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Speaking Through Clay:

The Life and Work of Roxanne Swentzell

As 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 of sculptures.
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.