Charles Loloma – Hopi Modernist

Master jeweler Charles Loloma was a Hopi spiritual leader -- a member of the Badger Clan and a Hopi snake priest. His powers of charm extended through his ritual life and into his compelling jewelry. In daily life, Loloma never talked about Hopi religion. But his jewelry limns the Hopi landscape and expresses a world of spirit. Shaped by gems and woods cut into miniature topographies, the jewelry contours geology and time. It proposes intervals in which what is just now visible might shift with a slant of light or a flick of the wrist into the ineffable. Lustrous, flat surfaces abut plugs of jagged stone. Iconography rooted in Hopi imagery intersects with motifs from ancient Egypt. Color and decoration revel on the body like brilliant plumage.

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By Ellen BerkovitchMore from this author

Master jeweler Charles Loloma was a Hopi spiritual leader — a member of the Badger Clan and a Hopi snake priest. His powers of charm extended through his ritual life and into his compelling jewelry. In daily life, Loloma never talked about Hopi religion.

But his jewelry limns the Hopi landscape and expresses a world of spirit. Shaped by gems and woods cut into miniature topographies, the jewelry contours geology and time. It proposes intervals in which what is just now visible might shift with a slant of light or a flick of the wrist into the ineffable. Lustrous, flat surfaces abut plugs of jagged stone. Iconography rooted in Hopi imagery intersects with motifs from ancient Egypt. Color and decoration revel on the body like brilliant plumage.

Charles Loloma
Ring. ca. 1985
18k Gold, Lapis Lazuli
Height: 1 3/4″

Loloma was a man of some contradictions. Although he spent his life in Hotevilla, the Hopi village of his birth, his work was turned down three times by the Gallup Inter-Tribal Ceremonial for not being Indian enough, He built his rock house with his hands, while he drove Jaguars and flew in airplanes that he owned. He took a Dale Carnegie course on influencing people. He traveled to Paris, Egypt, Colombia, and, during the last decade of his studio work, used Mikimoto pearls and diamonds, along with exotic woods he had encountered on trips through Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

To come to Loloma's jewelry with no prior knowledge, one might identify strains of art nouveau in the constructions as precise and intricate as stained glass. People close to him cite architectural influences: skyscrapers in Manhattan or aerial views of Paolo Soleri's Arco Santi near Flagstaff, Arizona. Yet the exaggerated, masked geometries of Hopi katsinas (kachinas), interpreted as abstractions, are paramount in Loloma's work, The dazzling height bracelets, studded by multiple gems, jut as high as an inch and a half and span up to four inches in diameter. Surface contrasts between jagged and smooth, shiny and matte, elevated and flat make the jewelry at once earthbound and heavenly, Stone Age and Space Age. Throughout, Loloma deeply engaged with the cross-cultural practice of patterning the sacred through materials.

The Wheelwright Museum in Santa Fe assembled, under guest curator Martha Hopkins Struever, a 466-object Loloma retrospective, "Loloma: Beauty Is His Name," Exhibit designer Lou Cauci ringed the kiva-shaped walls of the museum's central gallery with cases showing thematic groupings of Loloma's work. The exhibit eschewed labels or a chronology of dates. While that made for an exquisite visual experience, it also partly obscured the evolution of the jeweler's work. The exhibit focused primarily on pieces made between 1972 and 1986.

Charles Loloma
Pendant. ca. 1970
Silver, Turquoise, Wood, Coral, Fossilized Ivory, Lapis Lazuli, Matrix from Turquoise, Malachite
Length: 4 1/2″

An interior corridor built inside the circle showcased Loloma's fluent movement around materials — from his early marriages of turquoise and coral with ironwood, through the "spectacular" minglings of lapis, sugilite, ivories, and woods as rare as coco bolo, tiger, and ebony. Loloma periodically cast gem-set holloware. He made wrist guards, bolos, rings bracelets, earnings, pendants, and necklaces. Some of these employ strings of prehistoric turquoise beads — for example, Navajo joclas, the Navajo word for earnings, dating to about 1100 A.D. But Loloma would jettisons their classification by setting them into a bracelet's high arch. His whimsical and witty puns on tradition and innovation managed to restage both into an equipoise of the unexpected.

According to Wheelwright curator Cheri Falkenstien-Doyle, numerous jewelers consider Loloma the most influential Native American jeweler of the twentieth century. "He was able to pull information from so many different sources and use it," she says. "We were totally overdue for a major retrospective."

Loloma's first major jewelry venue was the New Craft Center, run and organized by Lloyd Kiva New in Scottsdale. This nascent 1950s artist colony galvanized energies between Native American arts leaders such as New and mainstream museum curators such as Rene d'Harnoncourt of the Museum of Modern Art, arguably the first U.S. curator to exhibit Native American art as fine art. The Heard Museum in Phoenix, which gave Loloma a sales show in 1971, now is collecting documents and objects representing the mutually seeding strains of this time in culture. "Loloma: Beauty is His Name" marks a prescient case in point that Native American art did not resist drawing into itself dominant cultural strands, or drawing itself out into active participation with them.

Charles Loloma was an artistic prodigy. Born in 1921 in Hotevilla, in 1937 he entered the new Hopi High School, where noted artist Fred Kabotie ran the art program. The next year, he transferred to Phoenix Indian School and met Kiva New, who had just graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago and would become a lifelong friend. New Craft Center in Scottsdale assembled many burgeoning Indian talents under one roof. They made up a landmark assembly, said Mark Bahti, principal of Bahti Indian Arts in Tucson. Bahti's father, Tom, was one of Loloma's closest friends and began exhibiting his first jewelry around 1955 "In the 1950s, a handful but growing number of Indian artists were butting up against expectations placed on what they were supposed to be producing," Bahti says, among them Oscar Howe, Loloma, Kenneth Begay, Roger Tsabetsaye, and Helen Hardin. 'This has to be understood as a real movement into the future. It was coming from Indian artists, from within the group. And it really was spectacular," Bahti adds.

The Wheelwright exhibition presented as its earliest example of Loloma work a wall mural upon which he collaborated, at age 19, with two fellow Hopis under Kabotie's direction. The mural was shown in the 1941 Museum of Modern Art exhibit, "Indian Arts of the United States," which was organized by Rene d'Harnoncourt. D'Harnoncourt would go on to introduce Loloma to European painters, fashion designers, and to promote him in landmark shows in San Francisco, New York, and Europe.

Charles Loloma
Bracelet and Earrings, ca. 1970
Silver, Turquoise, Lapis lazuli, Wood, and Coral

Loloma served in the U.S. Army in World War II, supervising road building in the Aleutian Islands. Upon his return, Loloma and his wife, Otellie (from whom he later separated and eventually divorced), went to Alfred University in New York under the CI Bill to study ceramics at the School for American Craftsmen. This, according to Bahti, was where Loloma first began to flex his distinctive style.

"He was doing ceramics in the early '50s and '60s that were Hopi interpretations of Egyptian figures, with Hopi hairstyles, executed with remarkable grace. But one of the problems that plagued Charles through the late 60s, and used to make my dad crazy, was the phrase, 'It's nice but it's not Indian.' Charles would hear it all the time."

The Gallup Inter-Tribal Ceremonial, which ran an annual wholesale fair in August to accommodate trader stores, reflected this attitude in spades, said Bahti. Run by a cast of all-white hotel and restaurant owners and car dealers catering to trader stores, "it was trying to fulfill that fantasy of what being Indian meant." Loloma's work was rejected from Gallup three times in the 1950s.

A decade later, however, Loloma had the opposite problem — taking first prize too often at the Scottsdale National. What made his work so important? "He had an entirely different approach to his materials than any other jeweler had ever had — and he used turquoise a lot of people wouldn't even consider for a heartbeat. [Navajo painter] Robert Sorrell first pointed out to me that it was a painter's approach to stones and inlay," Bahti says.

While scores of contemporary jewelers cite Loloma as their influence, he claimed only two apprentices, the Moroccan-raised Eveli Sabatie, and his niece, Verma Nequatewa. Sabatie worked and lived with Loloma on Hopi from 1968 to 1972, a period when their collaboration coalesced in a huge flowering in Loloma's experiment.

Charles Loloma
Buckle, Ca, 1975 Silver, Turquoise Width: 3 3/4″

Sabatie recalls meeting Loloma for the first time: "One night (in San Francisco) someone took me to the Fillmore and some people were gathered talking about a young Navajo resisting he draft. I decided to go to the trial at Federal Building. The elevator came, and when the door opened, it was filled with representatives of all the southwestern tribes. Everybody was all dressed up. My mouth just dropped. I was the only non-Indian there. I spent a whole day with two Hopis I met at the trial, and they invited me to come to Hopi for the Bean Dance."

"Loloma sat down beside me at the Laundromat and immediately he started asking me all these questions, where I came from and what I had done and what I was doing here. He asked me to come to his shop and see his work. And he said, would you like to learn to make jewelry? And I said of course. The whole operation at the time was just a little shop, with a single backroom."

A case of Sabatie's work at the Wheelwright, the innovations of which proved highly influential to Loloma, included the dazzling The Significance, a handmade book of silver inset with stones, ivory, and bone that relays a visual picture of Sabatie's own incredible sense of pattern and design. Sabatie explains that after meeting Loloma, she realized that she needed to hone some basics. 'Tribal learning is done in silence, through watching," she says. She returned to California to learn to solder and handle a torch before going back to Hopi. In California she purchased silver and gathered cow bones she began curing for use in jewelry. "One of the first things I made was a little box with a piece of cow bone. Later, when I saw boxes Charles had made, they are very much like some of those early boxes."

What emerged aesthetically for Loloma during his time with Sabatie was a recognition of the confluence of stylizations that united mosaic traditions. Mark Bahti explains that Loloma's inlay began with pairings of turquoise and ironwood — a local wood, harder than mesquite, which grows as a tree in the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts. Tom Bahti had introduced Loloma to ironwood boxes that jeweler Frank Patania, Jr., was making. Later, Bahti would show him ironwood sculptures made by Xeri Indians in Mexico.

At roughly the same time, Sabatie remembers, Loloma received a book about Egyptian jewelry that proved wildly important to him. "His inlay reference was the old Hopi earrings that katsinas wear," recalls Sabatie. These earrings inlaid mosaic of turquoise with tiny pieces of abalone in the center, on square pieces of cottonwood, and date to Mesa Verde (1100 A.D.).

'The only inlay experience I had had was with mosaic in turquoise blues, because that's the color of Islam," Sabatie said. "But the Egyptians used the stones in slits or in squares next to each other. I believe that's how he started using lapis. Because he really looked at the Egyptians and there was no lapis around (on Hopi) at the time. It was so hard to find lapis lazuli. We were able to get good coral, and some ivory and ironwood at that time, but that was about it.

Tufa-casting, which was not a traditional Hopi jewelry-making method but had been used by Navajos since 1898, was Loloma's first casting experience and he used it, along with fabrication and lost-wax casting, which he learned in 1957, throughout his career.

A 1974 gold Hopi maiden, exhibited alongside half the tufa mold in which her body was cast, wears a necklace of tiny turquoise beads. Her Lander blue turquoise head, with slit eyes and mouth, confirms that Egyptian jewelry techniques unveiled a seminal discovery for Loloma. The figure also marks an early notice of his abstracting, in inlay, the geometrically stylized features of Hopi Katsina faces. Consider Loloma's multivalent objects as semaphores, colliding historic similarities between Egyptian patterning and Katsina inlay, yet always reiterating his foundation in Hopi-based symbolism.

Charles Loloma
Rings. ca 1980
Left: 18k Gold, Sugilite, Coral, Turquoise, Charoite Height: 1 1/2′
CTnter: 14k Gold, Lapis Lazuli, Charolite,, turquoise
Right: 18k Gold, Sugilite, Coral, Lapis Lazuli, Turquoise

In 1957, Loloma went to California to learn lost-wax casting from Bob Winston — a modernist jeweler who, along with Philip Morton, Alexander Calder, and Jacques Lipschitz, had shown in key 1940s jewelry exhibitions at Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Loloma's niece Verma Nequatewa joined the studio in 1969 and began to learn under his direction how to set stones, becoming his stone-setter. Nequatewa worked with Loloma until the studio closed in 1988. Now, in a studio across the street from his in Hotevilla, she signs her jewelry "Sonwai." Nequatewa cited a silver ram's head bolo and tufa-cast bolo slide representing the katsina Chakwaina among the earliest examples of Loloma's work shown at the Wheelwright.

Charles Loloma
Bracelet. ca. 1975
14k Gold, Lapis Lazuli, Wood, Fossilized Ivory, Coral, Malachite
Diameter: 4″

Tufa-cast silver bracelets dating to around 1960 have blackened trough spaces that suggest cuts a curandera might leave on the ground. A 1956 bracelet Loloma made for Ogilvanna Wright, the wife of Frank Lloyd Wright, bears scorched ridged lines nesting flat squares of coral and turquoise and, near the wrist, a second coral chip that covers a hole generated in the casting.

Loloma made Hs first documented ironwood-incorporating bracelet in 1962. He considered it so important in his development that he held it back from the buyer for 18 months and took it with him on his first trip to Pans, in 1963.

'The earliest silver work was very, very rough," Nequatewa says. Its vocabulary of stylizations juxtaposed the rusticity of casting burns and the ridged lines of plowed fields or topographic maps. These templates continued to guide the jewelry, even as it morphed into mind-blowing arrangements of dazzling gemstones. Nequatewa says her stone-setting was initially a cornrow style of lining up multicolored stones flush and straight. Over time, she began stacking stones into elevations in order to pattern increasingly abstract designs. 'The stones would decide the shape of curve of the bracelet," she explains.

In the catalog that accompanies the exhibition, one can trace the development from roughly 1975 to 1980 of objects that made use of sugilite, lapis, ivory, and more expensive and rare turquoise and coral. Spectacular stacking is visible in two ca. 1975 bracelets, which Nequatewa notes had been partly inspired by a trip Loloma made to New York City. Nineteen cantilevered stone slices set into a 1975 fabricated gold bracelet attained a four-inch diameter and repeated color and gradation for a bundled effect. One imagines the multiplicity of ways it would have been experienced: by the wearer, from below; while a viewer reading it from above might have perceived a Mondrian-like composition.

Charles Loloma
Bracelets, ca. 1975
Left: 14k Gold, Wood, Fossilized Ivory, Coral, Lapis Lazuli, Turquoise, Jade
Right: 14k Gold, Lapis Lazuli, Turquoise, Coral, Wood
Diameter: 3 1/2″

The post-1970 use of higher-end materials was, for Loloma, "a paradigm shift, in response to the market," says Mark Bahti. "But he did continually refresh his work. For our twenty-fifth anniversary show in '76, Charles made stone sculpture and ink drawings. He went back to ceramics for the first time in decades. He would from time to time go off to another media, and then, when he came back to making jewelry, he would do something completely different."

Regardless of media or style, Loloma's badger clan symbol, along with corn maiden, serpents, lizards, and Chakwaina representations would recur throughout his 30-year career. Collaged turquoise necklaces incorporating Lander blue and Bisbee appear intensely painterly. Loloma sometimes extended joclas into insanely long, 10-inch earrings or whimsically nested a branch of coral into a bob slide. Fashion designs became increasingly important to him after his two trips to Paris in 1963 and 1971. And the biomorphic shapes of the coral, wood, turquoise, ivory and lapis lazuli suggest the undulant figures and strange movements in the paintings of Max Ernst, whom Loloma had met in Paris. As Nequatewa stressed, Loloma was mainly interested in jewelry as a spatial practice that needed to embrace the formal rules of painting.

President Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s made a state gift of Loloma's jewelry to Imelda Marcos of the Philippines. Movie stars periodically drove up to his shop on Hopi. Taking a Dale Carnegie course, according to Bahti, helped Loloma learn how to market his work.'Two times I've been to Europe and Paris and have experienced what fine things are," Loloma said. He stayed at the Waldorf Astoria and had eaten at "21." 'To work toward 'fine' things I need to know certain of these feelings."

Yet the frustrations of typecasting and labeling remained. Putting his Indianness out there, comments Sabatie, was a mixed bag for him personally. "I think he wanted to go to Paris because he had to make a stand as a person in front of the white culture." "It was a real tricky thing to do because when you start playing those games you can get caught in them. In his work he remained pure, but in his person, I think, he suffered from it." She said that Loloma's difficulties in being perceived as "Indian enough" were that much more frustrating to him because he realized the debt so many Native American jewelry styles owed to Spanish influences — for example, the squash blossom necklace.

Says Nequatewa, "For sure on Hopi reservations everybody still talks about him. Whoever knew him in the kiva learned a lot from him and wished they had spent more time with him."

Loloma suffered a bad car wreck in 1986. Although he had a brief recovery after a rehabilitation stay at Barrows Neurological Institute in Phoenix, he declined again and died in a nursing home in Phoenix in 1991, at age 69. Loloma's legacy is work that remains as stunning in its range, in its deliberate assertions of influences, and in its refusal to be constrained into any one world order, as when it was first made.

"I wish to create a relationship between the earth and myself," Loloma says, walking his dry cornfields with his nephew, Bryson, in a 1974 video. "Sometimes we do not realize what we are kicking over." He selects a piece of rock from the red ground. "I want to make the soul come out,"

By Ellen Berkovitch – © Metalsmith Magazine – Summer 2006
In association with SNAG‘s
Metalsmith magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.

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Ellen Berkovitch

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