Maketh the Man
Who would have t hought this young farm kid would become a successful fashion designer, including for Miss Arizona, who wore one of his dresses at t he Miss America pageant in 1956?” Curator Tony Chavarria was talking about the subject of his exhibition A New Century: The Life and Legacy of Cherokee Artist and Educator Lloyd Kiva New. On display at the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture are New-designed leather handbags and dazzlingly printed clothing, as well as sketches, watercolor studies, archival documents, and photographs. Many of the items tell the story not of the fashion designer but of an impassioned educator, as New switched careers in his early forties, at the height of success in the world of fashion innovation.
A New Century is the second of three exhibitions staged around the 100th anniversary of New’s birth. The first was Lloyd Kiva New: Art, Design, and Influence, which opened at the Museum of Contemporary Native Art on Jan. 22. It features New fashions, his paintings from his personal collection, textiles created by New’s students at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), and an interpretive reproduction of his 1950s Scottsdale showroom. The third show is Finding a Contemporary Voice: The Legacy of Lloyd Kiva New and IAIA, opening May 20 at the New Mexico Museum of Art. It showcases artwork by former and current IAIA alumni and faculty, among them T.C. Cannon, Neil Parsons, Fritz Scholder, Hulleah J, Tsinhnahjinnie, Will Wilson, and Melanie Yazzie.
The opening of A New Century on Sunday, Feb. 14, includes a panel discussion with New’s widow, Aysen New, artist Dan Namingha, and educator and historian Dave Warren. Aysen New facilitated Chavarria’s research for A New Century with access to the memoirs of her husband, who died in Santa Fe in 2002. (IAIA plans to publish the memoirs this year with the title The Sound of Drums.) Lloyd New was born in 1916 to a Cherokee mother and a Scottish-Irish father. “His journey is similar to that of the Cherokee people,” Chavarria told Pasatiempo. “They had this massive dislocation that impacted the entire culture, all of these people having to move from the Carolinas to Oklahoma, an entirely new land. That led to loss
of culture and an impact on language: They developed a new syllabary — basically they adapted in order to survive and ultimately thrive. In essence, thhat’s also what Lloyd did.”
New was raised on a hardscrabble farm on his mother’s Indian-land allotment in Timber Hill, Oklahoma. The first seven years of his life were definned by the seasons and chores, as welll as by an impulse to do art. “His mot her subtly encouraged him. He wouuld gather clay from the riverbanks aand make little figurines and she wouuld bake them in the oven.” His artistic interest sashayed into fashion afterr he relocated to Tulsa to live with his older sister, Nancy. The move was made to give the boy access to a better education, and while he was there, herh love of fine clothes rubbed off on him.
An important next step in his career, enrolling in the Art Institute of Chicago, was possible because his mother told him to aim high. “If he wanted to go to an art school, apply to the best ones,” Chavarria said. After the young man secured financial assistance from the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) office in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, he found himself in the big city. At one point, doubts and anxieties — including his girlfriend back home marrying another man — made him consider dropping out. That didn’t happen, with the help of some harsh counseling from the head of the institute’s art education department, and he ended up graduating with a degree in art education in 1938.
New’s next move was to Arizona, where he was employed at reservation schools teaching art. “While he was there, he saw what he perceived as a strong decline in Native arts. In that region, you had the classic basket-makers, the Apache and the Pai groups — the Yavapai and Havasupai and Walapai — and the tradition was in steep decline. And the way students were being taught art was more like craft and not something they could make a living at.”
He was trying to come up with a strategy to do something about this situation, but was interrupted by World War II. One dramatic artifact presented in
A New Century is a watercolor sketch New made in February 1945. Acting within his U.S. Navy military occupational specialty as an artist, he made sketches from the deck of his attack transport craft, the USS
Sanborn, including one showing the American invasion of Iwo Jima.
After the war, he started working in leather and set up a boutique in Scottsdale. In this period, a benefactor suggested he needed a brand and he became Lloyd Kiva New. His line of leather handbags was so successful that the term “Kiva bags” appeared in the national press. “They were inspired by Navajo medicine pouches, and he melded that with a handbag design of his own creation,” Chavarria said. “They were enormously popular with the well-heeled of Scottsdale and elsewhere. They were evocative of the area but weren’t specific enough that they could only be used in that area, like a fringe jacket.”
The Navajo pouches were an inspiration, but New was always careful about commercializing objects of special import to tribes. “He hired local artists to help him with his designs, and one of the prominent ones was Charles Loloma. If anyone would know about those boundaries, it would be him. He was a traditional Hopi, and he knew what was appropriate and what was not.” New also moved into designing garments. After his first shop burned, he opened the Kiva Craft Center in Scottsdale in 1954. This was a retail space for his fashion designs and for works by other artisans and designers. Two of the first were Charles and Otellie Loloma, who opened a pottery studio there. In 1960 and 1961, New and Charles Loloma teamed up to direct activities at a Rockefeller Foundation-sponsored endeavor, the Southwest Indian Art Project at the University of Arizona. It was in the following year that New walked away from his fashion business and moved to Santa Fe to become the first art director at the Institute of American Indian Arts.
“There was an Association on American Indian Affairs, and the members were concerned about the state of Native art and culture — they wrote a letter to the BIA that something had to be donne,” MIAC director Della Warrior said. “The people were making [objects] morre like trinkets, and there was a real need to nurture and grow the arts. So the Department of the Interior set up the IAIA as a high school program at Santa Fe Indian School. They hired Dr. George Boyce and he hired New and he brought in the Lolomas and Fritz Scholder and Allan Houser, all of the artists he had worked with.” New was propelled by a desire not only to rescue Native art from its trajectory into banality but also to help Native students who wanted to be artists. “And he said not everybody cann be a fine artist, but they could get intoo culinary arts or performing arts,” Warrrior said. “He wanted to establish thatt there are many ways a student can makke a living.”
His idea that art could be tranformational for Native people was quoted by Walter Richard West Jr. — director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. — in a New York Times obituary. The Cherokee educator “liberated Native artists,” West said. “He felt that the tradition should serve as the basis for contemporary Native artists to flex their imagination and creativity.”
New went on to serve as IAIA director from 1967 until he retired in 1978. In the new millennium, he was involved in the establishment of the National Museum of the American Indian and two years before his death, he was presented with an honorary doctorate by the Art Institute of Chicago.
“When I look at Lloyd New and his contribution, what’s so important is when you look at Indian art today,” Warrior said. “By Sunday during Indian Market I’m just kind of overwhelmed by the beauty of it all, and what was Native art like 50 years ago? It wasn’t flourishing like it is now; it was dying. When I was at IAIA during the hard times in the late 1990s, to try to keep the school open, I interviewed alumni and almost every one of them said attending the institute was a life-changing experience and that they didn’t know what they would have become if they didn’t study there. The school has played a tremendous role in the evolution of Indian art but Lloyd really shaped and molded what that curriculum was and he gave of his inner self to those students.”
Lloyd Kiva New in his studio, circa 1954 Top to bottom, fashions by Lloyd Kiva New, photos Kitty Leaken; opposite page, various fabric designs by New; all images courtesy Museum of Indian Arts & Culture
Lloyd Kiva New: Watercolor sketch of 1945 invasion of Iwo Jima; below, back, “Kiva” bag, front, Orlando Dugi bag, photos Kitty Leaken