mass media and the internet’s exploitation, sexualization, and objectification of young girls. Coffey’s assemblages explore and acknowledge the harsh realities that some children encounter, giving voice to the silenced or to those who
cannot speak for themselves.

Coffey earned MEd and BFA degrees from the University of Oklahoma. In 2006 she was a recipient of a W.K. Kellogg Foundation American Indian Higher Education Consortium fellowship. Coffey  resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico and has taught ceramics at the Institute of American Indian Art for over twenty years. Her work may be found in Oklahoma University’s Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, the Millicent Rogers Museum and the Heard Museum. She was an artist in residence at Cameron University and has served as a juror for the Eiteljorg Museum’s Annual Indian Market and Tulsa’s Cherokee Art Market.

1. Karita Coffey, interview with the author, December 10, 2009.
2. “Child Poverty,” National Center for Children in Poverty,