Santa Clara ceramic artist Roxanne Swentzell was born December 9, 1962 in Taos, New Mexico. She grew up surrounded by an extended family of artists: her mother, writer, potter, and scholar Rina Swentzell, grandmother Rose Naranjo, aunts Jody Folwell, Dolly Naranjo, Tessie Naranjo, Edna Romero and uncle Michael Naranjo. Struggling with a speech impediment as a child, Swentzell turned to sculpting in clay as a means to express herself. Her earliest sculpture, a little girl with her head on her desk, conveyed to her mother the sadness she was unable to voice that she felt at school that day. Swentzell’s talent was recognized early and she was allowed to attend the Institute of American Indian Arts during her last two years of high school, 1978-80. Subsequently, she studied at the Portland Museum of Art School in Portland, Oregon (1980-81), and then returned to Santa Clara Pueblo where she still resides.
Swentzell’s figurative sculptures are intimate expressive portraits from her personal experiences. Her human subjects, predominantly female, address issues such as identity politics, gender roles, art market dynamics, and the male gaze. The nude forms are not overtly sexual; rather their power lies in the emotions conveyed in their facial expressions (In Crisis, 1999), their hands and feet (The Things I Have to Do to Maintain Myself, 1994), and their poses. While intensely personal, her work is also deeply rooted in her Santa Claran cultural heritage. This enduring connection is present in the clay used, the shapes of her female figures, and in her evocation of duality as an organizing principle.
Works like Pinup (2000) and Reality Check (2001), address the conflicting cultural frameworks and expectations for women and the unrealistic physical expectations for women presented in popular culture. In both examples, a voluptuous Pueblo woman confronts a headless image of a skinny bikini-wearing white woman. In Pinup, the Pueblo woman’s stoic face is painted white, like that of a Geisha, and she hides her nude form behind a headless poster of a bikini-clad slender body reminiscent of Patrick Nagel’s graphic posters of Playboy pin-ups from the late 1970s. She struggles to conform, hiding behind the mask of an unobtainable image both in color and shape. In Reality Check, the Pueblo woman wears a vertical striped swimsuit (presumably to make her curves less noticeable), and peers over her sunglasses in which the reflection of a thin white woman in a string bikini is visible. Unlike Pinup, this figure looks on incredulously, challenging the notion that this is how women should look or that she needs to resemble this woman at all.
Swentzell’s most recent awards are the Santa Fe Foundation Award (2008), honored artist at “Art Feast” Santa Fe, and a commission for the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian Washington, D.C. (2004). Throughout her life and her career Swentzell has set her own course, allowing her rich involvement in the character of human emotions to lead her art practice. The strength of her work lies in its honesty, the commitment she makes to honor her own truth, and in its visceral power.
Additional Resources compiled by students in Contemporary Native American Art History course at IAIA, Spring 2013
Swentzell, Roxanne. Roxanne Swentzell. www.swentzell.com/
Personal Web Site
Swentzell, Roxanne. Roxanne Swentzell Tower Gallery. http://www.roxanneswentzell.net
Gallery Web Site with wonderful pictures drawn by Swentezell. The site also includes a hand illustrated autobiography which is wonderful.
New Mexico culture Net. “Roxanne Swentzell-Living Portraits of New Mexico Artists and Writers.” August 10th, 2007. http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=CyPSmFt2Qj0
Swentzell talks about her use of commercial clay versus hand digging and processing it herself.
Fauntleroy, Gussie. Roxanne Swentzell: extra ordinary people. Santa Fe: New Mexico Magazine, 2002.
Indyke, Dottie. “Roxanne Swentzell.” Southwest Art, August 31, 2001, 190-93.
This book, a rarity on a modern Native artist, is a joy, great photographs and text content.