One of the largest Indian markets in the U.S., the Heard Indian Fair hosts about 600 artists ranging from traditional Hopi katsina doll carvers to metal masters, couture designers and painters on its seven-acre campus. The Heard opens its doors to about 15,000 visitors annually for the fair as well, which requires a small army of 600 to 800 staff and volunteers.
While artists are the stars of the show, the Heard Indian Fair was once a far different affair. The first Indians Fairs were just that: small street fairs on the side street that once was the Heard’s front door. Pony rides, a carousel and even face painting for children were just as anticipated as were the pottery, basketry and katsina dolls.
Over the decades, the Heard Indian Fair morphed into of a celebration of Native arts and cultures, leaving its children’s carnival image behind. In place of the pony rides, Native entertainers, ranging from as R. Carlos Nakai’s new jazz quartet to GertieNtheT.O.Boyz Waila Band, now provide a Native vibe as guests take a break from perusing the booths and noshing on food that’s a cut above the usual fair food.
The kiddies weren’t left out, either: Plains Cree/Taino entertainer Violet Duncan provided storytelling and hands-on projects for the smallest collectors Saturday and Sunday. And of course, the Heard Museum Shop was open for even more shopping opportunities.
The Best of Show Reception
At the Best of Show Reception, held the Friday evening before the Heard Indian Fair, collectors and fans of Native art gathered alongside artists to learn who had won the top prizes, and to enjoy the evening before the main event. Heard Museum Director David M. Roche congratulated the winners of the juried competition and called on guests to enjoy the works on display and visit with the artists.
The juried competition debuted three new categories. Personal attire was separated out from weavings and textiles, while beadwork and quillwork now have their own category. The biggest change: the Conrad House Cutting Edge category.
This year’s Cutting Edge award went to Navajo weaver Marlowe Katoney’s pictorial weaving “Avis Radius,” which features a breakdancer on a traditional Navajo background. “What I wanted to do was depict what was going on today. It’s my expression on pop culture,” said Katoney.
The Fashion Show
The Heard Indian Fair is also moving into the 21st century with new events such as the fashion show. “We wanted to show young, hip fashions that people can wear every day,” says Fair Chair Shelley Mowry.
This year’s fashion show, held during the Best of Show Reception, cast a spotlight on designers such as Loren Aragon, whose Pueblo-inspired designs are perfect for the office, a night on the town or a gala; Virginia Ballenger, whose confection in ocean blue and turquoise burnout velvet wowed the audience; Veronica Poblano’s lush jewelry; and Summer Peters’ canvas duck cloth couture.
Nearly 20 years ago, Don Johnston was walking the streets of Anchorage, pondering what to do after a back injury ended his career as a chef. “I was driving to work and ruptured a disk,” says Johnston. With no disability and vocational training halted by federal budget cuts, Johnston had few options. But a chance encounter paved the road to a new career—a path which led to the humble man from Ketchikan, Alaska, winning the Best of Show award at the Heard Indian Fair on his first entry.
“There was a man sitting on the side of the road shaving baleen with a knife,” recounts Johnston, a member of the Qagan Tayagungin Tribe, an Aleut community in Alaska’s Shumagin Islands. “He handed me a baleen strand and a knife and said, ‘here.’ I started slicing and never stopped.” Johnston is renowned for his skill creating baskets from whale baleen, flexible dental strands that filter krill and other tiny sea animals from the sea.
Johnston, who currently lives in Oregon with his family, created a stunning lidded basket sporting a whale-tail finial carved from walrus ivory for his winning entry. After shaving the baleen to usable widths, he stitches the flexible material in the traditional clockwise direction, but then reverses the direction to create a textured pattern rarely seen in the art form unique to Alaskan Natives. He also incorporates strands of white baleen, which are found in female whales age 65 and older, to give his basket even more visual interest.
The artist who once sold his work whole-sale, he still seemed stunned by the attention his basket garnered as well as the realization that he had risen to the top ranks of Native art.
But Johnston wasn’t the only innovative artist on hand at the Fair, another artist pair was also making their first appearance. Gina Brooks and her partner, Susan Sacobie, who both are members of Maliseet St. Mary’s First Nation in New Brunswick, were showing their distinctive paintings and prints.
“Every color has a message,” says Brooks. “We are the People of the Beautiful River, and we grew up with a responsibility to take care of our resources.” Sacobie adds, “As Native American artists, we look at the natural environment and use those resources; it keeps us in our language with the land.” The paintings depict timeless Maliseet motifs such as the Tree of Life, but with what the pair calls a unique approach to traditional art.
Young artists are also showing and selling their art alongside their parents or other relatives. One such youth artist, Mosgaadace Casuse, has been involved in Native art, including attending the Fair, since he was in his mother’s womb. The 11-year-old metal artist proudly showed off his tufa-cast work on a storyboard created by proud parents Fritz Casuse, Navajo and Wanesia Spry-Misquadace, Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwe. “I wanted to do what Mom and Dad were doing,” says the fifth-grader, who created his first piece at age 4. “I was curious.”
But Casuse also admits that he sometimes ditches his homework to do jewelry. “I’ve sold two at this Fair so far,” he says. “[The sales] help with my college fund.” However, Casuse is still pondering which college – or career path – to pursue. “I kind of want to go to Boston University because I like the ghost stories and it looks cool,” says Casuse. “Or maybe Harvard, maybe the University of Wisconsin (where mom Spry-Misquadace completed her graduate work), or maybe Dartmouth.”
Artists who have been coming to the Heard Indian Fair for many years were also enjoying the weekend. Cliff Fragua, Jemez Pueblo, showed off his second-place ribbon for a sculpture bust of his new wife, Northern Chumash artist Leah Mata, entitled “She Carries the Traditions.” He’s also happy even when engaged in the arduous task of setting up his booth. With so much stone to shift, Fragua is fond of saying, “I’m always the first one in and the last one out.” He took just a bit too much time this year, though, and found the front gate locked on Sunday night. But he says he took it in stride and simply found somebody to let him and Mata out.
Johnston, who began entering shows two years ago at the advice of a friend, previously won two first place awards at the Autry’s American Indian Arts Marketplace, but is now pondering where his meteoric rise to Native arts stardom will take him next.
But one thing is sure: “You need to come to these shows,” he says.*
By Debra Utacia Krol