Joe Cajero: Sculptor of the Inner and Outer Realms
Clay and bronze sculptor Joe Cajero (Jemez Pueblo) is a master at portraying both the exterior features of his subjects—from soaring eagles to his trademark koshares—and their more elusive spiritual qualities.
By Daniel Gibson.
Native Peoples Magazine
Sunday, August 31, 2008
New this year, Local Treasures awards recognize accomplished N.M. artists for their body of work
Journal Staff Writer
Kevin Burgess, Joe Cajero Jr., Donna Loraine Contractor and Kathryne Cyman share several general identifiying attributes.
They are accomplished artists, they live in New Mexico and they are represented by galleries that are members of the Albuquerque Art Business Association.
Next month Burgess, Cajero, Contractor and Cyman also will be sharing an honor with eight other artists: They will be recognized with the first-ever Local Treasures awards.
The association is honoring all 12 in a public ceremony at 2 p.m. Sept. 19 at the Albuquerque Museum.
Some of the artists also will have receptions at galleries in the Friday, Sept. 5, ArtsCrawl, and many will have gallery exhibits during the month.
Plans for the award began last January when the association sought nominations from member galleries and arts organizations to recognize visual artists, according to Joan A. Fenicle, the association's ArtCrawl coordinator.
"The only criteria was the nominee must be a New Mexico resident artist who has made a significant contribution to the arts community," Fenicle wrote in an e-mail.
"The goal was to not only recognize the artists for their accomplishments but to represent the richness and diversity of Albuquerque's art."
Fairness, of course, was a key issue in the nominating process.
So a committee of gallery owners who are association members — but who had not taken part in the nominating process — selected the honorees after reviewing nomination forms and visual materials, Fenicle wrote.
From a list of several dozen nominees, the committee narrowed the number to 12 honored finalists.
These are the artists, the Albuquerque galleries that represent them, and a brief statement about their art:
For a list of events associated with Local Treasures, go to www.artscrawlabq.org/events_schedule.html
Cajero Draws Line Between Freedom & Tradition
By Keiko Ohnuma
Joe Cajero works on one of his koshare pieces—a jester figure used in the sacred dances.
A koshare piece, by Joe Cajero.
Barely out of his teens, Joe Cajero had a bright career ahead of him as a Pueblo potter, crafting delicate clay figures and racking up prizes every year at Indian Market. The demand for his striped koshare (jester) figures was so strong, he bought a home in Placitas at the age of twenty-seven. He was in tune with Spirit, he felt, and had an unquestioned "ability to make things work."
Then around five years ago, things turned on the sculptor. His marriage collapsed, the rising tide of success became a tsunami of grief, and now it was Cajero who was a lump of clay being pounded by bills on an artist's pay.
Until then, he had been something of a golden boy, raised at Jemez Pueblo by a painter father and potter mother who held prominent positions in the Indian community; his own ease with drawing had landed him at the Institute for American Indian Arts and top prizes at Indian Market from the age of sixteen.
Standing for the first time at a fork in the road to success, Cajero had to dig deep. Setting aside his lifelong habit of artistic realism, he said a prayer. "To those that guide my creativity, in whatever form, may it serve me, in the sense of understanding who I am," he recalled wishing. "And at the same time, may it serve another."
The result of his search, an abstracted figure he called "Embodiment of Prayer," launched a new direction for Cajero that straddles the divide between freedom from tradition and freedom to express it. Abstraction, he found, let him move easily between the conscious and subconscious, from the sacred ceremonies he learned about on the Towa-speaking pueblo, to his attempts to apply those disappearing resources to his modern struggles.
A second breakthrough came when a friend told him he must show "Embodiment of Prayer," a piece he had made only for himself. "It was the first time anyone used this word for my work, ‘important,'" Cajero said. His friend said he should cast the figure in bronze so that it might help others. "That's when I knew what she meant by ‘important.'"
Changing media opened a door for Cajero. Bronze, unlike Jemez clay, is not bound by Pueblo tradition. A clay sculpture must have integrity, he explained—it should be completely finished when it goes into the fire, so that even if it is destroyed, it returns to the earth whole. Bronze sculpture is cast from Plasticine, a non-drying clay that is cut up and reused once the mold has been made, so there is no attachment to the form. "That is where my diversity comes through," he admits. "It gives me the ability to do just about anything."
Bronze also opened up a palette more brilliant than the earth pigments used in Pueblo pottery. Cajero quickly moved to the next level, sculpting a series of four abstract pieces that have been cast as large as seven feet and shipped to destinations around the country. This year he got his first commission: two running figures, several times life-size, for the Jicarilla Apache Tribal Council building, to be unveiled in October. He laughs at the memory of standing helplessly before the monumental figures with his small clay tools, until someone handed him a saw.
Now he looks back on his period of loss and realizes it awakened in him the will to survive, "the embodiment of my prayer for growth." And he has seen new interest in his work since he turned to abstract, spiritual subjects. "There's a yearning today for Spirit," Cajero thinks, "and letting go of the identification with self. That's how I began to find my own definition of prosperity and success."
Three years ago, he also found love where he did not expect it—with an old friend who had commiserated with him through his divorce. Althea Cajero, of Acoma and Santo Domingo pueblos, took up jewelry-making after they married and shares a booth with her husband at Indian Market.
In their world, art-making is not an activity easily segregated from the rest of life—family, tradition, culture, spirituality, and modern standards of survival and success. Cajero draws heavily on his memories of the last generation to experience the sacred ceremonies firsthand—his great-grandfathers'. And the greatest gift given to him as an artist, he says, is still his father's withholding of approval. As skillfully as the young boy painted, his father never said to him, "Great job." Instead, he would show him what was off, and how to fix it.
"That gave me drive—that's what drives me today—because there's nothing wrong with the image in my eyes," laughs Cajero, a figure so lively and at ease that it's clear he spends a lot of time both outdoors and among friends.
He can't really explain how he ended up in Placitas, except that it was a longing he felt from the age of five. In the family car on the way home to Jemez from Albuquerque, he would look up the road and say to himself, ‘someday I will turn right instead of left, and be home.'
"Maybe it was an inner sense of knowing this would be best for me and my work, on a soul level," he muses. "It makes sense that Pueblo people resided here long ago. That energy—it's probably something I sense."
Copyright: Sandoval Signpost August 2008
Joe Cajero Leaps Into His Soul
By George M. Green
When I met Joe Cajero three years ago and was introduced to his work, I realized immediately that he was a talented artist. His sculptures were at once intriguing and engaging, reflections of his observations, infused with his own particular sense of humor. This was particularly true of his Koshares, for which he was already quite well known. As he was a young man, not yet thirty, I presumed it would be interesting to watch his growth as an artist. But recently something has happened to Joe and his work, something that goes beyond mere growth, something which can only be described as a kind of quantum leap. His sculpture has taken on a soulful depth which is difficult to describe. The pieces, in addition to being beautiful in form and color, are so new and unexpected, that I find myself asking the obvious question; how in the world did you think of doing that?
When I expressed this idea to Joe, he excitedly agreed that there was something new in his work. Where he once looked at the world around him and attempted to sculpt those observations into clay, he now finds himself looking inward. "I began to realize," he said, "that being an artist meant more to me than simply producing art. I saw that there were levels in my life that I found unsatisfying and unfulfilled, and I realized that it was through my work that I could examine my own existence and even find answers. I needed to look into my own soul and find a way to express what I found there."
One of Joe's most recent pieces, which he refers to as his "Relationship Piece", (Relationship / Eternal Journey) is a wonderful example. The sculpture is two flowing forms that intersect briefly, then continue to flow away. The composition is two-sided, meaning to represent the physical world on one side and the spiritual on the other. This duality is most specifically noted in the head-dresses of the two figures. The night sky, full of stars, represents that part of the universe which is untouchable except through the spirit, while dragonflies and butterflies represent the physical earth in both the masculine and feminine. On the faces of the figures are altars, one on top of another, to signify the undiscovered levels of spirituality that may be accessed through life experience as well as prayer and the searching of one's soul. On the bodies are more altars, representing life's progression, often uneven. "Occasionally, along life's way," Joe said, "we receive unexpected blessings, which are indicated by clouds above some of the altar steps." The recessed areas on the bodies represent the non-physical world, where spirits reside and guidance and wisdom may be discovered. The circles are spirits waiting to be made manifest. The colors, blending into one another, were chosen for their suggestion of love and intimacy, of Mother-earth and Father-sky, implying the warmth of love within a flourishing and sentient relationship.
"Two souls," he explained, "that start alone and find each other, thus beginning a relationship. This is an idea which came to me after much soul-searching. I wanted to know why I did not have the relationship with another person that I desired. I wanted wisdom. It became so personal to me, that as I went forward with the work, I really gave no thought as to whether I was doing something commercial or not, or whether I even wanted to show it to anyone. I just wanted to express what I was feeling, what I was discovering about myself and my need to find a fulfilling relationship. What I found extremely gratifying, when the work was finished, was that other people saw in it what I had tried so hard to express."
Joe Cajero, a native of Jemez Pueblo, has been pursuing art since his childhood, when his father introduced him to painting and his mother instructed him in clay sculpture. His work has been a staple of Indian Market since 1991, and he was recently chosen as one of 500 juried artists to have their work showcased at the Premier Events Show at the Kentucky Derby. His work may be seen locally at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Sante Fe beginning May 4th. He currently resides and works near Placitas. His work on the "Relationship Piece" has apparently had a positive effect on his life, for he is happily engaged to be married this fall.
Photo Courtesy of Wadle GalleriesMedicine of Happiness
Sculptor Joe Cajero, Jr. finds inspiration in the legend and lore of his Jemez Pueblo village.
By Linda Shockley
The cherubic koshares of sculptor Joe Cajero, Jr. capture all the delightful nuances of the pueblo tricksters: they clown, flirt, tease, and generally wreak havoc. Koshares are renowned for a well-developed sense of humor, and pueblo singers, dancers and guests all know not to turn their backs on a koshare during any feast day or celebration. A pueblo cross between circus clown and court jester, koshares rarely fail to elicit smiles with their white and brown, broad-striped bodies, adorned only with loin-type aprons, beads and the traditional jester-like cap.
"The medicine of the koshares stands for happiness. They take all the anguish away and bless you with positive energy. No dance would be successful without the koshares," Cajero explains. "And if I see a koshare today, it is the same as seeing one from 1804. The koshares haven't changed much."
A native of Jemez Pueblo, home is where sculptor Joe Cajero, Jr. finds his inspiration. It's the people and setting of the valley of Jemez that provide not only pueblo legend and lore, but also the raw material of clay. "My mother taught me about myself and where to look for creative capabilities. Art doesn't come from mimicking books and other artists, but from your personal inner resources," explained Cajero. "I learned about pueblo traditions and history from my mother and great-grandmother. And my cousin/neighbor/I.A.I.A. teacher Felix Vigil has been another strong influence.
The clay also comes directly from the Pueblo. When Cajero needs more material, he doesn't drive to an art supply store down a trendy lane. Instead, he climbs the hill to where he digs the amount needed for his next few works. Surrounded by views of the Jemez Pueblo village and the surrounding mountains, Cajero always offers an invocation before heading back down he hill.
"We always say a prayer with cornmeal to Mother Earth. The prayer lets her know that we are taking from her to create something beautiful which will support our lives and those of our loved ones," Cajero explains.
Cajero has delighted in are since childhood. He comes by his talent honestly with a long line of family artists: great-grandmother (potter), father (painter), mother (potter and sculptor), sisters (one a ceramicist and one studying art business) and brother (specializes in etching on stone and pots), among others. Cajero also studied art and was graduated form the Institute of American Indian Arts with an A.F.A. in Two-Dimensional Art.
But his first real break came quite unexpectedly when Cajero was assisting in his mother's Old Town gallery of Albuquerque in 1988. Wearying of hearing him complain of boredom during a slow retail time, his mother in exasperation, handed him a lump of clay and said, "Here, make yourself busy." Out of that moment of annoyance, Cajero worked the clay until he created a small bear storyteller with cubs. He placed it on a shelf at the store while he began another. A short time later, a customer offered to buy that first sculpture. "I was amazed and thrilled. It wasn't even dry. So I asked her to return in a week when it would be complete - and she did! It was the best thing that could have happened for me," Cajero recalls.
He worked exclusively on bear storytellers of all sizes and styles for two years before gradually moving to the koshares. It seemed like a natural evolution to the human form. The bears had become more and more human, until they even had muscle tone and fingers. It seemed only natural to move on to the humans."
Cajero created his first koshare for the 1990 Santa Fe Indian Market. It was a small, sitting piece that took 2nd place in the Traditional Clay in Figurine division and sold before 8 a.m. on opening morning of the Market. He created eight pieces for the 1991 Indian Market, won a 1st and 2nd place in the same division, and sold them all before 9 a.m.
Cajero hasn't slowed since.
Getting to the point of sculpting takes a full week of clay preparation. The work begins when Cajero makes the climb up to the Jemez Pueblo clay pit and proceeds to pick and shovel the amount of clay necessary for his next pieces. He lays the clay out on a piece of tarp and crushes clumps into nuggets with his feet or a shovel blade. The clay is next worked into a fine sand that is mixed with a white flour-like clay (at a 50-50 ratio) which tempers the clay and allows the molecules to bind. At this point it is quite malleable. The clay is laid out and allowed to dry. The next day it is turned over and moved around to allow the other side to dry. Then it's ready.
Cajero works almost every day in a small adobe in Bernalillo, New Mexico. With 7x7-ft. windows, the studio offers an abundance of natural light and unexpected views of quail, roadrunners and rabbits. While Cajero used to make small sketches before actually beginning to sculpt, now he simply begins with the clay.
"I have a spontaneous approach to my work. There's a direct communication between my head and hands. I can meditate on a ball of clay and have a basic idea of where I want to go. But as the creative process begins, the vision changes and continues to change as the work progresses. For example, one day a hand fell off a sculpture and hit the table. It had broken off cleanly at the wrist. It hadn't felt right and when I reattached the hand in another posture, it worked. It was where it needed to be. I've learned that it's best not to set bounds for the koshare sculptures."
An average day for Cajero begins around 7 a.m. with a pot of steaming coffee and the colors of a new morning. "I love working while the day is fresh," he explains. "I usually work 12 to 15 hours a day with a few minor stops. For those hours, the reality of the world is gone and I'm in my own world. It's a great escape.
Cajero, the young man and the artist, is much like his koshares - generous, and playful in the process of creating these delight makers, the koshares. And you shouldn't turn your back on sculptor Joe Cajero, Jr., either but for altogether different reasons. Keep an eye on Cajero, not to watch your back but to see his bright future.
The work of sculptor Joe Cajero, Jr. may be seen at Waddle Galleries in Santa Fe, located at 128 West Palace Avenue. Hours: 9:30-5:00 Monday-Saturday. (505) 983-9219.
Focus/Santa Fe/April/May 1993Visions in Clay
By Lynzee Webb
The Koshari, in Native American tradition, is the prankster, a lighthearted character with a wicked wit who delights in playing tricks on the unsuspecting. Often feared by small children, the Koshari is the center of attention on feast days, when he runs among the crowds with his body painted in black-and-white stripes while children squeal and adults try not to become the focus of his attention. In the skillful hands of sculptor Joe V. Cajero, Jr., the Koshari is brought to life in clay with all the humor and gentleness of spirit associated with him.
Cajero, 27, never intended to become a sculptor. From the time he was a young boy he thought his path was to become a painter. But his mother was a sculptor and he watched her for many years in the home of Jemez Pueblo.
"I'd tell her, "Why don't you do it this way? Why don't you make a storyteller like this?" I could see all these things in my mind." And she'd say, "Why don't you make it yourself?" I never would. I'd say, "No, Mom, I'm a painter?""
"By the time I was eleven or twelve, she got really tired of this and one day slapped a ball of clay down in front of me and said, "Look, you do it!""
Cajero began by making a series of crude bear storytellers. Two years later, he says, his bears had acquired muscle tone and fingers instead of claws. It was then that he began working with the figure, and the Kosharis just came naturally.
The newly wed Cajero works exclusively from the dining room of his two-bedroom condominium. Working on several pieces at a time, his works in progress take up every available bit of free space, including kitchen countertops, the spare bedroom and the laundry room. It's a fact of life his wife has accepted.
"Hopefully, in the near future, we'll get a larger place where I can have a studio," says Cajero. Until then, space is at a premium.
Cajero's formal training came while attending the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe, where he studied under, among others, a cousin, Felix Vigil.
"He taught me how to look and where to look inside myself, so I didn't have to draw from other artists in order to find inspiration. I admire the spirit of other artists, but I look only to myself in order to create."
Although Cajero entered the Institute as a painter and received a degree in two-dimensional fine art, he took a number of three-dimensional courses, including clay sculptor.
"I worked a lot with traditional clays, and learned how to establish communication between myself and the natural clay or Mother Earth," he says. "That was very enlightening, but I didn't truly value it until I began working with our own Jemez clay."
At the Institute Cajero has a tendency to overwork the clays, which resulted in a great many pieces being lost during the firing process. But back at home, he found that the very grainy Jemez clay suited him perfectly.
"It didn't blow up on me like Hopi or Picuris clays," he explains.
It also taught him patience.
"The clay tells me, "Hold on here. Not all at once." Good things come from giving it time. Sometimes Iâll work and work on something and it won't be right and suddenly it will be exactly the way I wanted it. That's how I've learned that clay gives life. Things grow from it."
And while Cajero works, he's thinking about his next piece.
"Anything might give me an idea. It could be a puppy or tenderness, or a very spiritual feeling I'm having. When I start work I don't concentrate on the anatomy or the details. It's all about a mood or the character of a person. I concentrate on the feeling of a piece and just let the physical details fall in place, naturally."
Joe V. Cajero, Jr.'s work is exhibited at Blue Rain Gallery, 115 Taos Plaza. 751-0066 or 800/414-4893.
Copyright: Taos Magazine March/April 1998