This artist reimagines pop art with a Plains Indian perspective
How Rose Simpson’s lowrider is an homage to Pueblo potters
SANTA CLARA PUEBLO, N.M. — While studying automotive science, Rose B. Simpson built a moving piece of art: “Maria,” a black, refurbished 1985 Chevrolet El Camino named for famed Pueblo potter Maria Martinez.
The car “took up a lot of space, because she’s a queen,” Simpson said as she gave the PBS NewsHour a tour of her studio space on the Santa Clara Pueblo, just outside Espanola, New Mexico. The shop is also where Simpson creates much of her artwork, which fuses ceramic sculpture, metalwork, performance and writing. Simpson, who comes from a long line of Pueblo potters, is putting a contemporary spin on the traditional art of her ancestors.
Espanola has come to be known as the “Lowrider Capital of the World,” and growing up Simpson was surrounded by flashy, beautiful custom cars and car culture, which she considers a form of performance art. Simpson said it was her dream to have one of her very own.
Artist Rose B. Simpson shows us “Maria,” a 1985 Chevrolet El Camino that’s named after famed Pueblo potter Maria Martinez, whose black-on-black ceramics are legendary. Video by PBS NewsHour
But the decision to paint “Maria” in the black-on-black style made famous by Martinez? That came one day when Simpson and her mother used the car to harvest corn, beans and squash from their garden. That’s when Simpson realized that the car is a kind of pot.
“A long time ago, we would actually make a pot, and carry it on our head. We would use it for the things we needed,” said Simpson, who earned an MFA in ceramics from the Rhode Island School of Design. “And nowadays, we have these cars, and we use them, and it’s still for the same purpose of nourishing our families.”
To Simpson, “craft is how you move through the world.”
“Maria” is part of a groundbreaking art exhibit currently at the Frist Art Museum in Nashville, Tennessee. “Hearts of Our People” is the first major show in the country to focus exclusively on the artistic contributions of Native American women. After the show in Nashville, the exhibit will travel to Washington, D.C., and then Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 2020. Originally organized and curated by the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the show features 117 works of art from Native communities across the United States and Canada.
Simpson spoke with the NewsHour’s Jeffrey Brown on how her artwork builds on that of her ancestors, why she doesn’t separate art from life, and how “Maria” has evolved over the years.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Being an artist is sort of the family business, in a way? Or, how do you think about it? Is it a business, is part of just how you grew up?
Well, I never thought of it as a business. That’s an interesting way to put it. I think that I come from a long, long line of artists and creative people. And by a long line, I mean as far as you can go back.
Not talking about 10 or 20 years, you’re talking about hundreds.
Yeah, I’m talking about hundreds. Possibly thousands, right. And I think that what I talk about with being an artist, being an artist as separate from life is a very Western definition. When I talk about my art practice, I think it’s easy when we apply aesthetic ways of being to your everyday life, that being an artist is a very easy switch to make. And then, you know, with colonization, and with Western ways of living, and such, we’ve had to figure out how to market that, and to make a living from that, because we’re not sustaining ourselves from the land anymore.
But then the art becomes separated in some ways from the life.
Right, and it’s been a really interesting thing to watch how I think a lot of indigenous people have navigated that sort of new way of livelihood.
But that also goes to the double way of thinking about art and craft, right, and how you’re defined. One of the things in the [“Hearts of Our People”] exhibition is making the point that these, what we traditionally might call craftspeople are not seen as artists, should be seen as artists. How do you feel about that?
I went to graduate school for ceramics; my first master’s degree was in ceramics. And a lot of the conversation was art versus craft, art versus craft, right? And because I went to school for ceramics, you know, there was this, “Don’t call me a craftsman” because craft is apparently bad.
Craft is every day, it’s utilitarian.
Yeah, it’s utilitarian, it’s lowly. It’s not high art. And so, so many people wanted so badly to not be seen as craftspeople, they wanted to be artists, and they wanted to make work that ended up in high organizations. And I actually did a piece once, where I spent the same amount of time making a — something that hung on the wall — and then I spent the same amount of time making, throwing cups that were useful, and I spent all this time decorating them —
Cups that you could drink out of?
I tried to sell them for the same price, and nobody would pay the same price for the cups that I had spent the same amount of time on, as the wall piece. It was just my own sort of investigation into that. And I think that what I’m trying to do, because for — I’ll just speak for my experience as a public person — that craft is how you move through the world, right, and colonization was the very thing that separated art from our life, and everyday life.
I feel like what we need to do is get into those high art places, and say, “Hey, remember our power is in our hands, and you are powerless if you can’t make, and you can’t create, and you can’t live in this world.” What happens if this all falls apart, and we don’t know how to cook anymore, and we don’t know how to make our own food, we don’t know how to grow our own food. All those things, like true power lies in utilitarian ways of being. And so, I think that’s what I’m trying to do, is kind of enter into those places that still, you know, put high art as the hierarchy, and try and wake people up to their humanity.
So, do you see yourself as, do you see yourself in a line of potters, artists, craftspeople? How do you see your lineage?
I think lineage has a lot to do with respect and humility. My mother would not have had the recognition and platform for her work if my grandmother hadn’t created that for her, and my great grandmother hadn’t created that for her daughters, right? And so, we’re all sort of creating this next step for our next generations. And to feel like I am independent of that lineage, or that kind of foundation and establishment, would be very naive and disrespectful.
How do you go from growing up around people using ceramics, mostly making pots and sculptures, to making a car? What’s the connection?
Santa Clara Pueblo is directly adjacent to Espanola, which is a small city in northern New Mexico, that’s sandwiched between two reservations. The city of Espanola has a strong heritage of Hispanic culture. And so as a teenager, you’re hanging out with all the other teenagers, and we drove through town, and you would see these amazing cars, because Espanola is the “Lowrider Capital of the World.” It has more lowriders per capita than Orange County, [California,] even.
I would see these spectacular works of art, and I remember as a kid being, like, “When I grow up, I’m going to have a custom car.” I used to think lowrider, but I just wanted to feel that fabulous, you know? And there was something about that sense of accomplishment that it represented. And, in retrospect, I realized that that came from a lot of postcolonial stress disorder, and disenfranchisement.
In what sense, what does that mean?
Our communities are wrought with a lot of what I call “postcolonial stress disorder.” It’s a manner of going through the world when you’re dealing with the stress of colonization. And a lot of that is alcoholism, drug abuse, domestic violence, things like that. And this daily struggle of being in a world that doesn’t — isn’t necessarily in line with your ancestral ways of being. And so, it sort of jars everyone, and that causes a lot of trauma, and a lot of difficulties. As a child I feel like I was sort of up against a lot of things that I probably shouldn’t have been, that were sort of unhealthy. And it was in the entire community, and everyone is going through that, and we’re all figuring out ways to try and survive it, and not a lot of us don’t survive it. And one of the ways that I found out that I could survive it was to be able to escape, and so, what I realized was my escape was cars. I bought my first car from my mom when I was 12.
It was a Jeep Cherokee. It was always breaking down. And I kept having to fix it on my own because I needed it to run. And I drove myself to driver’s ed at 14 and got my full-on driver’s license, when you could, at 14. My car became my freedom, and it became my safety, and it became a true comrade in my survival.
Because I didn’t have a lot of money, I worked on my car a lot, and I think it wasn’t just that it broke down a lot, and I had to fix it, but actually in a world where things are incredibly psychologically confusing, and hard to process, that an engine is very calming, because it’s: gear A turns right, gear B turns left, gear C turns right. It’s all very dependable. Even if it’s breaking down all the time, there’s a way to fix it. And I think I projected myself onto my vehicle, and through my life all my vehicles, right? And through understanding that it is fixable, and it is customizable, and you can make it fabulous. And if it does break down, there’s a way to get it running again. It was so much a projection of myself.
And so, long story short, when I came back from Rhode Island, and I had been studying relational aesthetics, I drove through Espanola, and I was like man, talk about relational aesthetics, these low riders, these custom cars are everything they’re talking about, this is performance art. This is like, your house is missing windows, and half burnt down, but you have a nice car in the yard, and that’s survival. Because I understand the psychology of needing a car as a projected source of self-worth. When your life is crumbling, but you can drive through town with a sense of pride, it might just keep you alive.
And I think the reason that it makes sense that [“Maria” is] in a museum exhibition, is because I was trying to stay very true to applying my aesthetic integrity to my personal, psychological investigation. And so, I wasn’t like, “Oh, I’m going to make it so that she makes it into a museum.” I was like, “I’m going to make it so that it changes me.” If it changes me, and it transforms me, and it makes me just walk with my head a little bit higher today, that was the whole point, right? She is one of a kind, and very, very specific, she has so much heart in it. That car is dripping with my heart.
I like you call it “she.”
But that’s why it makes sense that also, to bridge these, life and art, they go together.
Yeah. She’s a living example, I guess. The day before she went to the museum, I was driving through town, I took her to the carwash to spray her off, so I could start detailing her. And the battery, there’s a short in the engine, and the battery falls into the engine compartment, hits the fan, and throws battery acid all over the engine compartment.
And so, I’m on the side of the road, rewiring the battery so that I could get back home. And I come home, and I end up rewiring the whole front end, to try and find this short that’s causing this welt on the strap that grounds the battery to the body. And I was like, “I could be detailing you, car, right now, but instead I’m, you know, rewiring the whole front end.” And so, I took some bailing wire, and I strapped the battery in, so that it wouldn’t fall out back into the fan. And I thought about it, I was like, “You can’t put bailing wire in the engine compartment of a car that’s in a museum!” And I was like, “Yeah, I can. Because that’s true.” The battery is held in by bailing wire, and that’s super important.
But you think about all those judgments we carry about what’s appropriate, and what’s acceptable, and all those things, and I’m like, she’s got chips in her paint from driving down the road. There’s baby toys in the front seat from my kid, like smearing hot dog and stuff like that in there, and I used to put my kid in the bed of the El Camino while I was trying to weld, put her in there with some snacks and toys, and she would play. And this is life, you know? So, she’s very, you know, not only is she full of my heart, but she’s full of life.
Editor’s note: The photo credit line has been updated to reflect that Kate Russell took the photo of “Maria.”