In the old days, Native Americans would occasionally find items that reminded them of the natural environment in which they lived. It might be a stone shaped like a frog, or a shell shaped like a butterfly. Because the Native Americans were so closely tied to their environment, they imbued these special artifacts, called fetishes, with positive powers ranging from health to wisdom to luck. The fetishes were small, and meant to be carried or worn on the body for the benefit of the wearer. As gifts, they were highly treasured, as they represented the generous and caring nature of the Native Americans.
Over time, carvers began taking raw materials and enhancing the outlines, sometimes scoring them with lines for eyes, mouths, or heartlines. The tools were very simple, and the labor to create these early fetishes was intense. True fetishes are religious objects in the highly complex Zuni religion, but carvings are intended for resale to the general public.
Recently, Zuni carvers have begun using more modern equipment like stone saws, drills, and Dremels to shape and carve their materials into symbolic and extremely attractive carvings. There are several hundred carvers in the Zuni Pueblo dedicated to creating and sharing their carvings.
Many artists have banded together to form Zuni ARTZ (Ancestral Rich Treasures of Zuni Cooperative), which opened August 2019 in the old Post Office building near the middle village of Zuni Pueblo. This provides the artists a central location to create, photograph, display, and sell their carvings, as many do not have workshops or equipment in their homes. They also sponsor frequent Art Walks, walking tours through the Zuni Pueblo going to individual carver homes where some of the carvers have their own workshops and gallery spaces.
I have had the pleasure of talking with many of these artists, and am excited to have acquired some of their carvings for my own collection. The two that I treasure the most are a striated marble bear with an inlaid turquoise heartline by Donovan Laiwaikete and a turquoise eagle with a corn maiden on the back by Faye Quandelacy.
The first carving is precious, in that it was a gift from a nice young man named Nick at All Tribes in Zuni. He knew that my husband was having knee replacement surgery, and he sent it to my husband as a very generous wish for good health and speedy recovery.
The second carving has great symbolism to me, as it is a double-sided carving in turquoise, with a strong eagle on the front protecting a small corn maiden on the back. My husband treasures the eagle imagery, and he is my sturdy protector. The corn maiden is one of my favorite symbols, and I often see myself in that nurturing role.
Imagine my surprise when I gave my wonderful husband the double-sided carving, only to be greeted in return with a lovely turquoise carving by Faye Quandelacy that he had seen and acquired for me. It is a double sided corn maiden, and absolutely exquisite. That corn maiden has also become one of my favorites.
Recently, Michael asked another Zuni carver, Kateri Quandelacy Sanchez, to make a darling rabbit carving for me as a surprise gift. Kateri dived deep into her creative well, as she so often does, and created another treasure for my collection.
Carvings can be quite magical. They are created from within the souls of the carvers, and the best carvers release not only the physical representation of the creature, but also the spirit and emotions they possess. Beavers are industrious, bears are protective, and eagles are strong and stately. But at the end of the day, the interpretations are up to the holder of the carving. The connection to nature that the carving brings to you is what matters.
Zuni carvers have begun moving into larger pieces over the past few years. Jeff Shetima creates amazingly detailed stone carvings, and Todd Westika has moved into that space as well with stone and buffalo horn. Calling these items carvings is not appropriate any more, as they have evolved into a more sophisticated category of displayable sculpture. Other Zuni carvers, such as Freddy Leekya and Brian Yatsattie, have taken note and are also evolving their carvings into larger, more elegant sculptures.
Jeff and Todd are both amazing stone sculpture artists, and I look forward to seeing the continued evolution of their art, and that of the many other wonderful Zuni carvers. The small carving once carried in a pocket has now become a larger, more dynamic piece of sculpture art.