Medicine of Happiness

Medicine of Happiness

By Linda Shockley
August 1998 – Vol. 26 No. 7 Cover:

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 7×7-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 1993