The Southwest Indian Arts Fair, a Tucson Tradition

The Southwest Indian Arts Fair, a Tucson Tradition

Lee Allen

Promoters call it "Southern Arizona’s Premier Indian Art Show & Market"—and it’s that and more. Who can not stop to appreciate the craftsmanship of more than 200 Native artists with works in stone, canvas, sand paintings, Tohono O’odham hand-woven baskets, Yaqui hand-carved masks, Navajo flutes and woven rugs spun and carded by Zapotec Indians from Oaxaca, Mexico?

To that point, who can resist a call to investigate native flute music or to then pull up a chair to watch Zuni, Apache and O’odham dancers? And the aromatic allure of frybread and Indian tacos permeating the vendor tents at the Arizona State Museum in Tucson was not to be denied.

This year, for the 19th year in a row, lovers of all things Native American turned out by the thousands—an estimated 7,000—for the two-day event (February 18-19) that traditionally generates annual sales estimated at $1.25 million for participating artists.

If a product is created and crafted by Native American artists, there’s a good chance it can be found at this institution-sponsored event that adheres to the authentic policy of the 1990 Indian Arts and Crafts Act. So well respected are the craftspeople who make and display their work that 78 artists were nominated for this year’s special recognition People’s Passion Award, which was won—for the third time—by ceramic artist Andrews Harvier (Taos/Santa Clara/Tohono O’odham).

This year’s featured artist, Melvin John (Navajo/Dine, White Corn/Zuni-Edgewater Clan) said both his passion and his career path was family-based. “My mother, a master rug weaver, was my inspiration based on her stories and teachings of the Dine people. My work reflects the Navajo ways of life taught to me during my childhood.”

Nowhere is long-time tradition better illustrated than in the case of Zapotec Indian weaver Freddi Gutierrez of Oaxaca, Teotitlan Mexico, one member of a 40 family clan that has been hand-spinning and loom-weaving rugs for centuries. “I was 12 years old when I wove my first rug,” says the 30-year-old as he prepares sheep, angora, and mohair wool to be interlaced into a traditional pattern, one in which each family member participates in the process from start to finish.

“People in his village in the Sierra Madre Mountain foothills (“people of the clouds”) have been weaving for over 500 years on both backstrap looms and upright shuttles,” says wholesaler Dean Bubolo of Escalante Imports. “This is a talent Freddi acquired from his father and his grandfather, craftsmanship that is passed down from generation to generation. He just set up his loom and began warping and wefting and despite all the spectator interruptions, he’ll finish that rug before the end of this two-day show.”

It takes contemporary sculptor Upton Ethelbaugh (Santa Clara Pueblo/White Mountain Apache) quite a bit longer to produce his form of art, working in stone. Take the 41” wide, 12” high, 8” deep water serpent, a $32,000 piece for sale at the show. "It took close to six months to complete from creation to carving to detailed hand finishing," says the award-winning sculptor. “Everything is done by hand including days on end of hand sanding and polishing. Patience and physical ability are two of the requirements of a stonecarver and that’s why there are very few of us.” Ethelbaugh also creates bronze castings such as Mountain Spirit Dancer, a prize-winner in the Santa Fe Indian Market.

Louis David Valenzuela (Yaqui/Yoeme) also started as a sculptor nearly four decades ago before narrowing his focus to the carving of pascola masks, something he has been specializing in for the last 25 years. “I work with cottonwood and willow and chilicote, a lighter wood from across the border in our villages in Mexico. For carvers, trees never die because we bring the wood back to life and turn it into the beauty of art. I’ve been gifted with something the Creator gave me and I now represent my nation as an internationally-known carver of masks and a model for our younger generation.”

Other role models lifted themselves up by their bootstraps when they didn’t even own boots. Randlett "Randy" Keedah (Navajo) is one example for his people. Born in a Balakai Mesa reservation hogan to the Tsi-naajinii Clan (Black-Streaked-Wood People), he was abandoned by both his father and mother and raised by his grandparents who wanted him to be an attorney. He wanted to be an artist. He won.
Keedah’s love of the West, the American Indian people and a familiarity and respect for Mother Earth is evident in his detailed work. “I tried to go loose and abstract, but that doesn’t work for who I am,” he says. “My style is realistic southwestern art generally revolving around horses and the Navajo people—you paint best when you paint what you know and love.”

The Arizona State Museum this year partnered with the non-profit Friends of Hubbell Trading Post in an auction to raise scholarship funds for Navajo and Hopi college students. “The 400 item auction has been called ‘the best kept secret in Arizona,’ but we still attract bidders from both coasts because of the value and authenticity of our auction items,” says FOH spokesperson Ann Smith. “In the ten years we’ve run the auction, we’ve returned close to $2 million to the local communities through the artists who have consigned items.”

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