A seductively complex symmetry characterizes the designs that Davis Coonsis paints on his handmade yellow pine benches and chairs. At the center of a bench he made in 2018, a small round piece of mother-of-pearl rests within a rim of blue, circled in white. Move your eyes outward and you’re looking at the stamen of a delicate, abstract flower, reds and yellows highlighting a mostly blue composition. This mandala in the middle of the bench sucks you in, but once you pull your focus farther out you see the deer — black, with red heart lines curving from their mouths to their chests. The borders of the bench are decorated in scrolling lines and geometric touches that, like the other elements, were inspired by antique Zuni pottery.
“They’re not really my designs. I want people to see the designs our ancestors used to make,” Coonsis said.
The 46-year-old woodworker is a man of few words. He lets his art do much of his talking. Coonsis lives with his mother and brothers at Zuni Pueblo, south of the Zuni River, in a house his mother’s family has lived in for generations. His intricately painted furniture is unique at Zuni, New Mexico’s largest pueblo (located about 150 miles west of Albuquerque in McKinley and Cibola counties). The tourist art trade is the largest industry in Zuni; the most popular mediums are jewelry, pottery, and stone- and woodcarving.
Coonsis sells his furniture at Free Indian Market, held at the Scottish Rite Center on Saturday, Aug. 17, and Sunday, Aug. 18.
“There might be people at Zuni who do small painted home decor items, but I’m not sure that they build them themselves. As far as I know, it’s Davis and us,” said Loren Thomas, the owner of Zuni Woodworking Company. Though Thomas is not Native, his family has lived at Zuni for 130 years. He employs two Zuni woodworkers and four Zuni painters to make dining furniture, bookcases, and other pieces that are more contemporary and much larger than Coonsis’ modestly sized projects.
“Davis does these really beautiful carved and painted pieces. He’s got some wonderful rosettes. I love the work that he does,” said Thomas.
Starting when he was 10 or 11, Coonsis would sometimes help his father polish his jewelry. “He wasn’t well-known,” he said, hesitating slightly. “I think it was inlay. He used stones — turquoise, abalone, mother-of-pearl.” Coonsis learned the craft but didn’t really feel drawn to jewelry making. He found employment in the construction industry, spent a little time at the University of New Mexico, and started experimenting with woodworking in his early 20s. He earned an associate’s degree in construction engineering and management from Central New Mexico Community College in 2009, when he was in his 30s. He lived in Albuquerque while he was in school and had intended to stay there and work, but he graduated just as the country’s economy crashed and jobs in his field dried up.
“I came back to Zuni and thought about my art and started doing it again and started liking it,” he said.
Native American studies scholar Gregory Schaaf said that the tradition of furniture making at Zuni goes back generations, with design and craftsmanship inspired by the furniture of Spanish colonizers in the 17th and 18th centuries. The retired educator and historian is the organizer of Free Indian Market, which he established in 2018 to provide a sales venue for artists, most of them elders, who were not invited to participate in the annual SWAIA Santa Fe Indian Market as they had been in past years. Last year, Free Indian Market hosted 68 artists; in 2019 the number has swelled to 270 and counting. This is Coonsis’ first year at Free Indian Market. He has shown previously at Santa Fe Indian Market, the Heard Museum Indian Market in Phoenix, and the Zuni Pueblo MainStreet Festival and ArtWalk. He said he opted to show at Free Indian Market this year because there are no application or booth rental fees.
Coonsis’ original affection for Pueblo pottery stems from wondering what his ancestors were thinking when they decided to paint on vessels meant to carry food and water, and his admiration for how they saw these utilitarian surfaces as places to make art. He likes the idea that they were looking at clouds and thinking about rain — so that’s what they painted on their pots. He also appreciates the prayer implicit in the deer motif, which he said represents being fruitful. He went on to explain that the flower motif he uses came from boxes the Spanish conquistadors brought with them, which gave Zunis the idea to put flowers on their pots. Then he stopped himself, unsure of the accuracy of this history.
“That’s what I heard, but I don’t know. There might be different stories out there.”
Coonsis earns a living from his furniture and from occasional construction jobs. He buys most of his yellow pine at Home Depot because he said it makes more financial sense than cutting his own lumber, although that is something he’d like to do in the future. He gathers local redwood for smaller carvings, pieces he described as spirals and miniature sculptures. Many of his furniture designs feature borders angled to represent clouds, with carved areas on the sitting surfaces. He uses acrylic paint and is selective about his color palette, sometimes veering toward the austere.
In photos of his work posted to Facebook, the predominant colors are blue, red, black, and white, but every so often this flow is interrupted by something much brighter and even more eye-catching, such as a motif of orange butterflies and yellow flames surrounded by carved green lines that curl like grass snakes.
“Sometimes I have too many reds or too many blues, so I kind of try to make everything look different,” Coonsis said. “Most of my inspirations come from nature and everything you see around. And from old pottery. And all the beauty in the world.” ◀
▼ Free Indian Market
▼ 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 17 and Sunday, Aug. 18
▼ Scottish Rite Center, 463 Paseo de Peralta, 505-982-4414, facebook.com/FreeIndianMarketShow
▼ Free admission