Portrait: Hopi artist Charles Loloma

October 2, 2015

by Hannah Vandeventer (Caddo Nation of Oklahoma)

 “His house sits right on the edge of Hopi so when you look out there you see the vastness… it’s sort of like some people, they don’t understand vastness and it’s really hard for them to be around people that just come from this kind of place. Charles was that way, he was just so vast.”

Charles Loloma (Hopi) is one of America’s most beloved and acclaimed jewelers. He also created beautiful pen-and-ink abstract drawings of landscape and katsina figures. He is seen as a leading figure of unifying Native and non-native cultures through his work as a world-renowned artist.. Loloma also supported American Indian arts education through his association with the Institute of American Indian Arts, his tenure as an instructor at the University of Arizona, and his support of programs dedicated to helping American Indian students express their cultures through the arts.

As the Heard Museum’s exhibit Loloma: Expressions in Metal, Ink and Clay comes to an end this Sunday, Oct. 4 we want to celebrate Charles Loloma with a rare and exclusive look into his life. One of the Heard’s longtime staff members, Debbie Drye (Hopi/Paiute) knew Loloma in her teen years while both were living on the Hopi Reservation. Through personal stories and insights about Loloma, Drye spotlights the respectful, caring and gracious Hopi man Loloma always remained, who never allowed fame to interfere with his life as a traditional Hopi man.

The exhibit offers fresh insights into the talents of this leading Native artist. Loloma’s drawings echo his design esthetic for his jewelry, both of which referenced the contours of his Hopi homeland. Also, as a Hopi man, Loloma also was well acquainted with the weaving art that forms an important part of traditional dress and ceremony. Loloma jewelry and pottery, Hopi textiles and katsina carvings are included to add diversity and fully develop the theme of the drawings.

Heard Museum (HM): Begin by telling us your memories of Charles Loloma. How did you know him?

Debbie Drye (DD): He was just a regular guy when he was out there on the reservation. He was just Charles, and that’s not saying that without respect, he was all that, but he really was a family man he really was what you’d consider trying to live the way of the Hopi.

I didn’t know when I was younger that it was Charles when he would come visit my mother when the Phoenix Indian School was still here. He talked to my mother about his nephew who was going to the Indian School at the time. People used to come by and check out the boys so that they would do work around the house, Hopi boys, and one of them was Charles’ nephew so he had asked her [Debbie’s mother] to kind of look in on him so he wouldn’t be so lonesome because they [Charles] couldn’t always come down.

So my mom would bring them over to the house and when that happened I didn’t get to use the car…my sister and her best friend would go out with Charles’ nephew and his friends and they would go riding around in my mom’s car, but I didn’t know all of this at the time that this kid was Charles’ nephew and just to me it was another Hopi thing.

You know when I think about it, it’s one of those things that you know, here he was, he didn’t have to do that…he didn’t have to look after his nephew like that, but that’s what you do as Hopis and that’s what he did.

He just was always looking out and it wasn’t just his own nephew. He was just very, very respectful.

There’s this woman that used to take me to the Scottsdale Indian Arts Show….He would be there and we would go out to a really nice dinner. He would come and you would see him talking to the people and everything. He would talk about things like how he’d like to go to France. He said he liked the way it was over there, he liked the feeling of it, he liked the smells, he liked the food.

He said, “I always liked to get a manicure,” and it was just so cute because Charles is just so respectful and gracious.

But what struck me is it’s like the finer things in life, if you like those kinds of things there’s nothing wrong with it. A lot of times I’ll do the same thing for myself, not manicure or pedicure (laughing).

He even had his own plane! (laughing)

HM: He could fly his own plane?

DD: Yeah, we have a tiny little air strip out at Hopi.

HM: So he was a Renaissance man?

DD: Yeah he was, he did everything. He’d always look out for what he was taking care of whether it was his house or taking care of his fields or taking care of you know something out there and working.

He had no boundaries, precious/semi-precious everything seemed to be precious to him because it was all life and if he could make something that you could hear its little voice…I think that’s what made him happy.

HM: What do you think people should take away from him and this exhibit? What do you think is the most interesting or even most impactful memories you have of his work and not even just knowing him but his work as a whole? Express something about it that people might not expect?

DD: I think he had a great respect for art itself because he could do everything.

When you look at the little exhibit we have down there you can see he was very talented so all he had to do was pick something, and he picked jewelry, and it’s kind of like his whole own fashion sense which makes sense because he likes France. To go over to Europe and see all of this art that’s over there because you think about how some stones are historical like in the crowns and everything, the jewels they have a history. So somebody like Charles to look at those things when you look at his work that’s what it seems like because they still speak. Not every jeweler from that time period still resonates there’s very few.

And he was so far out there that they didn’t even really think he was an Indian artist, but he didn’t care..(laughing) he’s like oh okay.

He didn’t stay mad about it if he had a bad experience I don’t think that bothered him like it does most people.

HM: As a 16-year-old girl, what stood out what made him different? Did he seem different or was it clear that he was an artist or someone different in the community?

DD: He has this great respect for women and Hopi being matriarchal you would think that would be there, but it changed when we got our own constitution because then men started looking at women differently. There wasn’t that kind of respect there and he still had it even though all the men were changing and Charles was like this little guy in the middle of everything that was changing around him and he remained very, very firm that we have clans we have a way that we respect our clan mothers and he did that.

That kind of respect is something that I always wanted to learn how to do because you really need that if you’re going to be a good clan member, but it seemed so effortless for him and he was just so gracious he was always gracious.

So I think for me it was like being able to see somebody make beautiful art because they had this incredibly beautiful spirit.

His house sits right on the edge of Hopi so when you look out there you see the vastness… it’s sort of like some people, they don’t understand vastness and it’s really hard for them to be around people that just come from this kind of place. Charles was that way, he was just so vast.

I showed a friend of mine a picture of that [his house] and she said “what a piece of real estate” so you can see the difference or non-understanding. (laughing)

It’s like right on the edge and the stone is his patio and it just looks off into the vastness into the everything and it’s all part of the mesa. You could tell it was Charles’ house because he painted it purple.


Visit by Oct. 4 to see the lasting effects of Loloma’s life and work.