With its current exhibits of Hopi pottery (and a few katsina dolls), Western Spirit, Scottsdale’s Museum of the West, highlights masterworks by Native American artists of the past and present.
Native voices now speak through Hopi pottery masterworks
Last spring I left Western Spirit, Scottsdale’s Museum of the West, feeling that the voices of Native people were largely absent. There were lots and lots of images of Native Americans, but almost all were romanticized ideals created by non-Native artists. There were very few Native artists telling their stories. Leaving Native stories in the hands of non-Native artists seems absurd, especially given the availability of wonderful art by Native Americans.
Fortunately, changes during the intervening months begin to rectify this situation.
For example, two new exhibits feature masterworks by Hopi artists of the past and present:
- The on-going exhibit Canvas of Clay: Hopi Pottery Masterworks from the Cooke Collection features more than 65 contemporary and historic pieces created over six centuries.
- The museum also shines a Spotlight on Contemporary Hopi Ceramicists and Katsina Doll Carvers in a temporary exhibit (closing in November) that features 59 additional ceramic pieces and 11 katsina dolls.
Both exhibits showcase outstanding examples of Hopi craftsmanship and storytelling. Seen together, they provide an overview of the origins of Hopi pottery, its development over time, and contemporary themes that hint at the future of this art form.
A gallery dedicated to Western Spirit’s Hopi pottery masterworks
Last year Western Spirit received a Hopi pottery collection from long-time collectors Allan and Judith Cooke.
This was a significant gift, as the 120 plus pieces collected by the Cookes include some of the finest Hopi pottery made over the past 700 years. In response to this gift, Western Spirit created a permanent gallery for exhibits based on this collection.
Currently about half of the collection is on display in Canvas of Clay: Hopi Pottery Masterworks from the Allan and Judith Cooke Collection
Western Spirit’s current Hopi pottery exhibit includes more than 65 pieces by 23 Hopi potters from various time periods. All of the pieces were created using traditional methods: They are hand built and shaped from coils of local clay without using a mechanical wheel, fired in the open, and hand painted using traditional materials. Through these pots, the exhibit walks visitors through seven hundred years of Hopi tradition and imagery.
Among the older pieces on display, I was most surprised by this 15th or 16th century Kiva Mural bowl with a disembodied, but otherwise realistic, leg that appears to be stepping down into a kiva.
The late 19th and early 20th century pieces on display include 18 by Nampeyo of Hana, known as both the founder of modern Hopi pottery and one of its finest artists.
Nampeyo with examples of her work in 1900; National Archives Archaeological Site, via Wikimedia Commons
A potter from the First Mesa village of Tewa, Nampeyo’s work was strongly influenced by pieces created by her ancestors during the 14th to 16th century. Realizing that the pottery she and others were creating weren’t nearly as fine as these ancient pieces, Nampeyo experimented with materials and techniques until she could create pieces that were their equal. In the process, she revitalized Hopi pottery and became one of the finest and most influential Hopi potters.
There are also a number of contemporary pieces in the exhibit, including a 1974 piece by Priscilla Namingha Nampeyo, the great-granddaughter of Nampeyo of Hano.
And the tradition continues, as is seen in Um-tok-ina, the Thunderer Jar, created by Priscilla’s daughter Rachel Sahmie Nampeyo in 1988.
These are just a few examples from Canvas of Clay: Hopi Pottery Masterworks from the Cooke Collection. The exhibit is large and spacious with gorgeous pieces and plenty of information on their place in the ongoing tradition of Hopi pottery.
More contemporary Hopi pottery (and a few katsina dolls)
Western Spirit is also showcasing contemporary Hopi masterworks from a private collection as part of a temporary exhibit.
With 59 ceramic pieces and 11 carved katsina (kachina) dolls, the museum’s Spotlight on Contemporary Hopi Ceramicists and Katsina Doll Carvers is almost as large as the Canvas of Clay Hopi Pottery Masterworks exhibit. However, it is housed in two separate areas and isn’t displayed as well. This makes it feel smaller and less coherent than Hopi Pottery Masterworks. The display space also leaves something to be desired, as many pieces are displayed too high or low to be fully appreciated.
That’s not to say that the individual pieces in the exhibit aren’t absolutely wonderful. It’s definitely worth seeing.
Contemporary Hopi potters build on ancient traditions
A Spotlight on Contemporary Hopi Ceramicists and Katsina Doll Carvers brings together a selection of 20th and 21st century pieces by some of the finest Hopi potters, including a number of award-winning pieces. While based on traditional Hopi techniques, these pieces show-off not only the quality artists are achieving these days, but also how this ancient art form continue to change.
More traditional pieces on exhibit include a beautiful Solstice Jar by Rainy Naha.
Like many of the Hopi potters on display at Western Spirit, Rainy Naha comes from a long line of Hopi-Tewa potters.
While Hopi pottery is traditionally made by women, there are male potters. One of them was Jacob Koopee. A great-great grandson of Nampeyo of Hano, he was an absolute master of the art form with many awards to prove it.
Garrett Maho is also included in this exhibit. He learned to make traditional pottery from his grandmother and aunt and later worked with Jacob Koopee. Like his teachers, he works with traditional Hopi shapes. However, he embellishes his work with designs that incorporate ancient Hopi imagery in new ways.
One of the more unusual pots on display is by Ida Sahmie.
A Diné Navajo, she married a son of Priscilla Namingha, the great-granddaughter of famed potter Nampeyo of Hano, (both of whom have work in the Hopi Pottery Masterworks show) and learned to make Hopi pottery from her mother-in-law. Today she uses clay from the Navajo reservation to create her pots, Hopi techniques to shape them, and Navajo imagery to embellish them. Her work is a true blending of cultures.
There are all sorts of really interesting items in this exhibit, but the lighting makes it difficult to photograph them. Go see them for yourself, but don’t wait too long, as A Spotlight on Contemporary Hopi Ceramicists and Katsina Doll Carvers will only be on exhibit through Thanksgiving.
Modern masters of katsina dolls
Like the contemporary pottery included in this exhibit, the katsina (kachina) figures on display show how master artists are building on old traditions. These katsinam represent a surprising range of approaches to this traditional art form.
For example, when I first looked at this Horo Mana/Yohozro Wuhti (Cold-Bringing Woman) by Gerald Dukepoo, it was so fine and white that I thought it was porcelain. However, it is actually carved from cottonwood root, as is traditional, and painted.
This Salako katisna by Aaron Fredericks is at the other end of the spectrum. Here the use of modern techniques results in a boldly colored piece with fine details even as the grain of the cottonwood root shows through.
The katsinam on display represent a small portion of the exhibit and some are hard to view (the clowns by famed carver Neil David were perched almost above my head), but it’s a beautiful collection.
Plan your visit to Western Spirit
Owned by the city of Scottsdale, Arizona, Western Spirit is a large museum that tells the myriad stories of the American West through fine art, craft, and artifacts. The museum usually has a half-dozen ongoing exhibits and a handful of temporary exhibits, so there is always plenty to see.
Getting to Western Spirit
Western Spirit, Scottsdale’s Museum of the West, is located at the edge of the city’s art-filled historic downtown.
A short drive from downtown Phoenix, Scottsdale is easily reached by automobile. Parking is available in a ramp near the museum or along city streets. There is no Metro Rail service to Scottsdale, but there is a free downtown trolley, which makes it easy to visit the museum and then explore downtown.
It’s an easy walk from the museum to a number of excellent restaurants and galleries, making this a great spot to spend an afternoon or more.
Hours and fees
Western Spirit, Scottsdale’s Musuem of the West is closed Mondays.
The standard admission is $15, but a variety of discounts are available.
Check the museum’s website for current hours and fees.
Tips for visiting
Both Canvas of Clay: Hopi Pottery Masterworks from the Allan and Judith Cooke Collection and A Spotlight on Contemporary Hopi Ceramicists and Katsina Doll Carvers are designed to stand on their own. However, viewing Hopi Pottery Masterworks first provides a richer context for the work featured in the contemporary exhibit.
Note that the contemporary exhibit is located along one hall and behind the stairs – don’t miss half of it!
As with all exhibits at Western Spirit, there is little detailed information about the art or artists available on the website. Take advantage of the excellent signage in the museum itself to understand the history and context of the work on display. If there is something of particular interest, take a picture (without flash) because you will not find that information on the website.
Allow at least an hour to see these two exhibits and much more time if you wish to see the rest of the museum.
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