Original Americana

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's a Thanksgiving tradition. Every November the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles, one of the nation's leading Native American cultural institutions, fields calls especially from teachers, inquiring about the Native American contribution to America's culture.

"Indian art connects us to our real past," said Barbara Arvi, the museum's director of education and public programs. "It's also a marvel of design that the people making these baskets and pots for everyday use took the time to make them so beautiful."

The art is a perfect Thanksgiving symbol to trace the holiday back to a shared meal between the newly arrived Pilgrims and Native Americans. Not only did the Native Americans introduce the colonists to turkey, corn, squash, pumpkin and other foods, they also shared their inspired designs for daily living.

The pottery, baskets and weavings still flourish and are enjoying a renewed energy, thanks to contemporary Native American artists that range from potter Nathan Youngblood, who uses traditional hand-firing techniques, to others who bring new visions to patterns hundreds of years old.

Then there are the serious collectors like Lauris Phillips, whose love affair with Native American art began 23 years ago when she and her husband, Jim, were attending a manufacturers' meeting in Las Vegas. Wandering through an Indian art show in the hotel lobby, Lauris admired a little fetish--a black steatite whale with a dorsal fin.

"I liked it, but the dealer wanted $300, and that seemed like a lot," she recalled last week. "I said I'd study up. The more I studied, the more interested I got, and one thing led to another." In becoming collectors, the Phillipses have become experts in the history of Native American art.

"We live with it," Lauris said. "It gives us a sense of well-being which is hard to describe--it's very ethereal."

She was sitting in the living room of their Pasadena-area home, a high-beamed English Tudor-style house that could double as a museum. Baskets of every size and style are lined--sometimes stacked--on tables, shelves and in cases. The fetish that started it all is housed in a glass case.

Pottery--from the prehistoric Anasazi to 20th century Acoma--is displayed in every available nook. Richly dyed woven blankets adorn the walls and are draped over couches and benches. One wall is dominated by a towering ornate chest adorned with a Hopi wedding robe, and another case holds an exhibit of the crude instruments originally used to chisel and polish exquisite Navajo silver jewelry.

"Native Americans gave us our first art," said Manya Winstead, editor of Santa Fean magazine. "They raised sheep for the wool and used plants and minerals for the dye."

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It was functional art. The utensils, such as the Papago baskets so tightly woven they held water, were everyday items but created with a sense of timeless artistry.

"No matter how simple the object, it was artistically cared for and treated," Winstead explained.

Her magazine is one of several dedicated to Native American decorative arts. Although its pages are filled with design stories highlighting the use of pottery, baskets and weavings in the typical Southwest adobe and wood-beam architecture, the art is at home in any period, she said.

"These styles are so classic, you can put them in an ultra ultra-modern home as well as Southwest. And here, many people are doing that. A fine Navajo rug is as contemporary as steel furniture, in its way."

Every August, Santa Fe's Indian Market showcases an increasing number of young Indian artists, and magazine editor Winstead predicts that "the new millennium will be the Millennium of Native Americans. They have struggled their way to a position where the art world has opened to them."

Today's American Indian artists occasionally still work in traditional methods, she said.

"Potters like Nathan Youngblood still hand fire pots in the flames," but the most ancient patterns can have an entirely contemporary translation.

Her magazine's annual "Great Designs/Great Designers" edition, published in October, is evidence of the range of work being done, with its highlight of 60 architects, interior designers, artists and manufacturers whose works are carried in designer showrooms throughout the country.

Their furniture would fit elegantly into any lifestyle. A typical example is the work of Anglo designer Rick Bartholomew. A professor at Oklahoma State University, he focused his research on the idea of including art and historical symbolism into a furniture line that essentially fused education, culture and industry in works of livable art. He researched all the documented artwork on the pottery, baskets, beadwork, clothing, ceremonial artifacts and other folklore of five tribes--the Creek, Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Seminole.

From that research, he created his Native Lines furniture, combining intricate woodwork with lines as sleek as that of Danish Modern.

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Such sophisticated works are a far cry from the Indian-Santa Fe decorating motif that swamped the interior design world several years ago with pink and aqua furniture and infinite howling coyotes, noted Winstead.

"Thank goodness that died--it was fine for about 12 minutes, but you can kitsch a thing to death."

Los Angeles artist Michael Horse, 50, says he has seen the popular interest in American Indian art "come and go three or four times" and expects the pattern to continue.

"A lot of people say, 'Oh, I'm sick of Indian art,' but they have never really seen it, never really seen how well it goes with other things."

He likes Indian art with blond, clean-cut tables, cabinets and couches, as well as traditional dark woods.

"I have a friend who has a modern loft, with very clean lines, and Indian rugs and kachinas seem to go well in that style," said Horse. "My own house is an eclectic mix of a lot of personal traditional items and European Art Deco furniture."

He and his wife, Sandra, are actors (Horse is currently appearing in the "Roswell" series on the WB network), but he describes himself as an artist first. With a background of Zuni, Yaqui and Mescalero Apache, Horse says he takes his art from all of them.

"I'm a jeweler and sculptor and do mixed media," he said. "In the past few years, I've also been doing ledger art, which was an early documentation of Indian life."

Growing up on the Yaqui reservation in Arizona, he knows the importance of his culture and art.

Although some artists still work with traditional tools, he said, most have taken advantage of better equipment for such techniques as silversmithing.

"As Native artists, we are constantly growing, experimenting with new media in combination with traditional designs. I know Native artists who work in chrome and steel but do it from a traditional perspective. Also a lot of our work is rooted in a spiritual basis, which I think people . . . gravitate to. They know there is something more than design going on."

"You can create your own kind of mood with any kind of surrounding," explained Lauris Phillips, the collector. She and her husband have comfortably mixed Papago pottery and Navajo rugs with Louis XVI chairs, damask love seats and other French furniture in their living room.

"You don't have to have a Santa Fe house," she said.

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Although they consider their collection priceless, there is still affordable Native art available.

"You can buy really nice contemporary pots--the Acoma are making wonderful pots in New Mexico. The Pima and Papago are making gorgeous baskets, and the Hopi are doing incredible work."

Such pieces can help to create a special ambience in a home, she said. "There are so many facets to the relationship between the Anglos and the American Indians--so many broken treaties. And yet this art endures. We wake up every morning and look around, and feel such reverence."

Connie Koenenn can be reached at connie.koenenn@latimes.com.

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