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Michael Kabotie: In Memoriam

posted by CAA — Nov 23, 2009

Zena Pearlstone is emeritus professor of art history at California State University, Fullerton.

Michael Kabotie

Michael Kabotie with his work at the Del Rio Gallery in Flagstaff, Arizona

Michael Kabotie (Lomawywesa), a Hopi painter, jeweler, poet, and printmaker, died in Flagstaff, Arizona, on October 23, 2009, of complications from H1N1 influenza. He was 67.

Kabotie is known among Hopi artists as one who commanded several media and constantly pushed his iconographic and technical skills. His work was always powerful and often mystical. Kabotie worked with the mythology and sentiments of his people, but he described his art as pushing back in time in an attempt to arrive at the roots or basics of Hopi teachings that would promote a common understanding. His intelligence was far reaching. Some people think outside the box, but for him there never was a box.

Kabotie was born in 1942 at Songoopovi, Second Mesa, Hopi, a member of the Snow-Water clan and the son of the artist Fred Kabotie and Alice Kabotie. He attended Hopi High School, where he studied art with his father, and in 1961 graduated from the Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas. He began studies in engineering but did not complete the program, preferring to devote his full attention to his art. He lived at Hopi and also, for many years, in Flagstaff and New Mexico.

During the sixties and into the seventies Kabotie’s work was influenced by ancestral Pueblo art and European modernism. In the 1960 and 1961 Southwest Indian Art Project summer program at the University of Arizona, he studied with the Cochiti artist Joe Herrera, who introduced him to the kiva murals at the Hopi site of Awotovi. Herrera, Kabotie said, opened his eyes to the art of his people. The murals and the related Sikyatki pottery images remained a reference for Kabotie throughout his career. At his 1967 initiation into the Wuwtsim (a priesthood society) Kabotie received the name Lomawywesa, “Walking in Harmony.” The ceremony led him to consider the art of his ancestors as more central than modern art.

Still it was important to Kabotie to work with other artists in a modernist style that extracted elements from ancient sources. In 1973 he was a founding member of Artist Hopid, a group of five contemporary Hopi artists who felt the need to communicate their cultural and artistic experiences. Speaking for the group Kabotie said, “We hoped that from the presentation of our traditions and from the interpretations of the Hopi way in our art and paintings a new direction would come for American spirituality.” In 1996, he continued his search for basic truths when he began sharing canvases with Jack Dauben, who is of Celtic ancestry.

Michael Kabotie

Michael Kabotie, silver pendant, 2004

Kabotie began silversmithing seriously in the late 1970s. His unique work modified Hopi overlay into three-dimensional pieces, a process most Hopi jewelers would never attempt. One stunning 2001 bracelet with Awotovi designs is built like a box, squared and hollow, an astounding construction feat.

Kabotie’s painting and jewelry were incorporated into large public works, including murals at Sunset Crater Visitors Center in Arizona; a large mural, Journey of the Human Spirit, made with Delbridge Honanie and now in the Kiva Gallery at the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff; and a gate at the Heard Museum in Phoenix designed to look like a piece of overlay jewelry.

Kabotie was a Southwestern force and in all his endeavors an ambassador for Hopi while absorbing the ideas of other cultures. In a career of almost fifty years, he was involved, as either participant or consultant, in myriad projects concerning Southwest and Californian art and culture. He worked with indigenous artists in New Zealand, Brazil and Mexico; had exhibitions in fourteen US states, South America, Europe, and New Zealand; and served as an advisor to the Heard Museum, the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles, and the Idyllwild California Summer Arts program at the Idyllwild Arts Foundation. At the latter Kabotie taught Hopi overlay jewelry techniques for almost twenty years. His work is held by museums in the United States and Europe. In 2003 he received the Arizona Indian Living Treasure Award.

He was a warm and caring person and a wonderful friend. His thoughtfulness and his humor went hand in hand. He was a quick wit and always the trickster. “Come have Thanksgiving with us,” he asked one year. “We have too many Indians and not enough Pilgrims.”

Kabotie leaves a monumental body of work that will be admired and influential for many years. He leaves a large family and a multitude of friends, all of whom adored and respected him.

Filed under: Obituaries