Speaking Through Clay:
The Life and Work of Roxanne Swentzell
a young girl with a speech impediment, Roxanne Swentzell’s
first small clay sculptures were a desperate attempt at communication.
Today, this popular contemporary artist speaks eloquently—both
verbally and through her expressive clay and bronze sculptures.
Roxanne comes from a family of renowned potters and sculptors so
she grew up around clay. Her mother made the family’s dishes—digging
the clay and mixing her own glazes. Her aunt, Nora Naranjo, is a
sculptor, writer and video producer of films that look at the continuing
social changes within Pueblo culture. Roxanne’s Uncle Mike
came back blind from Vietnam, but dared to be a sculptor. He would
do busts of people by feeling their faces with his fingers and recreating
them in clay. One day, Roxanne was dropped off at his studio, but
was too timid to tell him there was no light in the room. The two
spent the afternoon in the dark, sculpting and chatting. Roxanne
remembers being profoundly affected by this experience of using
other senses than sight to sculpt.
School was difficult for a child who couldn’t speak or be
understood. By the time she was in second grade, Roxanne was already
communicating better through her art than through words. Several
influential teachers saw her need to make art and altered their
curriculum to meet her needs. Roxanne says that she was forever
changed by the care and interest of one special art teacher, Phil
Karshis. When she was just sixteen, Karshis and her mother presented
her to the director of the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA).
Despite her youth, Roxanne was accepted into the school, where she
flourished. With open studio time, understanding teachers, lots
of clay and huge kilns, her pieces began to get bigger.
When Roxanne graduated in 1980, she was given a one-woman show at
the school. She still saw her sculptures as her way of speaking
of her world—her diary—but in clay instead of words.
She had no concept of selling her work. When she was approached
about it, she sent the potential buyers to talk with her mother
(who turned them away).
When she was 17, Roxanne left home to attend the Portland Museum
Art School. Here, she was introduced to the concept of “art
for art’s sake,” which ran counter to the Native view
in which art plays a prominent role everyday life. After the year
concluded, she left the school and continued her life and diary
The next few years were difficult for Roxanne. Dealing with a bad
relationship and the death of a close friend, she found herself
pregnant and alone. Her son Porter was born when she was 19. She
married and moved to Mora, New Mexico. After her daughter Rose was
born, Roxanne tried to be a “good wife and mother,”
by devoting herself to household tasks instead of sculpting. She
lasted a year before she asked for a divorce and returned to her
clay—making figure after figure of the emotions and thoughts
she’d been holding in.
About this time, here sister’s husband Arthur asked to buy
one of her sculptures. Her offered her $200, which was more than
she ever imagined. After this, Roxanne began supporting herself
and her children with her art works.
At the age of 22, Roxanne moved to the Santa Clara Pueblo, where
she felt at home for the first time. Her Aunt Tessie and Uncle Steve
invited her to share their booth at Indian Market in Santa Fe. In
1999, she won Best of Sculpture for a larger-than-life bronze, and
in 2004 was selected as the Indian Market poster artist.
Roxanne’s clay and bronze figures represent the complete spectrum
of the human spirit, encompassing a full range of emotions and irrepressible
moods. Although Roxanne was exposed to the world of mainstream art,
she has a strong sense of her Pueblo identity. The concept of balance
is integral to Pueblo culture, and the interplay between opposites
is clearly evident in Roxanne’s figures.
Today, this amazing contemporary artist’s work is in such
high demand that people line up by the dozens at her booth at shows
like Santa Fe Indian Market. In 2004, she received a commission
to create a wall sculpture for the Auditorium at the National Museum
of the American Indian (NMAI) Smithsonian Institute in Washington,
DC, and more recently was selected to do a large piece for Santa
Fe’s new Community Civic Center. Roxanne Swentzell is an artist
to acknowledge in the present and watch in the future.