The Gaussoin Family Reflect on Native Art Week

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An internationally celebrated family of Picuris Pueblo and Navajo jewelers, sculptors, and designers share their thoughts on the changes to Santa Fe’s Native Art Week

By America Meredith (Cherokee Nation)

Gaussoin family. Left to right: Connie Tsosie-Gaussoin, Wayne Nez Gaussoin, Tazbah Gaussoin, Jerry Gaussoin Jr., and David Gaussoin. Photograph by C. Miracle Photography, Arizona.

After the isolation of 2020, artists and collectors alike eagerly anticipate the excitement and joy of Santa Fe in mid-August. We can’t wait to see each other again! Many changes await us, but social distancing and masking protocols are small prices to pay to safely gather once again to celebrate Native American art in person. New Mexico tribes and pueblos pulled together through the pandemic to protect their most vulnerable citizens: their elders. As wisdom keepers, elders are revered in Indigenous societies. But every member of a tribe has value, and intergenerational bonds hold the Native art world together.

Connie Tsosie-Gaussoin (Picuris/Navajo), “Corn Maiden Necklace,” Royston turquoise in silver bezel, tufa-cast sterling silver. Photo: Caroline Wright.

One respected intergenerational family of artists is the Gaussoin family. Matriarch Connie Tsosie-Gaussoin is a Picuris Pueblo and Navajo jeweler. Her relatives, including her brother Robert Dale Tsosie and their parents, are artists. Her sons are all jewelers. Col. Jerry Gaussoin Jr., the oldest, is also an active-duty US Army officer. David Gaussoin, a jeweler and fashion designer, works for the Santa Fe Community Foundation. Wayne Nez Gaussoin is a full-time artist who earned his MFA degree from the University of New Mexico. Connie’s daughter, Tazbah Gaussoin, is a museum specialist for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, who also designs fashion accesories. Connie says, “I taught all my children to do the basics. All my children have taken an interest in this, as well as some of my grandchildren.”

“I’ve been involved in Indian Market since 1969.” In the ensuing years, Connie won innumerable awards and volunteered. “I chaired the gala one time. I’ve been a judge for several years in different categories, from the adults’ to the children’s awards, as well as jurying artists. I’ve also been a board member for several years.” However, this year, she decided to exhibit at the Free Indian Market organized by Gregory Schaaf.

The family did not make this decision lightly. The sons all have shown at Indian Market since they were children. Jerry explains, “I’m a logistics officer in the United States Army. It takes logistics to figure out the transportation and set-up and to build up my inventory. We talked as a family, but this gives us the opportunity to let our collectors—who are an extended part of our family—know where we’ll be, instead of waiting until the last minute.”

Jerry Gaussoin Jr. (Picuris/Navajo).

Hand-crafted silver jewelry by Jerry Gaussoin Jr. (Picuris/Navajo).

Connie says: “We owe it to our collectors, because they have to start planning their trips to Santa Fe. Whether it be from across the pond in Europe, or in the States, they have to know where we are going to be.”

Tazbah will also exhibit her custom-sewn leather purses with silver embellishments at the family booth at the Free Market. Wayne and David both stopped applying to Santa Fe Indian Market in the last few years.

Wayne Nez Gaussoin and David Gaussoin, "Postmodern Boa,"

Wayne Nez Gaussoin and David Gaussoin (both Picuris/Navajo), “Postmodern Boa,” 2009, stainless steel, sterling silver, enamel paint, feathers. Model: Tazbah Gaussoin (Picuris/Navajo).

“I had been doing Indian Market continuously since I was a child,” says David. “It was changing, and I didn’t like the way it was changing. I didn’t like that they did away with the tenured artists, I thought that was kind of a slap in the face to the elders. It was a political decision for me to just say, ‘You know what? I don’t support this.’ And for my own mental health. The way I explain it now, because I do a lot of equity work, is I had to reclaim my power and say, ‘I have the control over what I do.’ It’s put me in such a better mental space. Before it was just anxiety, pressure, and stress. When I walked away it was like this huge cloud that just lifted.”

David adds, “We want to see Indian Market succeed. I don’t think anyone wants to see it go down the drain.”

For years, Wayne and David encountered criticism for their experimental approaches to jewelry with unusual materials. “My whole life I’ve been told, ‘What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you just do normal, traditional jewelry?’ I’m glad I went through that firing squad, because it made me the artist I am today. The more people told me, ‘Why are you doing this? Are you crazy?’ It made me question myself, but then it made me think, ‘I am going to do this, and I’m going to be really damn good.’ It made me a better artist.”

David Gaussoin (Picuris/Navajo)

David Gaussoin (Picuris/Navajo), Necklace, tufa-cast sterling silver pendant, rutilated quartz beads, mother of pearl, sterling silver. Photo: Caroline Wright.

“Now, SWAIA is all loving and accepting of contemporary artists, but it wasn’t always that way. They tried to throw me out so many times, and they would dress me down at my booth. They would come over to me and say, ‘You’re doing this wrong, and this wrong, and you’re using the wrong materials.’ I put up with so much animosity from people I was supposed to be looking up to, so then finally I was just like, ‘Enough is enough, man. This is mental abuse.’ I’m not going to be put in a box. I’m going to do what I want to do and use materials that I want to use. That is our ancestry. Our ancestors used to travel and find whatever they found and use it as art.”

Wayne Nez Gaussoin

Wayne Nez Gaussoin (Navajo/PIcuris), “OG Seeds,” seed pot with license plate, private collection.

Recent administrations of the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA) updated the standards set for what was allowable to show in market. Under Bruce Bernstein and John Torres Nez (Navajo), a dictionary-sized standards guide was trimmed down to grant the artists the power to guide market standards. The paternalistic role of dictating cultural aesthetics to tribal members declined. However, in 2016, SWAIA made two drastic changes to its jurying process. First, SWAIA eliminated tenure, which had allowed certain artists to be automatically accepted to the market without submitting images of their art for jurying. Second, SWAIA stopped mailing applications and tried to only accept online applications. They had to mitigate those plans, since internet access in Indian County, especially on rural reservations, is scarce, and many Indian Market artists did not even own computers. The FCC found in 2017 that 34 percent of Native Americans on rural tribal lands lacked adequate access to broadband internet. Tenure could have been phased out in stages, but it definitely did not need to happen the same year SWAIA stopped mailing out application information.

David Gaussoin (Picuris/Navajo)

David Gaussoin (Picuris/Navajo), “Abacus Bracelet,” rutilated quartz beads, tufa-cast sterling silver. Photo: Caroline Wright.

“When they did away with tenure, they hurt people,” says David. “Because those artists felt like they were being thrown out. I don’t think SWAIA ever understood that. I heard, firsthand from my mom’s friends. They were like: ‘Why don’t they want us anymore? What did we do to deserve this punishment?’ I don’t think anyone has ever talked about it or addressed it. You still hear people today, mostly the elder artists. It is heartbreaking.”

Wayne adds, “These old-time artists depend on art to make a living, and they don’t know about technology. They don’t know how to take good photos. I know when all those applications are turned in, they’re definitely going to get shuffled out, which is just not right. I think in the Native community, ethically, that’s just not right.”

Wayne Nez Gaussoin

Wayne Nez Gaussoin (Navajo/Picuris), “Jax Pendant,” silver.

“These artists had built up their reputations, their artwork, their ribbons, and so forth, throughout the years,” says Connie. “The masters are the history of the Indian Market. That’s the sad thing is that now we just put them to the side. Just because we’re older, they think that we can’t think anymore, or do anything anymore, but that’s not true.”

In 2016 and 2017, the Keshi Foundation hosted the Zuni Show at the Scottish Rite Temple to provide a venue for Zuni artists left out by these policy changes. At Zuni Pueblo, 70 percent of the adult population depends on arts for either their primary or second income. Art is survival. The Free Indian Market took over the space in 2018 and 2019. In 2020, in-person art markets in New Mexico were canceled and replaced with virtual events.

This year, COVID concerns led SWAIA to limit its booth numbers to 500, which led to an unprecedented number of artists being waitlisted. Like in 2016, many of these are well-established artists who have exhibited internationally. These changes follow a year of hardship throughout Indian County, but especially in the Southwest. During parts of the pandemic, the Navajo Nation led the world in deaths per capita from COVID-19. But the Navajo, along with their neighboring tribes and pueblos, controlled the virus and saved lives by imposing strict protocols. Some tribes enforced curfews and limited travel and gatherings. Saving the lives of vulnerable elders was of paramount importance, but artists lost much of their income.

Connie Tsosie-Gaussoin (Picuris/Navajo)

Connie Tsosie-Gaussoin (Picuris/Navajo), “Graduated Lapis Necklace,” lapis lazuli, coral, sterling silver. Photo: Caroline Wright.

Harnessing new technology has been a lifeline to those with access to it. “During the pandemic last year, I started a website,” says Wayne. “All those in-person markets weren’t available. They all got canceled. I know that SWAIA did a virtual market, and Heard, and Eiteljorg.” He created siartworks.com which he expanded to showcase works by his family as well as his own.

While the internet, especially Instagram, has been a financial lifeline for many Native artists, it has been no replacement for in-person events. Selling jewelry over the web presents its own problems. “They want to try those earrings on to see what they look like on themselves. And see how bracelets fit,” says Connie. “We get a lot of things returned saying that they want a certain size.”

Understanding that regional artists depend on in-person art sales for survival, various museums, schools, tribes, and individuals have come together to create new opportunities for Native artists to exhibit their work during Native Art Week. “I’m glad these other markets are springing up, because it gives options,” David says.

Connie Tsosie-Gaussoin (Picuris/Navajo)

Connie Tsosie-Gaussoin (Picuris/Navajo), “Casino Loot Bag,” sterling silver, Royston turquoise in silver bezel, Italian coral in gold bezel, tufa-cast feather design with fabricated silver sheet. Photo: Caroline Wright.

The Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) continues its decades-long practice of hosting artists on the portal of the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts. Free Indian Market will take place outside of the Scottish Rite Temple on Federal Park. Pathways Native Arts Festival, a new market sponsored by the Poeh Cultural Center and Pojoaque Pueblo, will host 500 indoor and outdoor artist booths, food vendors, and live entertainment at the Hilton Buffalo Thunder Resort and Casino. Sovereign Santa Fe will host a market of more than 50 Native artists at La Fonda on the Plaza. Even the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian is launching a new market on Museum Hill.

“I’m looking forward to market week,” says Wayne. “Everyone comes to it because they want to be together, they want to hang out, see art, go eat at the restaurants, and just enjoy their time.” Santa Fe businesses, hotels, restaurants, and shops benefit greatly from visitors coming to see Native art, but the gatherings also provide a much-needed reunion after so many months of isolation.

“A lot of the collectors, and other artists—we all use the market to reunite and visit with our other collectors and artist friends that we haven’t seen for a couple of years now,” says Connie.

Despite the many challenges artists and collectors have faced, Native Art Week will be a time of celebration and a time to honor established, mid-career, and emerging artists. “There’s room for everyone,” says Connie. “We all can be a part of this, not just the younger people or the elders. We need to bring everybody back together.”

The Gaussoins will be at Free Indian Market, booth 530 in Federal Park at Federal Place and Washington Avenue, on Saturday, August 21, and Sunday, August 22.

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