“The Dragonfly Effect”
By Rob Dewalt, Photos by Minesh Bacrania New Mexico Magazine May 2014
The 10th annual Native Treasures: Indian Arts Festival honors a couple of Placitas artists who share a transformative passion for their work, and one another. A January drive to the Placitas home studio of artists Joe and Althea Cajero provides the first stunning work of art I’ll see today: The afternoon sun casts a coralorange glow onto the imposing spine of the Sand?a Mountains, the crest made slightly opaque by the soft rise of pi?on smoke from adobes nestled into the valley below. Joe, originally from Jemez Pueblo, is a sculptor who works in bronze and clay, and Althea (from Santo Domingo and Acoma Pueblos), crafts jewelry using cuttlefish bone castings. They’re busy preparing pieces for the 10th anniversary of the Native Treasures: Indian Arts Festival, which will take place in Santa Fe on Memorial Day weekend, May 24-25.
The invitational show began in 2004 as a small event on Museum Hill, with the goal of raising money to benefit the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture (MIAC). It has since matured into one of the most popular Native-arts festivals in the Southwest, featuring museum quality work. Drawing serious collectors from around the world, the festival bestows the honor of MIAC Living Treasure on a particular artist each year. For the first time in the festival’s history, two artists will share the title: the Cajeros. Stepping into the Cajero studio, more stunning views quickly pile up. On a wooden work surface sits Joe’s large clay figure of a corn maiden, its smooth contours and elaborate floral designs awaiting a final once-over before being shipped off to Phoenix for bronze casting. At Althea’s workstation sit her tools and a variety of intricately designed jewelry pieces, including a silver, cuttlefish-cast bracelet topped with a silver dragonfly (a popular Native American symbol for transformation) sculpted by her husband. The piece was created especially for this year’s Native Treasures preview party, the theme of which is “Journey.” “A married couple sharing a studio isn’t very common, I don’t think,” Joe says, Althea nodding in agreement. “But I think the way we met and grew as a couple, and the way we approach our art, make it possible for us to embrace the situation and make it work for us.” The Cajeros’ relationship and their trajectories as celebrated New Mexico artists are intertwined, and have as much to do with personal metamorphosis as they do with their generosity within the New Mexico arts community. What began as a chance encounter at a fitness center blossomed into an eight-year friendship, but Joe eventually became too smitten to stay silent. “I told her I loved her and, yes, it was awkward,” Joe says, laughing. “And it didn’t go my way. After that I took about a week off from seeing her. But then the next time we saw each other, she sort of gazed into me a little bit.” “No, Joe. I flirted,” Althea recalls. “And I’m glad I did. It felt like the decisions we were making together were flowing. And we’ve been best friends ever since.” Married in 2005 at the Allan Houser Sculpture Garden, the Cajeros weren’t both artists when they met. Prior to their engagement, Althea, who is the daughter of silversmith Dorothy Tortalita and lapidary jeweler and Kewa Pueblo tribal leader Tony Tortalita, worked for the Indian Health Service (IHS). She spent a total of 20 years with the agency. “When we started seeing each other romantically,” Althea says, “I would come out here to Placitas to see Joe, and to express my feelings about work, and life in general. Things were changing. I was changing. I was in a place where I had lost my connection to artists, especially after my mother passed away 18 years ago. I missed it.” In Joe’s studio, Althea’s creative urges began to percolate once more. “She would come in after work, and she would talk about her day,” Joe recalls. “And while I was in the studio working, I thought, ‘Well, while we’re talking, she could be helping me.’ So I asked her if she wanted to take some sandpaper and smooth out the rough edges of one of my sculptures. As I watched her, I realized how incredibly mindful she was being. She was very intent about how she moved her hand around the clay.” As time passed, Joe offered Althea more tasks in the studio. “Brushing some of my clay pieces with white paint was another step into that meticulousness that seemed to calm her and fulfill something in her heart,” he says. “When I observed how thorough and clean she was being with her brush, I said, ‘Man, you’re really good!’ And then I gave her yet another task.” After Althea assisted Joe with the inlay for a bronze cross, he couldn’t keep quiet any longer. “I said, ‘You know what? That’s it. You’re an artist. Now you just have to figure out what medium you want to explore.'” Sacrificing job security petrified Althea, but ultimately she couldn’t reject the prospect of a more creative life. While still working for IHS, she began stringing together simple, elegant pieces with lapis, turquoise, sugilite, and coral gemstones. “People at my office started buying the pieces right off my neck,” she says. “I realized that if I could do the findings [the cones and clasps used to connect jewelry pieces], I could get into shows?and good ones.” She took a jewelry making class led by Din? master jewelry designer Fritz Casuse at the POEH Cultural Center and Museum, in Pojoaque Pueblo. “I watched how a student carved into a delicate cuttlefish bone,” Althea says, “and how she melted her metal and poured it. After the metal cooled, she pulled the bone mold apart. I was amazed by the cuttlefish-bone texture and pattern on the cooled metal’s surface. Once it was revealed, I knew that’s what I wanted to create.” For Joe, watching Althea tap into her creativity in his studio early on was magical. “And it continues to be,” he says, “because now we’re helping each other and supporting each other to push the envelope of our work even further. Her transformation into an artist has made us both happier people. Working together in the studio is a lot like being in a relationship: Sometimes you know when to say something. And sometimes you know when to not say anything at all.”