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Coming Back to Earth


To some, Southwest style means peach and turquoise rooms decorated with artificial cacti and quaint carvings of howling coyotes.

"Trendy-cutesy" is how Sue DiMaio of Galeria Capistrano in San Juan Capistrano describes the decorating fad that swept through homes several years ago in a wave of pastels and terra cotta.

The cute coyotes of trendy Southwest interiors are no relation to authentic American Indian artifacts made primarily in the Southwest. The two Southwest styles should not be confused, for while Indian art has grown more popular, it's no passing fad.

Handmade pieces such as Hopi kachina dolls, peace pipes, tomahawks, pottery, Navajo textiles and baskets are increasingly finding their way into modern homes.

"The popularity of native American artwork goes in cycles," says Paul Apodaca, curator of Indian art for the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana.

"Sometimes it's something as superficial as a movie that triggers it, or a historical event."

In the '90s, the renewed interest in Indian culture stems from a variety of sources, Apodaca says. The approaching end of the 20th Century and 500th anniversary of Columbus' voyage to America have prompted many to re-examine the country's history--and its native inhabitants.

The movie "Dances With Wolves," also played a small role in reviving interest in Indian culture, he says.

Others say the resurging popularity of Indian art reflects growing concern for the environment.

"People are interested in getting back in touch with the earth," says Ron Cohan of San Juan Capistrano's Zia Jewelry, which is hosting a show of Indian art and crafts at the store gallery today and Sunday.

"Indians have always had a message about this, but we've never listened to it," he says. "We're just now starting to appreciate the balance" between humans and nature.

DiMaio, too, traces the interest in Indian culture to the ecology movement.

"The American Indian is not wasteful. If he killed a buffalo, he used every part of the animal," she says. "It's all part of general awareness that we must take care of the universe and take care of the land."

Unlike mass-produced goods, Indian artifacts are often rich in symbolism and meaning.

"People are interested in learning about the message behind these things," Cohan says. "They don't just buy a piece because it's pretty or it fits on a shelf. They want to know the story.

"One item that's real popular is the dream-catcher. It's a weaving that looks like a spider's web enclosed in a leather hoop, with a feather coming down. People hang them in their homes.

"Indians believe dreams float through the night sky and get caught in the web. Good dreams go through the hole in the web and trickle down the feather to the head. Bad dreams dissipate in the light of day."

Indian pottery often features the figure of the rain bird, whose wings are made of clouds with zigzag edges that represent bolts of lightning, according to Apodaca. For people who live in a desert, the bird is a symbol of life.

"Most ceramic pots deal with themes of rain, lightning and the growth of corn," Apodaca says. "The Indians' life is dependent on rain. They're living in a desert and dependent on the rainfall and growth of corn."

Apodaca, who is both Navajo and Mexican, has spent his life learning and promoting native American art. He makes peace pipes and sand paintings, which were traditionally created during Indian ceremonies but are now also made for permanent display.

To keep from offending the spirits, any pieces used in Indian ceremonies are slightly altered by the artist if they are put up for sale.

"People often wonder, 'If these things are so meaningful, why do they sell them?' The answer is that (the artists) protect themselves" by making minor changes in the piece, Cohan says.

Galeria Capistrano carries modern American Indian art, including pottery, sculpture, kachina dolls and paintings, that reflect the Indians' spiritual roots.

"These are something more than just a beautiful image on a wall. They have a spiritual content," DiMaio says.

For example, the gallery has a watercolor by G.E. Mullan that features an Indian woman with a jar, suggesting the archetypal figure of Mother Earth with the jar symbolic of the womb.

"Hopi Spring Ceremony," an alabaster sculpture by Alvin Marshall, depicts a woman with corn pollen on her cheeks in two circles, signifying that life is everlasting.

"It's a magical world people know very little about," DiMaio says. "People know more about Sylvester Stallone than the American Indian."

And customers are starting to value the pieces made by the Indians from materials found around the reservations. DiMaio recently sold a Hopi kachina doll, intricately carved from a single piece of wood, for $6,000.

"We have waiting lists for these dolls," she says. Hopi kachina dolls represent the spirits of the Southwest Indians and were carved out of wood to teach children about Hopi religious ceremonies. Galeria Capistrano is holding an exhibit of kachina dolls through April 12.

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