Close to the ground
Artist Eliza Naranjo Morse
Forward: Eliza Naranjo Morse
Agargantuan parade of “insect people” and two mixed-media works incorporating personal objects, garlic stalks, and harvested items from a reservation landfill populate Eliza Naranjo Morse’s new exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts. Some of the choices for the Forward show were made in collaboration with curator Candice Hopkins. Naranjo Morse (Santa Clara Pueblo) has been working for some time on elements of the threepart exhibition, which embraces notions of family, community, and culture. “Perhaps we yearn to make our lives good and find balance because even when we feel completely challenged, there is the unrelenting proof in each of us that we are survivors, that we are the result of our ancestors’ histories and that eventually we will become ancestors,” she says in the statement for the show, which opens at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts on Friday, Jan. 22. “This collection of work interprets facets of this thought.”
The artist studied figure drawing at New York’s Parsons School of Design and figure drawing and painting at the Institute for American Indian Arts, and then earned a bachelor’s degree in art from Skidmore College. She is known for a wide variety of works, including clay drawings, oil-on-canvas paintings, stencil abstractions, sewn “paintings,” and glow-in-the-dark pictures. In 2008, she worked with her mother, Nora Naranjo Morse, and cousin Rose Simpson — both also esteemed artists — on a piece for SITE Santa Fe’s Seventh International Biennial, Lucky Number Seven. They said at the time that their piece, Storyline, was about the importance of the land in their lives and their art. The snakelike piece was constructed using nylon pantyhose, quilt batting, rice, and sticks, all covered in clays of different types from Santa Clara Pueblo, the Cochití area, Abiquiú, and the Picurís area. Besides what was installed at SITE, the work had philosophically connected elements at the School for Advanced Research, MoCNA, and St. Francis Auditorium. “We wanted to create a concept that was sort of all-encompassing,” Eliza Naranjo Morse said, “and in order to do that, it had to be very minimal, so the concept was broken down to a line and the idea of emergence and traveling.”
In 2010, in a project carried out in association with the Smithsonian Institution, she worked for a month with children in Veracruz, Mexico, using local organic materials to create large works of art. In late 2014, she and her mother participated in the 5 x 5 Project in Washington, D.C. Their performance piece, titled Digging, was staged to call attention to the devaluation of physical labor. “I did that with my mom and Alexis Elton, an artist in New York. We did it in one location and we spent 25 days there, digging in different costumes that represented different types of workers. We wanted to express the idea that when you sweat into land, you’re putting your blessing into it, your energy into it.”
The first of the three parts of Forward isa painted line of anthropomorphized insects on the long wall of the Hall Gallery at MoCNA. The title
of this piece is And We Will Live Off the Fat of the Land. Pasatiempo recently spoke with Naranjo Morse at the museum as she was beginning work — rough-sketching the figures’ positions with torn shreds of blue painter’s tape.
Pasatiempo: You’re going to paint with clay?
Eliza Naranjo Morse: This will be clay and pencil and acrylic paint. At this point of my life I’m very aware of materials because it’s like the blood and the bones of any art piece, right? And once I started to realize that, everything else in my life comes down to this sort of trying to create a balance between an organic experience and the fact that we live in 2016. This will be a series of insects in pairs.
Pasa: It looks like the one at the beginning of the line is big and round.
Naranjo Morse: It’s modeled after a dung beetle. It’s the beginning, and it’s the only one that won’t have a partner. Hopefully this piece is sort of interactive in that when you enter, you become a part of it because you are partnered with this particular insect. The rest of them will represent different aspects of the current human experience, things like technology, emotions, memories, fabric, shovels, dolls, and wires, and there are also reflections back to the earth with things like corn and balls of dirt. Pasa: Do you like insects, particularly?
Naranjo Morse: They’re part of our community. My partner and I are building a house and beginning to farm, so I’m closer to the ground. And I’m seeing that beetles are especially close to the ground, and I’m seeing their community work. For that reason it’s especially appealing to me as a manifestation of something that I’m searching for, or that our human community at large is searching for. Pasa: Will these figures be based on real insect types?
Naranjo Morse: More or less, but eventually I start doing some inventing.
Pasa: Ants are very deliberate and relentless, but beetles sometimes look like they have no idea where they’re going. They’ll just walk in one direction for a while and then turn and walk in another direction.
Naranjo Morse: I think they use their own sense of navigation that doesn’t look ordinary to us. I think we all like it when animals act like us. Pasa: Tell us about the second part of this exhibit.
Naranjo Morse: You come around this corner, and I have both walls of this room [the Honor Gallery]. The piece is called Past Present Moving Forward. I’m painting with mud, so hopefully it looks like an adobe wall. And then I’ve got a series of articulations, small sculptures that will reference a more abstract version of a similar idea — maybe like embodying different energies of technology and the human experience.
Pasa: Have you sketched or storyboarded all of this, or are you going to improvise when you’re in the space?
Naranjo Morse: I began building forms, and then they developed partners, and then they developed aspects of humanity. Now I know exactly what they will be because I spent hours with them; they each mean something. They’re almost done, hanging in my studio. A big thing for me was the materials. I was using plastic I got from the dump that I worked at for three months at Santa Clara Pueblo.
Pasa: You collected objects from the dump?
Naranjo Morse: I did. There will also be stalks from the garlic I grew and feathers from a turkey I raised and killed. And I’ve had a wad of trash in my studios for 10 years, stuff from my aunties, stuff from feast day, clothing that I’ve cut up, so it’s an accumulation of material. Pasa: Are you going to do text panels?
Naranjo Morse: I will do small text panels by hand, but my hope with this is that people will make their own interpretations. The materials are very special and the ones that aren’t are obviously in contrast, and so the energy or the history of the materials will create feeling or a space. Pasa: And the third piece?
Naranjo Morse: The title is Made Passed Away, It’s OK. It’s a larger, more arty piece made out of trash I collected from the dump. It will be very colorful on the white wall.
Pasa: How do you make money? You have to sell your art, don’t you? And you can’t sell these installations.
Naranjo Morse: Oh, my relationship with money, I’m trying to work it out. I didn’t want to sell my work, because then making it is affected by that. I’ve worked as a substitute teacher, I worked at the dump, and I’ve worked as an art teacher. Art is a profession in my family, and I started making work to sell by the time I was eighteen. When I was twenty-six, I decided I wanted to make money so that I can make art, instead of the other way around. At first I found that very hard and confusing, and then very liberating. Creating an income through art was intentionally not my focus. But now I don’t want to necessarily live off $400 a month for the rest of my life. I’m lucky that I live on reservation land. I don’t have a cell phone. My expenses are not ordinary.