Turtle Drums & Heads on a Stake: The Award-winning Art of Alex Maldonado
Craftsman Alex Maldonado marches to the beat of a different drum -- one he made himself. When he’s not manufacturing drums, flutes, or furniture, the Pascua Yaqui from Mesa, Arizona, is making music with his own instruments.
“Although I’ve dabbled in most mediums, as an artist you gotta keep doing what pays the bills and that’s flutes and drums,” he says while preparing displays for the upcoming Santa Fe Market. One sure bet will be a turtle drum.
“Native Americans and tortoises go hand-in-hand and turning a regular drum into a turtle is no great feat. It’s just a round shell with a covering of hand-scraped buffalo hide and appendages added for the feet and head.”
While Maldonado may think the turtle drum production process is simplistic in nature, the end result (along with leather-headed drumsticks stuffed with buffalo hair) was deemed impressive enough to win a spot at the renowned Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix .
Alex is self-taught as an award-winning Native American artist and composer over the past two decades, balancing his time between making music and/or musical instruments. He, along with son, Nick, and daughter, Melissa, are responsible for four CDs, Messages From the Past; Desert Breeze; Maso; and Path.
“Although I’ve built up a woodworking reputation as a maker of drums, flutes, masks, and household furniture, I’m a musician at heart, so I can use my skills as a player to make flutes that sound as beautiful as they look.” His creations have won awards in previous Santa Fe Indian Art Market competitions as well as helping him get nominated for recognition by the Native American Music Awards.
In the Who Are We section of his Two Hawks Art Studio & Gallery web page, Maldonado writes about the influence his Yaqui heritage has had on his life and his works. “My ancestors would sometimes disguise their identity in order to survive and many traditions were lost because of this. In playing the flute, I feel a connection in finding out more about my people and myself because one of the victories in life is knowing who you are and being proud of it.”
Once he became proficient with flutes, he began to diversify to other instruments used by his tribe and native drums became his secondary art form. In the process of practicing tribal art, he has become an icon of cultural knowledge. He makes gourd rattles (some in the shape of animals) with hand-carved handles featuring traditional Yaqui designs as well as unique Pascola masks adorned with horse hair that resemble animals or human faces.
“I like to do bird masks, kind of a takeoff from the traditional Yaqui Pascola mask. Bird masks are an idea borrowed from Pacific Northwestern tribes and instead of just a straight-on-the-face mask, I modernize mine with beaks that actually open. It’s contemporary art.”
Many of his art pieces have been purchased by the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC. The Phoenix City Hall has one of his hand-carved flutes on permanent display and the world-famous Heard Museum in Phoenix commissioned him to carve a Yaqui Harp.
“I’m not afraid to tackle anything,” he says, “as long as its fun and challenging -- like the harp. I always thought I’d do more and I have some unfinished pieces at home. But halfway down the path, the inspiration disappeared about the same time the reality of trying to make a living became more urgent.”
Creativity from turtle drums to breadboards and bird masks is where it’s at for Maldonado. “I’ve yet to have anybody tell me to my face that I’m a weird dude, but I can imagine some who view my products have said it behind my back. I do admit that I can be a crazy artist where there’s no one to tell me I need to color between the lines.”
As an example, he cites: “I discovered a very captivating photo of an old lady and wanted to see how close I could come to that image. I found a piece of cottonwood with natural Spaulding (coloration) effect and carved around the natural features. I’ve never heard a chunk of wood talk to me, telling me what to do, but sometimes Mother Nature just works with you and the carving was successful. I named the piece Nana or grandmother, added some grey horsehair, and in order to present it, mounted the head on a stake. Unfortunately it ended up looking exactly like that -- a head on a stake -- and while I wanted to be avant garde, that was a bit much. You can have the best piece of art available, but if it’s not presented right, it will just scare people -- which this one did.”
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