Cajero Draws Line Between Freedom & Tradition

Cajero Draws Line Between Freedom & Tradition

By Keiko Ohnuma
Sandoval Signpost August 2008

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.

Joe Cajero works on one of his koshare pieces, a jester figure used in the sacred dances.
Joe Cajero works on one of his koshare pieces, a jester figure used in the sacred dances.

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.

A koshare piece, by Joe Cajero.
A koshare piece, by Joe Cajero.

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