When Santa Clara potter Susan Folwell moved from Tucson to Taos nearly five years ago, she was immediately drawn to the romanticized paintings of the Taos Society of Artists (TSA) for creative inspiration. Her husband, museum professional Davison Koenig, had just been hired to be the Director of the Couse-Sharp Historic Site, and the two enjoyed immersing themselves in the works of historic Taos painters such as W.H. “Buck” Dunton, Joseph Henry Sharp, E.I. Couse, Ernest Blumenschein and Victor Higgins.
“Seeing Davison’s enthusiasm and how he wanted to just plunge himself into learning about all these historic artists was just beautiful and inspiring for me,” says Folwell. “They were all master painters, so I felt like I was going to art school all over again.”
Folwell first incorporated the work of these artists into her own art by creating pottery vessels and painting particular scenes from the historic works directly on them. Folwell’s newest ceramic creations, the result of almost five years of experimentation and discovery, transcend the traditional Native pottery forms to become more sculptural objects.
“I’m enjoying the medium and having fun with it,” says Folwell. “And when I say they are more sculptural, I’m talking about just shapes of objects that are grabbing my fancy. I like how I am able to utilize these more common, everyday objects into this new work.”
One such piece is a hollow, clay “loaf” of Rainbo Bread, complete with a wrapper painted with the Rainbo logo and a Buck Dunton painting of a bear. Beneath it, Folwell has added the slogan “Every day is feast day.” On the side of the loaf, with the nutritional information, she has charmingly noted “Bear Fat 0%.”
The idea of juxtaposing romanticized images of Native Americans from the past with common everyday items from her actual childhood in the Santa Clara Pueblo is one of the many reasons Folwell is enjoying the playful quality of this new series of work. “It’s an underlying comment under another comment under another comment,” says Folwell. “Another recent work has a Bert Proctor nocturne of two Indian men fishing, [with the image] placed in an opened can of Taos trout. I’m having so much fun with these different and varied sculptural forms, and while it’s really been a challenge to create them, I’m relishing the results.”
Another new series includes more scenes from TSA paintings — some done in black and white — displayed on ceramic iPhone screens. “With the pandemic and the New Mexico lockdown, I was just thinking about what we do with ourselves, what helps us pass the time,” says Folwell. “I thought I’m not going anywhere; I’m staying for the most part in my home, and so staring at the iPhone became my virtual vacation.”
While many Native artists have been critical of the work of the Taos Society of Artists, especially the romanticized nature of it, Folwell sees them in a different light. “Sure, they romanticized the Native lifestyle, but they also humanized it,” says Folwell. “And in retrospect it is just an amazing documentation that they were able to do. And as an artist, I’m just stunned by how beautiful the work actually is.”
Joshua Rose is currently a Senior Vice President at the Santa Fe Art Auction, responsible for Native Art and Fine Art. Previously, he spent the last 15 years as the editor of American Art Collector, Western Art Collector, Native American Art Magazine and American Fine Art Magazine. He currently resides in Santa Fe and Phoenix, Arizona.