The transformations of Manuel Denet Chavarria
The transformations of Manuel Denet Chavarria.
Manuel Denet Chavarria is a Hopi man who was born in 1964. He lives east of Polacca near First Mesa, Arizona. He was born into his mother’s Butterfly clan and he often signs his work with a butterfly symbol. Manuel has been making katsinam since he was 11 years old. What is especially remarkable about his work is that his style has evolved dramatically over the years. Some trends have been radical departures from the previous. And as he told me recently, his artistic style continues to be a work in progress. But let’s start at the beginning.
Manuel is someone who attributes artistic influence to many people whom he speaks of with great respect. He shared that his earliest katsina influences were his grandfather, Fred Denet, and his grandmother, Otille Jackson. He noted that Otille was one of the first women to make katsinam and he emphasized that she taught him something especially important: the business side of the art world. She cautioned him, “Never leave home without your tools, because one can make art and generate income no matter where you are.” Manuel says he’s never forgotten this advice so his carving tools and paints are his constant companions.
He added that another grandmother, Susan Denet, was also an influence. She was a renowned potter who inspired him to strive to be an artist. And he points to
Walter Howato, the legendary master katsina carver as another key influence. He recalled in the 1980s going to the Heard Museum trying to sell his early work with little success. He would walk around the Heard gift shop and see Walter’s work and be in awe. At the time he was attempting to carve in the realistic style that had become popular in the 1970s.
That all changed in the late 1980s with some encouragement from trader Joseph Day, who had just opened Tsakurshovi on Second Mesa with his Hopi wife, Janice. Manuel notes that this was so early in the existence of Tsakurshovi that their signature “Don’t Worry, Be Hopi” T-shirt only came in red. At the time Joe had a few dolls by Manfred Susunkewa, the originator of the traditional style movement. Joe urged Manuel “to try something different” and make something in the “old style.” So one day Manuel “stayed up all night and made a Koyala” (or Koshare). Joe bought it immediately and the rest is history. Manuel has been carving in some version of the old style ever since.
Note examples of carvings from the early 1990s in Figure 3. These are left to right, Hahai’i Wuhti, Hilili, and a Koyemsi. Work from this era had bright colors. The execution was notably fresh, clean and crisp without being fussy. The body types were linear and simple and resembled the katsinam from 1890 to 1920.
Work from this era was well received. Manuel’s carvings were included in Arizona Highways, and later in Jerry and Lois Jacka’s book, Art of the Hopi. He also won prizes during this time at shows at the Museum of Northern Arizona and the Heard Museum. Manuel was realizing his dream of being a full-time, self-supporting artist.
During this period, Manuel received his first invitation to have a booth at Santa Fe Indian Market— which he refers to as the “Super Bowl” for young artists. He recalls the first time he attended watching Arizona Living Treasure Manfred Susunkewa from afar. Manuel said he was too intimidated to approach him but he observed how Manfred arranged his booth, interacted with customers, and discussed his katsina carvings. He said he watched Manfred all day, adding that “this is how we Hopi learn. We don’t read texts or manuals. We observe.” He added that as he became more confident he eventually shared this story with Manfred and they had a good laugh.
While Manuel was having some success during this period, not all was healthy and well. As Manuel shared with me, he had developed a problem with alcohol. He dates this challenge to his time in the U.S. Army at Fort Knox from 1986 to 1989. He added that after discharge he brought his alcohol abuse back with him to the reservation. There were some positives to his return to Hopiland as he renewed his relationship with an old girlfriend, Marlinda Kooyaquaptewa. She eventually became his wife and mother of their three children. But Manuel notes that he struggled with alcoholism on and off for 20 years. By 2009 Manuel had had been diagnosed with diabetes and weighed as much as 250 pounds. He was in an extremely unhealthy place. This is when one of his transformations occurred.
Manuel explained by 2009 he realized he was “becoming a diabetic who would waste away and die.” He was able to get sober with a great deal of family support. When he reached one year of sobriety he began working for the Detox Stabilization Center in Holbrook, Arizona. He became a peer support worker helping others in their recovery. Early on he found this work meaningful and found that it supported his own recovery as well. He noted that this was his “first real job.” But even so he said, “My identity as an artist was calling me back to my heart.” He also noted that working at home as a carver allowed him to be closer to family (which now includes 13 grandchildren).
A major help in Manuel getting healthy has been his involvement in cycling. He rides 3 to 5 days per week and has even done long-distance races. In recent years he has ridden twice in the Tour de Sih Hasin (Navajo for “hope”). This is a seven-day tour involving 300 miles each summer. Manuel has since joined the board of directors for this event. In addition, Manuel has started, with others, a biking program for Hopi youth in four of the nine villages. Because of his emphasis on fitness he has lost 40 pounds and does not need to take insulin.
Having come back to the life of a full-time artist, Manuel carves three to five days a week. Since his return, his style of carving has undergone a profound change. Note the katsinam shown in Figure 5. These are a Soyoko (Ogre) on the left, followed by a very large Qoqlo, and a smaller Qoqlo. The style of these carvings is radically different from his work from the early 1990s. The paints are muted and subtle. And he explained that he now uses what he calls “a distressed style.” Asked how he arrived at this style, he said it came from visiting museums and seeing antique dolls. He said he loved how they look and decided to try to “replicate it.” He also noted the influence of his old idol, Walter Howato, yet Manuel has made the style his own. Two other recent examples in this style are the Ogres shown in Figure 2. On the left is the rarely seen Atosle and on the right, a Soyoko.
One aspect that differentiates his work from Walter’s is his tendency to add miniature dolls and other items to his carvings. For example, the Soyoko in Figure 5 is holding a small Heheya and the large Qoqlo is really well equipped with Hahai’i Wuhti and Qoglo cradle katsinam, and a full-figured mini Qoqlo.
Another development in Manuel’s newer style is making very large carvings. An especially fine example is shown on Figure 1. This is a Yunya or Prickly Pear Cactus katsina. It is a whopping 18 inches tall by 11 inches wide. The cacti on its head bear over 500 inserted toothpick spikes! Another example in this oversized trend is shown in Figure 4. This is another large Qoqlo— but a very different version—which is carrying a mini Qoqlo, a Matya and a drum with pounder.
While Manuel has worked in this distressed style for several years, he says he originally made two prototypes in this manner as early as 1990. And he indicates, “Even
now I’m not set in one place; I’m still evolving.”
A case in point is the very recent carving shown in Figure 6. He described this remarkable piece as a “mixture of the contemporary and old style.” Note the exceptional detail on this work of art: The Soyoko is holding a crook and knife with a copper blade. Also carved in bas relief are four mini Heheya katsinam. Three of these are holding twine lassos. The movement of this large figure is undulating and the shaping of the hair and garment are synchronous. This sculpture is 18 inches tall by 7 inches wide and it is secured to a base—unlike almost all his other work. It is clear that Manuel’s artistic development is ongoing.
Manuel notes that he has learned to work in a healthier manner. He used to carve in a frenzy getting ready for shows or competitions. He wouldn’t take a break to rest and would eat candy bars, chips and soda to keep going. He said, “I was like a car running too hot.” One night several years ago while working in this manner, he said he “almost flipped out.” “I went to a dark, scary place and when I came back, I decided to change things.” So now Manuel paces himself, takes a break, eats healthily, rides his bike, reads a book, and spends time with the grandkids. These are all part of the transformations of Manuel Denet Chavarria. We can all look forward to his next artistic directions.
1. Yunya or Prickly Pear Cactus katsina,
18 x 11". Barry Walsh Collection. Photo by Dan Vaillancourt, Patrick O’connor Photography.
2. Atosle katsina and Soyoko katsina. Peg Demouthe Collection. Photo by Peter ffoulkes.
4. Large Qoqlo katsina carrying a mini Qoqlo, a Matya and a drum with pounder. Peg Demouthe Collection. Photo by Peter ffoulkes.
3. Hahai’i Whuti, Hilili and Koyemsi katsinam, ca. 1990s. Barry Walsh Collection. Photo by Dan Vaillancourt, Patrick O’connor Photography.
5. Soyoko katsina, large Qoqlo and smaller Qoqlo. Barry Walsh Collection. Photo by Dan Vaillancourt, Patrick O’connor Photography.
6. Soyoko katsina with four mini Heheya katsinam in bas relief, 18 x 7". Barry Walsh Collection. Photos by Dan Vaillancourt, Patrick O’connor Photography. Steve Fischer Collection.