Cochiti Pueblo artist and fashion designer Virgil Ortiz cannot sit still. Since receiving his first award for traditional clay from Santa Fe Indian Market at 14, Ortiz had a clothing line accepted into a swank Parisian boutique Colette and created Indigenous Imprints®, a carpet collection designed exclusively for Aqua Hospitality Carpets. Fondation Cartier has acquired 21 of his pieces for their permanent collection. And in 2003, Ortiz secured a deal with fashion maven Donna Karan – she printed his imagery of traditional Cochiti motifs, such as wild spinach, for her spring line that year. Ortiz’s stars as both artist and designer have been on a steady rise. He began working with clay when he was 6.
On Thursday, August 16, Zane Bennett Contemporary Art presents Ortiz’s latest body of work, Venutian Soldiers, a collection of streamlined, space-age “monos” (figures) crafted from red clay, as well as white and red clay slip, using traditional Cochiti Pueblo potting methods. His photographs of the models used in the creation of the show are exhibited alongside the clay figures, and although this isn’t his first foray into photography, it is the first time his photographs are part of the show by the artist.
“The concept for the Venutian Soldiers has been in the works for a long time,” Ortiz told me by phone from his Cochiti Pueblo studio. “Lately I have been leaking photos to the public of all these superhero-type characters that I’ve created. The characters and their story are loosely based on the 1680 Pueblo Revolt.” Ortiz is testing the waters to see how children respond to the characters, and he hopes to eventually use them as teaching tools on the pueblo and elsewhere. “I’m also generally interested in the public’s reaction to this work, as opposed to how they react to more traditional-looking work.” When his fashion career began to take off, and Ortiz became mired in the minutiae of running a successful business and balancing that with family time and pueblo life, he looked to fashion photographers to do the heavy lifting. But when scheduling became difficult, “I decided to just do it all myself and became comfortable behind the camera in no time.
“I incorporate Photoshop and a lot of hands-on work into the images for this show, so I prefer to think of them more as digital paintings. I dressed all the models, hand-painted them, created all the outfits for them, and did their hair and make-up. And then they let me experiment on them. None of the characters are sketched out first; they all exist in my head. The photographs of the models are the sketches, and they come alive when we’re here in the studio.”
In past Ortiz exhibits, his clay monos remained unnamed, and that will probably be the case with Venutian Soldiers, at least for now. Ortiz will, however, name his superheroes in their photographs because he wants people to become familiar with the characters. “Through photography it as easier to express my own interpretation of the Pueblo Revolt. On my Facebook page, we’re getting ready to release the names of the characters and the corresponding models’ names and the models’ pictures. I believe each of these models, who are also my friends, are mentors to both Native and non-Native kids. They have something to say. A few are film actors; I want the kids to look up to them.”
Ortiz’s 39 nieces and nephews serve as guinea pigs with respect to how kids react to his futuristic-looking Native superheroes. From all indications, his new experiment is photography and clay is working on the little ones. Now Ortiz begins the arduous process of branding the characters and securing copyrights. “Eventually I’ll feature the superheroes in comic books, for film, or whatever.”
Hints about what Ortiz has in mind for the big screen can be gleaned from a video he posted on YouTube in March. Titled Translator Unleashed and, of course, directed, produced, written, and edited by Ortiz (he also wrote the original score), the five-minute video draws viewers into the story of Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo leader Po’Pay, who successfully organized a Native American revolt that liberated the Rio Grande Pueblo peoples from their Spanish oppressors. “The Translator, she is the actual leader of the spirit world army. In my stories, she’s able to connect all the pueblos that participated in the revolt via telepathy. The soldiers of the spirit world are all very opaque, white even, and covered in tattoos, which you can see when you watch that video.”
Turning the characters created for Venutian Soldiers into a major feature film is Ortiz’s ultimate goal. A lot of film-industry people are interested in the story, Ortiz said, but he wants to be meticulous about the details, down to how the characters speak, walk, and gesticulate. “My mottos is to be overly prepared, all the time. With this project it’s important not to lose control of it, not only so that my story is told the way I want it to be told but because the Pueblo Revolt isn’t taught to kids in history classes, really, and this is a way to get them interested in that history. When I travel to Europe, people there know so much more about Native culture than Americans do. We’re really taking about the first American revolution, and it’s generally swept under the carpet here. I want to bring the story to people, not in an angry way, but in an informative, updated way.”
Ortiz’s nieces and nephews are attracted to high-tech gadgets such as iPhones and iPads, and to compete for their attention while teaching them about their own culture, Ortiz has had to be forward-thinking. Creating characters that have the visual impact of a contemporary CGI version of Iron Man, for instance, captures the interest of millennials. In exposing them to Pueblo history and culture through these characters, Ortiz is, in effect, hiding the peas in the mashed potatoes. “But it isn’t a trick. It’s just the way some things are these days when attempts are made to preserve culture in the digital age.”
Ortiz believes he was put on this Earth to create pottery using the traditional methods of the Cochiti people, and he’s adamant about never letting go of that part of himself. “It’s like a dying art form. When our mother passed away and our neighbor, potter Louis Naranjo, died , it was like losing some of the elder masters of the art form. There are so few left.”
Ortiz’s mother’s family includes several potters, and when Ortiz was growing up. He didn’t consider making pottery an act of creating art. He thought everyone had clay pulled from the earth and pit-fired pots sitting on their kitchen tables. “When I realize how special the art form was and what it meant to my heritage, I decided to push myself to keep the art form alive, and I will continue to do that.”
Ortiz hopes to open up his studio under the banner of the Ortiz Foundation, a nonprofit that will bring in Pueblo children during the summer months and teach them pottery, drawing, painting, fashion design, jewelry making, and photography. “Whatever they want to learn, the sky’s the limit. I really want them to believe in themselves, and I want to help pave the road for them and teach them all that I’ve learned. I want them to learn traditional Cochiti culture and art forms, but I also want to push them to think completely outside the box. To live as an artist these days and compete with anyone in the larger, non-Native art world, you have to have both skill and versatility.”