Lyn A. Fox Fine Pueblo Pottery shows Darance Chimerica’s katsinam in a new exhibition.
For millennia, Hopi people have occupied a rural, arid region of Northeastern Arizona just a little over an hour’s drive from Flagstaff. Though Hopi villages are some of the oldest continually inhabited lands in the United States, one of the Pueblo’s most distinctive art forms, its katsina dolls, are relatively new when you consider it’s an area first settled around 1100. The very earliest katsina dolls date to the late 1700s, and the vast majority date to the middle of the 19th century. As the market for these spectacular, distinctive figures surged in the 20th century, some Hopi carvers began creating hyperrealistic dolls. More recently, there’s been a resurgence of more traditional styles, exemplified by artists like Darance Chimerica. For nearly 20 years, this Hopi carver has created imminently appealing, resplendently adorned katsina dolls.
Katsina dolls are also important teaching instruments, given to female members of the Hopi tribe beginning in infancy to convey cultural and spiritual information. As physical manifestations of katsinam—messengers between spiritual and earthly realms, the carved dolls may represent beloved class ancestors or legendary historical figures, but may also comprise any number of entities from the natural world, including sacred animals, creative forces or even earthly elements.
Since birth, Chimerica has lived on Third Mesa, in the village of Hotevilla, Arizona. Different mesas (there are three in total) have unique means of carving and configuring katsina dolls. Materials vary, and so do techniques. “On Third Mesa,” Chimerica says, “we tend to use a natural style, painting with earth tones, and keeping things relatively simple.” It’s this style that initially caught the eye of Santa Fe, New Mexico, gallerist Lyn Fox, who has been representing Chimerica for over 15 years. Though his specialty is Southwestern Pueblo pottery, Fox’s interest in katsina
dolls grew when he first met Chimerica in 2003, and the gallery will feature a solo exhibition for the artist titled Thunder, Lightning, Frogs and Bears. “Everything he uses, every step of the process hinges on a deep reverence for nature,” says Fox. “Darance’s work appeals on a visceral level. He creates a huge world of fascinating personalities, with unique qualities, all with origins in the natural world.”
“My grandfathers on both sides made katsina dolls,” said Chimerica. “But they didn’t sell them; they were for private use, for family.” Though Chimerica grew up around carving, his early creative pursuits were two-dimensional, and throughout grade school and high school he made elaborate drawings and painted on canvas using acrylics or oils. When Chimerica decided to trade in the paintbrushes for carving instruments, he was just a teenager, and largely self-taught. “I learned on my own, gathering materials and inspiration from the environment.” Just looking at works like his frog katsinam indicate that Chimerica never really abandoned his love for drawing and painting. Rendered in pale greenish-brown, a female (or “mana”) frog katsina is adorned in a black dress, a broad, symbolladen red belt around her waist. The lower rim of her garment is ridged in dusky blue and coral, and her black footwear have allover, perfectly spherical and identically sized white polka dots. It’s not only a beguiling arrangement of patterns and color, but also showcases Chimerica’s methodical approach and technical ability.
Chimerica’s interest in creating katsina dolls has always involved the use of traditional methods and materials. Pigments used, for example, are never purchased, but instead come from locally sourced plants and minerals. Carving tools remain traditional too, as does the use of cottonwood, which, according to Chimerica, “acts as a kind of prayer for moisture, since the cottonwood root is highly absorbent. Plus, the root is softer than the tree’s trunk and better suited for carving.” There are hundreds of different Hopi katsinam, and correspondingly, hundreds of varieties of dolls. Among Chimerica’s most popular creations are his astonishingly detailed badger katsina. With bared, sharp teeth, a distinctive stripe down his forehead, and turquoise-rimmed, oval eyes—not to mention the many-colored sprig of feathers atop his head—he has an immediately commanding presence. “A lot of people connect with the colors and the way he looks,” says Chimerica. “But the badger is also an important healer; whether it’s illness or bad energy, the badger absorbs that.”
Not yet 40 years old, Chimerica is already a modern master of katsina carving. As Lyn Fox remarks, “Even before people really understand what katsina dolls are, they’re drawn to Darance’s work. There is a universal appeal, something immediately, universally likeable about them.”
Thunder, Lightning, Frogs and Bears opens with a public artist reception on Friday, May 18, from 5 to 7 p.m. at Lyn A. Fox Fine Pueblo Pottery. The artist will demonstrate traditional carving techniques at the gallery on Saturday from 11 a.m.to 4 p.m.
1. 2. Butterfly Girl Social Dancer Doll, 17" with tableta Paakwaa and Paakwaa Mana Katsina Dolls, 11" 1