Katsina Buy­ing 101

Heard Mu­seum katsina buyer James Bara­jas of­fers some DO'S AND DON’TS when it comes to col­lect­ing the pop­u­lar doll carv­ings.

Native American Art - - COLUMNS/FEATURES -

Heard Mu­seum katsina buyer James Bara­jas of­fers some do’s and don’ts when it comes to col­lect­ing the pop­u­lar doll carv­ings.

When it comes to col­lect­ing any­thing—from base­ball cards and vin­tage lunch­boxes to fine art paint­ings and Fabergé eggs—in­formed buy­ers will al­ways have an ad­van­tage over uni­formed buy­ers. This rings es­pe­cially true for Na­tive American katsina dolls, which have lay­ers of sym­bol­ism, a rich his­tory and a va­ri­ety of styles that the artists carve in. Go­ing into any gallery, mar­ket or artist stu­dio pre­pared will set the stage for a re­ward­ing ex­pe­ri­ence and what could be a life­long in­ter­est in katsina dolls

For James Bara­jas, as­sis­tant shop man­ager and katsina doll buyer at the Heard Mu­seum Shop in

Phoenix, the dolls are ter­rific en­try points into Na­tive American art, par­tic­u­larly be­cause of their low-dol­lar ac­cess point. “First thing I ask col­lec­tors is what kind of collection they are look­ing for. We have 11-year-old artists that sell works that are un­der $20, and then we have also sold pieces that are $20,000. So there are lots of ways to en­ter the mar­ket,” he says. “One thing that’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber, whether the artist is 11 years old or a great great grand­par­ent, is that katsi­nas rep­re­sent a liv­ing cul­ture. It’s not some­thing that only ex­ists in his­tory books. It has a liv­ing pres­ence.”

Bara­jas also of­fers a piece of ad­vice that will help col­lec­tors in all fields: “Buy from some­body you trust. Stick with a dealer who has a rep­u­ta­tion to pro­tect,” he says. “Once you fa­mil­iar­ize your­self with the dealer, or the artist, you can learn so much more, more than you can in any book.”

This leads to an­other point, which is to meet the artist. Deal­ers are some­times told by the artists about their work, or some­times spec­u­la­tion or ed­u­cated guesses are made, but most of­ten the artist them­selves will have the most ac­cu­rate in­for­ma­tion. And once in their pres­ence, a whole new world opens up as col­lec­tors can ask ques­tions, learn about the artists’ his­tory, the style of the work, the mean­ing of the sym­bols and can also en­gage with them on a per­sonal

level. Th­ese con­ver­sa­tions aren’t al­ways about dolls ei­ther, and they can eas­ily tran­si­tion into other art forms, in­ter­ests or hob­bies. “It never hurts to de­velop a rap­port with peo­ple,” the doll ex­pert says. “Learn from them and let them learn from you.”

One as­pect that of­ten comes out in dis­cus­sions with artists will be about the mean­ing of the dolls. Ev­ery doll is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of a katsina, a su­per­nat­u­ral be­ing that sym­bol­izes as­pects of the world. “There are katsina that are as­so­ci­ated with mois­ture and for bring­ing the rains, and also ones for healthy crops, fer­til­ity to the peo­ple, dances, an­i­mals…they all in­ter­re­late be­cause they all are in com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the cre­ator,” Bara­jas says, adding that ask­ing about sym­bols, ob­jects in the dolls’ hands, colors and other de­tails will open up a di­a­logue be­tween the artist and the col­lec­tor that most buy­ers feel is deeply re­ward­ing and mind open­ing.

Bara­jas says that once col­lec­tors are in the door they have some ques­tions to ask them­selves. For starters, which tribes should they ex­am­ine? Sev­eral tribes use and sell katsina dolls to­day, but the big two are Hopi and Zuni. Many great katsina carvers are Hopi, and the Heard Mu­seum Shop car­ries hun­dreds of va­ri­eties. The other ques­tion is a big one: Old Style or con­tem­po­rary? Old Style—some­times, though rarely, called tra­di­tional—katsina dolls are con­sid­ered the clas­sic ex­am­ple for the dolls. Many Old Style dolls have a sim­i­lar look: short arms, cylin­der-like tor­sos, flat feet that jut out be­neath carved re­galia and larger-thannor­mal heads. Us­ing that very rough tem­plate, Old Style katsina artists can then dec­o­rate their dolls with feath­ers, elab­o­rate head­dresses, ex­ag­ger­ated fa­cial fea­tures or carved ob­jects. Most Old Style dolls are

painted with min­eral pig­ments, which give the works an au­then­tic col­oration di­rectly from the soil of the Hopi peo­ple.

On the other side of that coin is the con­tem­po­rary style. Th­ese dolls are al­most al­ways more re­al­is­tic, with many dolls that are carved to show de­tailed fa­cial fea­tures, mus­cles in the arms and legs, fin­gers and toes, ex­quis­ite re­galia and ob­jects, and they are posed in dra­matic po­si­tions to show move­ment, dance, cer­e­mony and cel­e­bra­tion. Be­cause of the elab­o­rate na­ture of th­ese de­signs, con­tem­po­rary dolls are of­ten carved onto bases so they won’t fall over and also so the artists can con­trol how the doll sits in re­la­tion to the viewer—some dolls are tipped down­ward with arms raised and with­out a base it would be dif­fi­cult to get the doll to bal­ance on its own two feet. Con­tem­po­rary dolls also are painted with a range of paints, in­clud­ing oil and acrylic paints. Con­tem­po­rary dolls are of­ten, though not al­ways, more col­or­ful and vi­brant than Old Style dolls due to the in­ten­sity of the paints.

Ac­cord­ing to the Heard ex­pert, the dif­fer­ences be­tween Old Style and con­tem­po­rary are vast, but many col­lec­tors en­joy ac­quir­ing from both styles, and even some artists work in both styles. “When the re­ces­sion was on­go­ing, and there wasn’t as much money be­ing spent on th­ese items, we started to see some of our con­tem­po­rary artists carv­ing in the Old Style sim­ply be­cause col­lec­tors were pur­chas­ing les­s­ex­pen­sive art. And Old Style is more af­ford­able than con­tem­po­rary, which of­ten sell for $6,000, $8,000 and $10,000,” Bara­jas says. “It was ex­cit­ing be­cause once the re­ces­sion ended, some of those artists kept paint­ing Old Style. Now you see many of them who work in both styles.”

When it comes to dis­play­ing the works, there are no spe­cial in­struc­tions, al­though Bara­jas says that many artists rec­om­mend not keep­ing them in glass cases. “They don’t breathe well,” he says. “It keeps dust off of them, but it also closes them off.” He adds that there is noth­ing wrong with show­ing dolls from dif­fer­ent styles or tribes to­gether. “You can have a dog katsina and cat katsina to­gether and they don’t get into trou­ble,” he says, adding that some col­lec­tors like to ar­range their dolls by cer­e­monies. While most Old Style dolls have feet and can be dis­played stand­ing, many col­lec­tors and artists dis­play them by hang­ing them from the wall. The con­tem­po­rary dolls, which al­most al­ways have bases, usu­ally have to go on a shelf. When it comes to clean­ing and main­tain­ing them, a quick blast with a canned air is usu­ally enough to elim­i­nate dust.

One thing that is nearly uni­ver­sal among dolls, but is still worth ask­ing by col­lec­tors, is the ma­te­rial of the piece. Katsina dolls are al­most al­ways carved from cot­ton­wood root, which has no dis­cernible grain and al­lows artists to carve elab­o­rate shapes both hor­i­zon­tally and ver­ti­cally into the wood with­out fear of the wood split­ting. This as­pect leads to an­other area of katsina carv­ing: the one-piece katsina doll, which is a doll that has been carved from a sin­gle piece of cot­ton­wood root. Bara­jas says that the term is kind of a myth, a holdover from the 1980s when carv­ings were of­ten sold as “one-piece dolls” and the term cap­ti­vated buy­ers. “Most of the time the term was used er­ro­neously, not nec­es­sar­ily de­cep­tively,” he says. “Most artists are adding a carved feather, a bell, ears or noses to their works and there’s noth­ing wrong with adding those fea­tures. The rest of the piece—par­tic­u­larly the head, torso, legs and arms—are of­ten carved from one piece of cot­ton­wood.” Bar­ra­jas is quick to point out that al­though the term “one-piece” is of­ten used mis­tak­enly, there are some artists who are carv­ing ev­ery sin­gle el­e­ment from one un­cut and un­bro­ken piece of cot­ton­wood. Some of those artists are Michael Dean Jenk­ins, Arthur Holmes Jr., Stet­son Honyumptewa and Aaron Fred­er­icks, to name a few.

An­other im­por­tant as­pect of the dolls is their prices. Most Old Style dolls start any­where from $150 to $350, and then larger works or works by respected carvers tend to add sig­nif­i­cantly to that price point. Con­tem­po­rary dolls usu­ally start at $1,200 and then fluc­tu­ate wildly up­ward de­pend­ing on how elab­o­rate the work is. Th­ese prices, par­tic­u­larly those of Old Style dolls, are es­pe­cially at­trac­tive to first-time col­lec­tors. An­other mar­ket al­to­gether is his­toric dolls by de­ceased or un­known artists. Bara­jas re­it­er­ates how im­por­tant it is to buy from re­spectable col­lec­tors in large part be­cause of older dolls of­ten have ea­gle feath­ers, which are il­le­gal to sell and own, par­tic­u­larly by non-na­tive peo­ple.

Bara­jas says that dolls are a rich medium within Na­tive American art, and that col­lect­ing them is a re­ward­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. “The neat thing about it is with hun­dreds of dif­fer­ent kinds of katsi­nam it can be fun and fas­ci­nat­ing,” he says. “There are just so many great sto­ries out there to ex­plore once you get into this.”

Con­tem­po­rary katsina dolls of all va­ri­eties at the Heard Mu­seum Shop.

Hopi dolls rep­re­sent­ing a range of katsina fig­ures.

A katsina doll by Susie Long (Hopi) among other dolls at the Heard Mu­seum Shop in Phoenix.

James Bara­jas, as­sis­tant shop man­ager and buyer at the Heard Mu­seum Shop, in front of Old Style dolls.

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