Rose B. Simpson

B. 1983

Rose B. Simpson is a mixed-media artist who was born, works, and lives in Santa Clara Pueblo, New Mexico, where history, land, and culture are central to her practice. She works in metals, performance art, music, installation, and custom cars but is best known for her ceramic and mixed-media figurative sculptures, which are often combined with welded steel and leather.

She identifies as a mixed-blood, multicultural, two spirit person, who lives in a post-apocalyptic world, a world that came after the genocide and colonization of Indigenous people. Her work reflects the multilayered history of New Mexico and the United States as she deals with historical trauma.

Simpson was raised by her mother after her parents divorced.  Her father is Patrick Simpson, a white contemporary artist who took her rock climbing and taught her how to sail. “He had time to play with me, while my mom was surviving.”  Her mother Roxanne Swentzell is a renowned clay maker and sculptor of bronze figures, particularly of women. Simpson’s grandmother was Rina Swentzell who made contemporary pots on a wheel. Her great-grandmother was artist Rose Naranjo, and Simpson remembers seeing Naranjo speak to her clay while making pottery.  Each woman was given a matrilineal gift of clay by her own mother.

Simpson and her family lived off the land. Her mother was resourceful, grew her own food, home schooled Simpson and her brother, and had a “deep relationship to the land.” Simpson  did not attend school until high school at the Santa Fe Indian School.  She trained in automotive science at Northern New Mexico College. She attended the University of New Mexico for three years and received her B.F.A. from the Institute of American Indian Arts in 2007. She visited Japan on a school trip in 2010 where the Japanese aesthetic of process over perfection of form resonated with her. In 2011, she received her M.F.A. in Ceramics from the Rhode Island School of Design. Six years ago she became a single mother.

For her clay figures, she uses different kinds of clay but prefers to work with New Mexico clay.  She uses a technique she devised called slap-slab. She throws a slab of clay sideways on the floor over and over again until it is very thin. Then she tears off pieces creating thin sheets of clay to layer onto the hollow ceramic forms of her figures. While her mother makes smooth sculptures of Indigenous women, Simpson allows her fingerprints to show on the clay’s rough texture. She often sculpts these androgynous figures without limbs but with eyes left open like a mask with a vacant stare as if witnessing us. She adds metal adornments, beads, jewelry, armor, and earrings to them and paints stars and crosses on the clay as symbols of strength and protection.

Unlike traditional pueblo storyteller figurines, Simpson’s unglazed figures in desert tones of cream, terra cotta, and brown-black clay tell personal stories that can rise to the level of universal import. She likens her figures to ancestor beings that are watching.  Some are mothers with children; others are warriors preparing for battle. She made warriors for years as a way to transform the victim narrative of her people. Her ethereal figures function as hope for herself and the world and represent her constant investigation into the human condition.

In 2014, she began work on a lowrider car, a 1985 Chevy El Camino, which she called ‘Maria’. She appropriated the masculine low rider culture for herself while giving homage to artist Maria Martinez (1887 – 1980). Martinez was the famous Tewa potter of the San Ildefonso Pueblo, who – with her husband Julian – revived the practice of all black pottery. Simpson painted her car in the same way: black on black with Martinez’s pottery designs of mountains, clouds, traveling spirals, and feathers. In her first performance art, called by her a “Transformance,” Simpson drove the car with black leather-clad performers walking alongside in a kind of procession.  

However, in a 2022 “Transformance,” Simpson eliminated the car performing with members of the Southern Paiute community. Simpson is carrying her little daughter and walking solemnly next to her friend Fawn Douglas, a Pauite artist and activist. In this procession all are quiet and dressed in traditional clothing.

“My life-work is a seeking out of tools to use to heal the damages I have experienced as a human being of our postmodern and postcolonial era . . . “  In her recent gallery exhibition, “Road Less Traveled” she realized that she was falling into the habit of aligning herself against others based on differing beliefs. With the works in this exhibition she addressed this shortcoming of hers by showing an image of herself split down the middle. String, representing the neural pathways of her brain, lined the back of this figure’s head. This was the way she allowed herself to now make her own journey and to create a new road for herself, one less traveled.    

Simpson made small figures that served as models for 12 concrete sculptures that are nearly 11 feet tall at the Field Farm Meadow in Williamstown, Massachusetts. The sculptures embody ancestors watching over the landscape. Her work has also been displayed at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston and Fabric Workshop and Museum in Pittsburgh.

Her work is in the permanent collections of The Baltimore Museum of Art, Denver Art Museum, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Portland Art Museum, Guggenheim Museum, and others.

More here.

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