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Short Articles & Publications

A studio visit with THE magazine September 2010

Recently THE magazine stopped by the studio to see what Steve has been creating and asked him to respond to a quote by John Updike.

Updike writes "What art offers is space - a certain breathing room for the spirit"

Steve, of course, responded straight from the heart and said, "While most artists would probably agree with this bland statement, its opposite can also be true. Some great art that is obsessively claustrophobic. There is little room for breathing in a Francis Bacon portrait, and many of the early Modernists’ works were received with horror, not sighs of content. Personally, I’m not looking to create an atmosphere in which Mr. Updike would be comfortable. I want a more complex, more challenging view that takes your breath away and forces you to face the other -the unknown- and therefore consider something new and fresh, even if dark. I’m trying to create a new sensibility about Southwest art that is modern, abstract, yet real, One that shows the Southwest as it is from my interior vision. I prefer art that not only surprises the viewer, but most importantly, surprises me."

Photographer Anne Stavely was there to capture the artist in his studio.

Excerpts from Visions undergroud by Lois Manno

Visions Underground, Carlsbad Caverns through the Artists Eye, by Lois Manno

A native of the city of Carlsbad, Steve Elmore grew up wandering the rugged country of the Guadalupe Mountains, and spent many hours exploring area caves. He worked as a park ranger at the Caverns, and his aesthetic sensibility was powerfully shaped by his experiences growing up in southeastern New Mexico. He has lived in New York City, Los Angeles, and Italy,, working as a travel and corporate photographer. In 1999 Steve returned to New Mexico, and now owns a shop in Santa Fe that deals in historic Pueblo Indian pottery, jewelry, and weavings. He also displays his paintings there. Describing his decision to return to New Mexico from New York, he writes: “I felt disconnected from nature, the source of all creativity, and the City was too far away from the Hopi Pueblos, another source of inspiration.”

He has exhibited his photographs, and paintings across the country. Steve is fascinated with “themes of change and transformation.” His paintings often contain snakes and other life forms, fantastical representations of other worldly creatures and spirit birds. Elmore sees beneath the surface of the world; it is not surprising that caves would make their way into his iconography.


Mountains Into Rivers by Steve Elmore, 2005. Oil on canvas, 36”h X 48”w on loan from the artist to Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Elmore uses abstract forms to interpret the endless cycles of geologic change.

Indian Craze Book Review

Steve Elmore's review of "The Indian Craze" by Elizabeth Hutchinson, published in Native American Art Magazine.

The Process of Art, from the Albuquerque Journal, September 2009


Steve Elmore’s painting career is a work in progress, and he learns a little more each time.

By Kate McGraw
From the Journal
Friday, July 10, 2009

Steve Elmore is a gallerist and dealer in American Indian Art because he loves and respects Indian art and to support his own habit of painting contemporary, non–Indian subjects in oil.

“I’m the old, eccentric, Santa Fe hybrid,” the artist-dealer told the Journal. “There’s a long, long history of this in Santa Fe. It’s a way to keep the bills paid. I don’t think I should have to starve to paint my own art.” “Besides,” he added, “if I were trying to support myself with my painting, there is the danger I would begin to only paint what sells. This way I get to keep my intellectual and aesthetic freedom. I can allow a painting to go where it’s a going to go.” Elmore is opening a show of 12 to 14 new works (“depending on whether the last two get finished in time”) today at his gallery on Paseo de Peralta. The mostly self-taught painter describes his work as “a synthesis of many different elements.” It is boldly colored, with strong geometric shapes and figurative images. “I am not trying to just copy reality. I did that in photography. I paint because it interests me, challenges me and pleases me to do so,” he said. “My paintings are my learning process.”

N.M. Native

Born in Carlsbad, Elmore, 60, worked as a ranger at Carlsbad Caverns when still in college. He earned degrees in English Literature at the University of New Mexico and the University of California at Los Angeles. For 20 years he was a commercial photographer, based in New York City. But he missed New Mexico, remembering the desert and the rugged Guadalupe Mountains that had influenced his aesthetic senses from childhood. “I felt disconnected from nature, the source of all creativity, and the city was too far from the Hopi pueblos, another source of inspiration,” he said. Ten years ago, Elmore returned to New Mexico, opening his eponymous gallery of Indian art in Santa Fe. And, a little to his surprise he began to paint. “At first I painted in a little closet, little paintings, but I slowly got bolder and moved into a bigger room and painted bigger paintings,” he said with a laugh. “I’m pretty much self-taught, but I belong to the Critique Group – that’s a group of us who get together and critique each other’s work. They can point out the little things that you’re not even thinking about. All of these works have been through the Crit Group.

Nampeyo’s Influence

Elmore agreed that his works feature familiar geometric shapes. “That’s the Hopi influence,” he said. “I learned a lot of my aesthetics from Nampeyo’s work. (Nampeyo was a famed Hopi potter, who died in 1942.) Her work is very, very geometric,” Elmore noted. “Other artists look to the Old Masters. I look to nature and the aesthetics of Nampeyo.” The bold, and boldly placed, color fields of his work are quite deliberate, Elmore acknowledged, “I think color is what it’s about as a painter,” he said firmly. Each of his paintings is worked on for months and months he said, “I’m not trying to do any one style. It’s a process. I have painted more than 140 paintings in the 10 years since I began, each numbered. This sequence of paintings reveals my growth as a painter and progresses through several stages of development. I now live in a world where many things have wondrously come together for me” he said. “Much of this is due to the paintings themselves, which are saturated with themes of growth, change, and ultimately, transformation. It’s all a process,” he repeated. “I’m really interested in the old transformational, shamanistic aspect of art. It’s still magic for the artist, and I hope, for the viewer.”

A Century Of Hopi Pottery: A Celebration

After the migrations of the large prehistoric populations that gathered at Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon, several ancestral pueblo groups relocated to the three ridges of Black Mesa in northern Arizona. Occupation below the mesas began as early as the 10th century, but the raids of other tribes followed by the hectoring of the Spanish eventually forced the Hopis to the top of the mesas. The Spanish attempt at conquest failed, and the distant Hopis were left in an anthropological time-warp. Undisturbed for centuries, they were free to pursue the intense ceremonials of the Kachina cult.

In the 1860s, members of John Wesley Powell's Grand Canyon Expedition were among the first visitors to arrive. In 1875, the Englishman, Thomas Keam, opened a trading post. The parade of Eastern anthropologists, museum collectors, dignitaries, world travelers and eccentrics began at Keams Canyon, all searching for exotic examples of Hopi material culture, both contemporary and prehistoric, above or below the ground. From the extant collections in the Smithsonian and the Peabody Museum, we see evidence of the strength of Hopi pottery in large undecorated storage jars, cooking pots, huge canteens, along with some decorated pieces of more modest size which are generally called Polacca, easily recognized by its yellow or white, crackled slipped surface. In addition to stew bowls and water jars, there are many smaller eccentric effigy pieces representing kachinas.

Excavations, legal and illegal, of prehistoric Hopi sites began, and the wonderful prehistoric ceramics of Sikyatki were popped out of the ground and began filling the trading post. Soon boxes and boxes were shipped to the East on the speeding Iron Horse. The Gold Rush began for the yellow gold of Sikyatki pottery, and Thomas Keam was determined not to miss out. Keam needed more Hopi pottery, especially more Sikyatki pottery, and into this void stepped the young beautiful Hopi potter Nampeyo (1860-1942). A legend was born! Replacing the primitive Polacca style with the graceful abstraction and sophistication of the prehistoric, she began the Sikyatki revival that continues to this day. Indeed, her "recreations" of Sikyatki ware were so close to the originals that the anthropologist Jesse Fewkes complained that her work was being passed off as prehistoric by an unscrupulous Keam. Lo! The modern Indian trader was born!

Nampeyo, indifferent to the charges that she was a mere copyist, persisted, and mastered the use of as many as four different clays on the same piece. Of course, she enlisted her family in fulfilling the heavy demand for production placed on her by traders, travelers, scientists, and the ever-curious encroaching white society. She transformed the prehistoric style into her own mature artistic expression. Her artistic career of almost seven decades clearly records the growth of an intense hard-working genius with parallels to artists of all cultures.

In addition to several generations of her family, for whom Nampeyo says she created her designs, other Hopi potters both accompanied and followed her. By the 1920s other great Hopi potters began to emerge: Grace Chappella, and her less famous sister, Laura Tomasie, and of course, Sadie Adams with her flower hallmark. In 1930, Harold Colton, founder of the Museum of Northern Arizona, created an annual Hopi Arts and Crafts Fair paralleling Santa Fe's Indian Market and this annual event was instrumental in the development of Hopi pottery. Colton asked the potters to sign their works, and their reluctance to use their names and their illiteracy led to the use of symbols as signatures. Thus, we have Frog Woman, Antelope Woman, Feather Woman, and Flying Ant Woman. Te-wang-i-nema who began potting shortly after the turn of the century was a particular favorite of the Coltons. Thus, pottery making passed down through the generations through many families, and fortunately thousands of pieces of pottery have survived to this day.

What are the elements that account for the success of Hopi pottery? Technically, the potters work simply, with native clays so fine that a slip is rarely needed for painting. Coal firing yielded to sheep manure and cedar around 1900. Ancient ways persist, the contemporary black-and-white on red ceramics of Antelope Woman and Flying Ant Woman are the direct descendants of prehistoric Four Mile Polychromes from the 14th century. In contrast to the reliable olla and the dough bowl of Rio Grande Pueblos, the Hopis create a seemingly endless variety of forms.

But it is the Hopi potters startling mastery of abstract design and their free-flowing line drawing which captures our attention. Their sophisticated designs predate the work of Picasso and Braque and seem to herald the beginning of modern art. For sheer draftsmanship, they are undoubtedly the finest artists of all of the Pueblo potters. Isolated from the modern world, their designs and forms are less influenced by the surrounding European society. And, what we see in studying their abstractions is a wealth of religious symbols based on the Hopi belief about birds, particularly eagles and mythical birds, as messengers to the spiritual world of the kachina ancestors. From this pure and intense spirituality expressed in the ceramic arts, what wondrous images of birds and flight are created! So amazingly, on “aboriginal” Hopi pottery, we see reflected and intensified, man’s eternal fascination with birds and his quest for flight.

As well as the birds, the kachinas and their regalia are depicted on the pottery in an endless prayer as if the pots are constant reminders of the presence and importance of the kachinas in Hopi life. Of course, corn, rain, water, and clouds—life’s fertility itself—all associated with the work of the Kachinas are also on the pottery. That our own imagination is uplifted and swoops and flies with these wonderful flowing designs is certainly a testament to their strength and originality as well as the universality of humanity. From studying and enjoying Hopi pottery, we arrive back where man began, when art and religion were one.

That such an artistic achievement came from such an unexpected origin speaks to the very heart of the mystery of life and artistic creation itself; for how much longer it will continue, we can only hope and wonder ourselves. Thank you for joining us in this celebration!

Suggested Bibliography:

Nampeyo, by Barbara Kramer
The Legacy of a Master Potter: Nampeyo, by Mary Ellen and Laurence Blair
Historic Hopi Ceramics, Edwin Wade and Lea McChesney
America's Great Lost Expedition: The Thomas Keam Collection of Hopi Pottery, by Wade and McChesney
Contemporary Hopi Pottery, by Laura Allen Graves

A Brief History of Plateau Beaded Bags

In the early 19th century European traders brought colorful glass beads to the Plateau region between the Cascade and Rocky Mountains. The bright beads were eagerly adopted for decorative use on clothing and accessories, including flat bags. Previously, the Plateau tribes including the Yakama, Umatilla, Nez Perce, Cayuse, and Warm Springs had a strong tradition of weaving flat cornhusk bags accented with multicolored geometric and floral designs on both sides.

Originally, large cornhusk bags were made for gathering food. By the end of the 19th century with increasing amounts of trade goods, the cornhusk bags generally shrank in size and were more highly decorated. At the same time, similarly shaped hide bags decorated with beaded designs became increasingly fashionable among the Plateau tribes. Both types of bags displayed to the community a woman’s wealth, status, heritage, and her belief systems. Flat bags were rarely made for sale but rather for personal use or as gifts between women and were often referred to as “friendship” bags. At the beginning of the 20th century the creativity of individual bead-workers is expressed in many styles including floral, geometric and increasingly complex figural motifs.

Inspiration for these designs often came from popular media such as magazines like Harper’s Weekly and Lady’s Home Journal, company logos, the U.S. flag, classical mythology, and even portraits of Native Americans. This tradition continues to inspire modern bead-workers today, as seen in the prominent display of beaded masterpieces at rodeos, powwows, and other social gatherings.

San Ildefonso Polychrome Pottery

While the distinctive blackware pottery originated by Maria and Julian Martinez in their home village of San Ildefonso around 1920 is now world famous, little attention has been given to San Ildefonso pottery created before their innovation. Yet, from 1875-1925, the polychrome pottery produced at San Ildefonso reached and represents a creative peak in the centuries' long history of pueblo pottery.

Before 1875, the pottery from San Ildefonso had a gray-slipped background with simple black designs painted on a bulbous rounded form. The use of red was conservatively confined to the rim and a narrow band on the bottom of the jar. Around 1880, potters at San Ildefonso began introducing red into the painted design on the main body of the jars. What prompted this introduction of red is unknown, but some scholars suggest that the arrival of thousands of curious travelers from the Eastern United States on the newly built railroad sparked the change. The tourists were eager to purchase pottery, and the polychrome wares of Acoma led the market. So, the addition of the red clay paint into the design and the development of more elaborate and precise designs on San Ildefonso pottery was thus a trader-inspired marketing attempt to compete with the popular pottery of Acoma and nearby Laguna. It is also possible that a single inspired artist, an unknown Nampeyo or Maria of an earlier generation, suddenly added red to the paint palette and created the first polychrome. Whatever the reason, by the early 1880s, hundreds of polychrome jars were being produced annually by the skilled potters of San Ildefonso for sale to the tourist and museum trade. In response to this demand, and for almost fifty years thereafter, the potters of San Ildefonso created well molded pots brilliantly decorated in black and red, whose size and beauty have not been surpassed since.
With the addition of red paint to the pottery during this period, we also see the designs themselves begin to develop from small crudely drawn abstractions to elaborate flowing designs covering the entire jar. The addition of red heightens the intensity of the black design and seems to urge the painter on to create larger more complex designs. Previous simple designs are now repeated in a larger and more intricate manner by later pottery painters: tradition IS carried forward. Yet an amazing array of both realistic and abstract bird designs are also introduced along with other pictorial elements. The shape of the vessels also evolves, from rounded bulbous jars with small necks to elegant tapered vases with small bases and flared out rims: the classic "Tunyo" form. For fifty years, we can study the steady growth and development of an art form as it crests into a peak! A peak produced by the same potters whose invention of blackware ironically doomed the San Ildefonso polychromes.

It is important to note that San Ildefonso was and remains a small village. In 1900 there were only 30 households, and in 1910 only eight women are noted in the census as pottery makers. We are fortunate to know the names of many of these early potters. Standing head and shoulders above their fellow potters at the turn of the century, are the husband and wife team of Martina Vigil and Florentino Montoya. Martina's excellent molding combined with Florentino's painting produced many excellent jars, including many fine large storage jars, most in the polychrome style. Born in the 1850s, they were certainly potting by the 1870s if not earlier, and their joint efforts became a model for the production of San Ildefonso polychromes: a family effort involving both sexes. The Montoyas were perfect role models for the younger Martinezes who built upon their success. Although unsigned, the Montoyas' innovative works forge an identifiable style that is recognizable to their students: a convex neck, a thick black framing line between two thin lines around the shoulder, and the slip on later pieces carried all the way to the bottom to increase the design area. Most importantly, around 1905, the Montoyas introduced the rag-wiped bentonite slip from Cochiti which quickly replaced traditional stone polishing. Maria and Julian, along with her sister Anna, and Tonita Roybal, as well as other distinguished potters took the polychromes to new heights of creativity and expression.

This florescence of polychrome production was brought to a sudden and near complete halt by the Martinezes' invention of painted blackware around 1920. For, as Ruth Bunzel observes, the attraction of the blackware is its polished background and the painted matte designs are minimized to emphasize the shiny slip which now dominates. This aesthetic is the exact opposite of the polychromes where intricate black and red designs were sharply contrasted against the midtone grey slip. In the war of aesthetics, the blackware won and by 1925 Bunzel can no longer find a single piece of polychrome ware in the village. And yet it is ironic that the Martinezes themselves began as polychrome potters and were among the greatest of them. Though the vast majority of their output was blackware, Maria and Julian continued to produce occasional polychrome masterpieces right up until Julian's death in 1943. One cannot help but wonder if the bold artistic tradition of the traditional polychrome medium didn't occupy a special place in their hearts.

Obviously, there is more research to be done on these artists and their work. But without doubt, their wonderful abstractions of floral and animal life, created before Picasso and modern 20th century art, along with their gracefully molded forms, will continue to push Native American art to the forefront of art history and increase our understanding of art and ourselves. We are gradually seeing that the same circumstances which produce European art also produces native art, that indeed mankind's family is universal and one. We are proud to present this selection of San Ildefonso Polychrome pottery.

With thanks to Jonathan Batkin, Ruth Bunzel, and Frank Harlow.