Visions 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 I?ll 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