PHOENIX, Ariz. - Hopi kachina dolls have captured the public imagination for more than a century. Visitors to Phoenix's Heard Museum ask about them more often than any other art form. Now, in addition to the dolls on display in the Heard's permanent exhibit, "HOME: Native People in the Southwest," the Heard Museum has brought out even more pieces from its collection for the world to see, admire and explore, in its newest exhibition, "Hopi Katsina Dolls: 100 Years of Carving."
More than a century of evolution in kachina doll carving is on display in the exhibition, which opened Feb. 27. Selections from the Heard Museum's major kachina doll collections offer insight into gradual stylistic changes and individual artists' techniques and aesthetics in the exhibition. Visitors learn how a single carver's style can be distinctive, a handy thing to know when collecting or simply admiring the artistry of Hopi carvers.
Traditionally, kachina dolls are used as teaching tools. They are the carved representations of the Katsinam, the spirit messengers of the universe. The Katsinam come to Hopi in the form of clouds, which bear life-giving rain. The Katsinam appear in physical form in Hopi villages between the winter solstice and the beginning of the monsoon season in July.
Different Katsinam represent different aspects of life; for example, the Soyoko Katsinam help teach children proper behavior. Misbehaving children are threatened with being given to the Soyoko, a threat that most often instills a great desire on the part of the child to correct their behavior.
The dolls are given to Hopi girls, beginning in infancy, to help them learn about their responsibilities as women in the community. The dolls are carved by initiated Hopi men using cottonwood roots; in earlier days, all kachina dolls were colored with natural dyes, which made them non-toxic for a teething baby to handle.
The dolls created for the open market, however, sport modern dyes and paints.
While both the deeper meaning of a kachina doll and the material from which is carved - the root of the cottonwood tree - is unchanged through the centuries, carvers have transformed the outward representation of a doll over time.
Over the years, as more non-Hopi collectors became enamored with kachina dolls, and as power tools like Dremel rotary tools became available, Hopi kachina carvers also became more creative. The formerly flat doll carvings are now full-figured, with lifelike movement, brighter colors and elaborate regalia. Some contemporary carvers make the cottonwood root from which the dolls are carved seem to move as if it is the drape of a robe or a rain sash. Another facet of kachina doll carving is that young carvers like Ryon Polequaptewa are reviving the carving of more traditional dolls. Some of Polequaptewa's dolls will be on display in the exhibition.
Polequaptewa says, "The roots of the cottonwood tree are very forgiving. Some carvers say it is like carving into butter if you find the very premium stuff." Another Phoenix-area carver says that his supplier of cottonwood root gathers in Utah and sells the root by the square inch.
At present time, there are roughly three approaches artists take when creating a figure. One approach is realism and action, representing a figure as it would look and move in ceremony. This approach has been greatly aided by the tools and materials developed since the 1970s. Another approach, begun in the mid-1980s, is to represent the Katsinam as carvers did in the early 1900s, but with the contemporary carver's individual style. The third approach is to carve - not a kachina doll - but a sculpture. Sculptures may evoke a spirit or tell a story. A further extension of realism and sculpture is the carving a multi-figure tableau that represents a scene from ceremony.
Like the changing nature of kachina doll carving, the Heard's collections come from many different sources and eras. The older collection dates as far back as the early 1900s and contains pieces from the Fred Harvey Company Collection. The company acquired kachina dolls through three major sources including C.L. Owen, an anthropologist with the Field Museum in Chicago. The Heard also has items from five other collections in its possession, including that of Sen. Barry Goldwater. The famous Goldwater Kachina Doll Collection bridges the early years of the 20th century and reaches into the mid-century years, as does the Joann Phillips Collection, which is rich in mid-20th century carvings.
Selections from these older collections join the more contemporary carvings of the Sid and Ruth Schultz collection to create a visual history of kachina doll carving. The Schultz collection incorporates the best of recent carvings by artists who fully explore the use of modern carving tools and many distinctive treatments.
However, even though kachina dolls created for the public have evolved into more of an artform, the ancient spirituality of the kachina religion still endures and is nurtured in Hopi communities. The ardor of collectors for the dolls that have been used to teach proper behavior and what it means to be a Hopi for millennia also endures.
The Heard Museum Shop's kachina doll buyers Bruce McGee and James Barajas hold informal kachina doll information sessions in the Shop on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 1 p.m. when the public is invited to ask questions about kachina dolls. Both McGee and Barajas are experts in their field and share their knowledge utilizing the Heard Museum Shop's kachina dolls.
The exhibition Hopi Katsina Dolls: 100 Years of Carving continues through Sept. 5.