Sculptor, Santa Clara Pueblo

Few artists share an artistic pedigree as formidable as that of Santa Clara Pueblo sculptor Roxanne Swentzell. Her uncle, Tito Naranjo, was also an artist, as is another uncle, blind sculptor Michael Naranjo. She’s the niece of well-known ceramicists Jody Folwell and Nora Naranjo Morse, and the mother of artist Rose B. Simpson.

Swentzell, who was born at Taos Pueblo in 1962, was designated a Museum of Indian Arts & Culture Living Treasure in 2011 and received a Santa Fe Community Foundation Award in 2008 — just two of the many awards and accolades bestowed upon her throughout her career. On Friday, Sept. 20, she receives another when Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham presents her with a 2019 award for excellence in the arts. “It’s important to see someone like Roxanne receive it,” says Charles King, owner of King Galleries in Santa Fe and Scottsdale, Arizona, which shows her work. “I think what she’s done in terms of using her life experiences and the world around her as the source for the expression of her work has really been transformative in Native pottery.”

She was skeptical when she first heard about getting the award, which she says came as a surprise. “I don’t think it registered right away what I was receiving. It’s a really big honor and I was taken off-guard, for sure,” she says.

Primarily known for her figurative work in clay, Swentzell made her first sculpture as a young girl. Even then she understood art’s ability to serve as a means of self-expression. Unable to communicate verbally, art became her voice. At around the age of four or five, she started making clay figures as a way to talk. Learning to speak normally was a gradual process. “During elementary school years, I was going to speech therapy classes,” she says.

Grade school was a real challenge for a young girl who didn’t speak. But her instructors tailored the curriculum to fit her needs. “By high school it was starting to get better. I still have to do a double thought process when I speak. I didn’t start being comfortable speaking until my adult years.”

Encouraged by her mother, Rina Swentzell, who was also an artist, Swentzell pursued art into adulthood. She attended the Institute of American Indian Arts in 1978 and then the Portland Museum Art School in Oregon, in 1980.

In the ensuing years, she has fostered her love for figuration, imbuing her sculptures and masks with an expressive range of emotions, from joy to despair. “She’s used the clay as a medium to tell the story she wants to tell,” King says. “Sometimes it’s things that are hard to talk about. Sometimes it’s things that are fun to talk about, as well. It isn’t always lighthearted. Sometimes she has things on political or social issues that are challenging. She can do that in a manner that’s disarming in a way, because they’re clay figures. People think, ‘Oh. That’s fun,’ and yet, when they really understand what she’s talking about, they see they’ve got a deeper meaning to them. That aspect is the part of it that makes her work stand out.”

Whether she’s sculpting Pueblo clowns, Native elders or works that transcend indigenous subject matter, she invests her art with a universal sense of spirit, making it accessible and relatable.

In 2006, Swentzell celebrated the grand opening of her own art venue, the Tower Gallery, in the Poeh Cultural Center in Pojoaque. The gallery, which is the tallest adobe structure in New Mexico, is a showcase for her work as well as works by other indigenous artists. The Poeh Center was established in 1988 by the Pueblo of Pojoaque to help revitalize and preserve Pueblo culture. Swentzell remains an active member of its advisory committee.

She is also a co-founder of the Flowering Tree Permaculture Institute, incorporated in 1989 as a research and educational institute for the promotion of sustainable living practices.

Today, Swentzell’s work is in numerous public collections across the globe, including the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, Cartier International SNC in Paris, the Wellington Museum in New Zealand, and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.

Swentzell was a regular at Indian Market for more than 20 years, having first exhibited her work there in 1984. In a retrospective guide to her career, she writes about her early years in the market and the moment when a chance encounter gave her some insight into the power of her work. “A girl walked up to me wanting to talk to me,” she writes. “I quickly realized that she was deaf and dumb, but she was gesturing to me trying to tell me what my sculptures meant to her. With tears in both our eyes, I realized that my pieces were touching other people deeply. My story was not just my story.” 

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