When Christine Nofchissey McHorse died of COVID-19 in February of 2021, this country lost an under-recognized but uniquely powerful voice. For McHorse, a Native American, making ceramics involved both history and reinvention. She combined historic techniques inseparable from her culture and traditions with an independently developed style. Despite surface resemblances in her work to artists such as Brancusi and Arp, the modernism of her work is inherent in her culture, a mix of Navajo (Diné) and Pueblo aesthetics. While it has indisputable ties to tradition, her work rises above differences in time and origin; it parallels Western Modernism rather than being a part of it.
The Process of Discovery
McHorse was introduced to the work of Picasso, Gaudi, and Matisse at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, when it was a high school for the arts. When exposed to these artists at the age of 14, she said they “opened a whole new world.” Native American artwork is characterized by what Western critics and historians designate abstraction—but its naturalism and stylized forms rise out of a culture that is timeless and self-sufficient. The beauty and contemporary appearance of McHorse’s work rises from Native American sovereignty and nationhood, from life on the reservation, not from a Westernized impulse.
McHorse made her work with the enthusiastic support of influential gallerists Mark Del Vecchio and Garth Clark, who represented her and organized numerous exhibitions of her art. Living and working on the Taos Pueblo reservation at the beginning of her career, she invented her forms in isolation from the world of contemporary ceramics. It is this relative isolation that makes her work all the more fascinating, idiosyncratic, and deeply original; she came to her forms via her own unique development with little outside influence. Throughout her career, her work evolved from her intuitions and the process of discovery. As she said, “The reason I know this stuff is all basically trial and error. It’s learning as you go. Nobody taught me directly. I learned the basics, but then after that I had to experiment.”
Her career as a clay artist began when she started working with Lena Archuleta, her husband’s grandmother, at Taos Pueblo. From Archuleta, Christine learned to work with micaceous clay, which is common to the Taos area and has a high mica content that produces a shimmering effect. A pot McHorse made in the Taos style won a ribbon and sold at the Albuquerque State Fair in 1971. For the next few decades, McHorse excelled within the Pueblo tradition of making functional, decorated vessels. She participated in the Santa Fe Indian Market for 23 years, winning 38 awards before leaving in 2003. Although her work was much sought after by collectors, by 1996 she no longer wanted the restrictions of traditional pottery and stopped making functional ware. She has said, “I like to build vessels no one would know what to put in them” and, “I like to think of things no one has done before.” She began to break down the distinctions between pottery and sculpture in favor of organic, nature-based forms. From these, she launched the body of work that was to define her output for the next 20 years. McHorse’s sculptures represent an evolution from a traditional style to a more personal one that reflected her surroundings, the natural stone formations and plant life that characterize the New Mexican landscape.
New Styles and Bodies of Work
After several years of working in her new style, she made a major change in her firing practices. Rather than leaving the micaceous clay its natural color, an uninflected tan, she began firing her pots in reduction. After bisque firing the work, she placed it in a garbage can filled with burning leaves and closed the tight-fitting lid. The reduced oxygen and resulting smoke created a satiny black surface, causing the flecks of mica in the clay to glitter against the dark background. These works became the foundation of her Dark Light series. Each of these sculptures has a unique surface texture that reflects or catches the light in different ways. It’s the dramatic, flickering, reflected light from the surfaces of her sculpture that defines McHorse’s work.
Her micaceous clay pieces are thin but strong coil-built structures that withstand the heat of the firing. Before building with the coils that are the foundation of a sculpture, she explained, “I work with sketches so I can figure out what the construction process is going to be . . .where the weight will fall and what size they will be.” She was inspired by spirals, wind currents, organic forms, the movement of animals, and the way a hair might fall on the floor, and stated, “If I can do something very simple that has a big impact . . . that’s what drives me.”
A Unique Physical Presence
With the exception of those pieces she has editioned in bronze, McHorse never repeated a piece—she felt it to be boring and pointless to work in a regimented series. Each piece tends to vary in size and form from the one that preceded it—details and textures are different, the imagery is always unique to that particular object. You can see her curiosity, inventiveness, and nature-oriented imagery in a piece such as Spleen. The neck of this 22-inch-tall vessel form has a set of ribbed protrusions that encircle the upper part of the form on all sides. Although every surface of the piece has been burnished to a warm glow, a certain unevenness reveals its coil-based construction. The deliberate choice of asymmetry, a feature of all her work, activates her forms—no one side repeats the precise contours of the next.
Exceptional artwork possesses some extremity that underscores something there is no language for, that works of other artists lack. McHorse’s ceramics seem to go some unidentifiable distance further than other artists’ works. This extra element may simply be a certain stress placed on craft, on simple fabrication. It’s not as if other artists haven’t worked with organic imagery—it’s that she thought past content in a fully three-dimensional way. She orchestrated all factors equally so their combined weight comes together into something different, notable. Her sheer mastery of her material and ceramic processes, her attention to surface and imagery; all these factors combine to make a riveting experience for the viewer.
Her work has an unusually intense physical presence that especially appeals to the hand—you want to touch it, lift it up, turn it to see every part of it close up. The gleam of the polished surfaces, the glitter of the mica, the way the objects catch the light, reflecting and diffusing it, creates an allure that is particular to her work. There is nothing extra. The work seems both spare and minimal yet is activated with detail. Each piece, with its stripped-to-the bones sophistication, bears her hallmark curvaceous forms and black, satiny patina. The beauty of these pieces lies in their inconsistency, in the constant evidence of her hand. These intuitive choices charge her work with an energy as psychological as it is visual.
Christine Nofchissey McHorse was born in 1948 in Morenci, Arizona. Her work is included in the collections of the Denver Art Museum, Denver, Colorado; the Museum of New Mexico, Santa Fe, New Mexico; the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC; the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Houston, Texas; and The Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City, Missouri.
I am indebted to Gerald Peters Gallery, Garth Clark, and Mark Del Vecchio for introducing me to the work of McHorse and helping with my research.
All quotes are from “Christine Nofchissey McHorse—Dark Light,” a video commissioned by the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Kansas (available online on Vimeo).
the author Kay Whitney, a frequent contributor to Ceramics Monthly, is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles, California.