fig. 31: Roxanne Swentzell
Photograph by Tamea J. Mikesell.
Courtesy of the Heard Museum.


Santa Clara potter Roxanne Swentzell, born in 1962, amazes audiences today with her extraordinarily large, complicated figures and provocative images. Recognized as one of the most inventive Indian potters, she is also one of the youngest. The same ideals that shape her pottery keep her active in a self sustaining environmental project at her pueblo.

Roxanne is the daughter of Rina Naranjo Swentzell and the niece of Nora Naranjo-Morse. Rina, a well-known activist, has a doctoral degree in American studies and a master's degree in architecture. This interesting woman was taking her architecture courses when her daughter, Roxanne, was a little girl. Rina Swentzell has been a force in Anglo-Indian controversies ever since, and this activism has made an indelible impression on her family.

Roxanne's mother was a potter before she began her university studies, and Roxanne remembers making figures with her from the time she was very little.

"My mom potted so the clay was right there where I saw it all the time. I had a speech impediment so I had to communicate in other ways, and I started making figures that would depict what I meant. I hated going to school so I made a clay figure of a little girl crying to explain how I felt. I made hundreds of these figures. They were tiny, but they got more elaborate as I was pinching them solid in the clay. In junior high school I began to hollow-build the clay figures because they got larger.

"I would say I am still communicating with figures. I want to symbolize women, and my culture, and humanity. I am trying to say things to the world, and the response has been amazing! My pieces are crossing cultural and all kinds of boundaries. People from all over the world see things in my pieces. It has been very, very exciting to me, the ultimate communication. "

fig. 32: Broken Hearts, Broken Bowls, Now What?, 1996.
By Roxanne Swentzell, 12"x13"x22".
Collection of Georgia Loloma. Photograph by Craig Smith.


In high school Roxanne continued to have difficulties. Her parents decided to send her to the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe, a special school for Indians from all over the country who show talent in art. During that time, when the school was on Cerrillos Road, the gifted Roxanne was given her first real show in the school's museum. Roxanne says that she did not price anything but that all the people wanted to buy her work. Next, the school wanted to send her work to an exhibition in Niagara Falls, New York, "but my mother said that I didn't need that in my life right now."

Rina wouldn't let her daughter sell her figures at all, to avoid Roxanne's becoming "money minded." As Roxanne describes it, her parents still wanted her to attend school and to stay very clear about why she was doing her art. Her parents did not want her to become involved in the commercial aspect of pottery making. They allowed her to attend the Portland School of Art in Oregon for one year, but she got very homesick. She came home and married.

"I married twice, but I am not now. My second marriage is important because we started a nonprofit organization to do sustainable living, the ten years that I stayed with my husband, and now I carry it on. At the same time, I have tried to make sculpture that would help people get basic values, would help them get in touch with themselves, basically.

"A whole philosophy comes out of my life in the pueblo and my people. We have a close sense of ourselves. We are close to our environment, and we have a different way of living from most Americans. As Indians we try to hold our own culture together in a modern world. With money that comes to our Flowering Tree Permaculture Institute, my group and I are researching native plants and seeds and ways of living.

"We keep alive old traditional crafts and plants. There is lots of history to study about my people from the Indian ruins around us. We teach what we have learned to groups of people that are interested; big groups of American Indian people come here from all over the country. Native Americans are trying to come back to learn what they lost. Of course this is not exclusive to natives, anybody can have these ideas. My tendency is to think of my own people.

"We started a newsletter around this pueblo, and we give it to interested people. A lot of our young people now are really getting curious. Ten years ago, no one wanted to think about sustainable living except maybe the old folks who knew how it was to live in this natural manner. Now we have a group on the pueblo, young, who want to learn how to grow plants the old way. So the pueblo gave these young people three fields to work, and I help them with this project. This group goes around the pueblo seeking to learn from the old folks, to see if they have any seeds to give, and to gather knowledge about the root plants. The information is still there, but we need to get it before it is gone."

fig. 33: Tse-ping, 1991, by Roxanne Swentzell.
Bowl, 4"x12.5" dia.; figures, 31"x14"x13.5", 18"x13.5"x16",
19"x13.5"x16", and 15.5"x13x19.5". The Heard Museum,
Phoenix, Arizona. Photograph by Craig Smith.

When Roxanne talks of her clay figures, she says they are reminders of what Indians are about. Remembering is important, she says. Her feeling is that traditional "ways of being," as she calls them, impart something spiritual that makes Indians special, gives them a special way of thinking and moving in the world, and makes them a unique people. Roxanne is not the first Indian to have this belief, and many Anglos have it as well.

Roxanne feels that doing the research about growing food today as it was done yesterday is a way to remember. She hopes that when the younger people work in the fields they will get a sense of their relationship with their environment and in that way a sense of themselves. She hopes that more of the younger people will not drink and waste themselves but will have purpose in life. Roxanne dances and partakes in ceremonies: "This is how we hang on to our values," she says. "These songs are about what we used to do."

fig. 34: The Things I Have To Do To Maintain Myself, 1994.
By Roxanne Swentzell, 15.5"x13"x15".
Denver Art Museum Collection. Photograph by Bill O‚Connor.

Roxanne's motives for making her clay figures are more important to her than the act of prospecting clay in the traditional way. Her clay is store-bought red earthenware from a ceramic supplier in Minnesota. The large scale and the complexity of her figures necessitate great technical skill and require a homogeneously composed claybody that will stand tremendous weight and manipulation during the fabrication. Digging a common surface clay on the reservation will not do for Roxanne's work.

"Santa Clara Pueblo clay is not strong," she says. "It won't hold together with these complicated structures. My mother prospects her own clay from the pueblo, or from anywhere, but I can't." Roxanne's large, emotionally-charged figures are coil-built, beginning usually with the place where the figure sits, if it sits, building down to the toes and up to the head from the "butt," as she calls it. If the figure is standing, it can be coiled upwards from the feet and legs into the body and on to the face and head. "It's like building a fancy pot," says Roxanne, who makes light of this very difficult and arduous building process.

She burnishes the leather-hard clay surface with a knife, smoothing the coils and polishing a sheen as she works. Usually there is no decoration; sometimes for emphasis she may use red iron oxide for a dark brown accent, applied either on the raw clay or after a first firing.

"I know that I describe myself as a sculptor of human emotions. I think that the emotions get us in touch with our own centers, with ourselves. I hope others will see what I see and what I feel and what I put into my work.

"Now I use an electric kiln, but I want to go back to traditional outside firing. My pieces are too large to do in a bonfire. But my daughter, Rosie, works in clay too, and she is good, so maybe together we will woodfire soon, like the Japanese." The long, slow firing with wood in an outdoor single-chamber kiln, and the patina that wood ash gives to clay during the firing, would be compatible with the size and emotional quality of Roxanne's work.

Roxanne home-schools her children and the children of several neighbors. "It's hard to find good schools. I remember how even I had so much trouble, so I want to do this for them. I can work on my clay while I home-school. Kids have their own interests if you leave them alone, they will learn if they are allowed to explore without push. I am glad to teach them."

This talented young artist's sculpture is in such demand that she has a waiting list of customers. In the last decade, her claywork has been purchased by many major museums in this country. At the Indian Market in Santa Fe, Roxanne brings good-sized figures and masks to the large audience. Her reputation is growing with widening recognition among museums and galleries. Roxanne's unusual sensitivity and dedicated commitment to her people and the generic ideals of Indian life resound in her work. This is more than most craftspersons ever achieve.

Dorothy Torivio

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All text © Susan Peterson.
Edited by Susan Ressler, based on compilation
© 1997 Abbeville Press and The National Museum of Women in the Arts.