LA: You do three distinct types of pottery. One style, featuring
the Chongo Brothers in the American Highway series ("Mimbres
People" and "Chongo Brothers," both 1994), are
like x-rays, showing what's happening on the surface of the earth
and also what's just below the surface.
DR: That's a little gimmicky gag I threw in there but
it works for me. I like it. These pots are views of landscapes,
and they show both what's there and what's not there. They're
an interpretation of what we see and what we don't see, an interpretation
of what's really out there. They've become more Anasazi-looking
in recent times, too. I've developed the automobile into something
like a cloud symbol. Most Pueblo pottery, the historic stuff and
even contemporary work, addresses a dialogue with fertility, rain,
growth, and animals associated with that, whereas my dialogue
centers around post-industrialization, the commodification of
Indian land, water, alcoholism . . .
LA: A number of the "Chongo Brothers" pieces deal
DR: Exactly. That's what this all addresses. The pots
are amusing anecdotes of urban Indian life. Here we have the Chongo
brothers out in the desert and they're drinking over the bones
of their ancestors, which is where they belong, not in a museum.
They're just two alcoholic bros that fight and love and hate and
live life. In "Time Machine" the Chongo brothers are
in a comic situation. They're in their car in outer space. I was
going to put a Mayan space traveler in it but I thought that would
be too literal, so I went for the spaceship.
LA: Are they personas of you and Mateo?
DR: No, they're not. I always get asked that question
and no, they're not my brother and me. There are elements in them
that are very much us, but there are also my cousins and my uncles,
and a lot of the stories that I narrate are not really my own.
They're a mixture of a lot of Native individuals, but beyond that
they're disenfranchised. They're disjoined. They're an aboriginal
people in a 20th century consumer society and the work narrates
the pitfalls and dualities of being a museum artifact in a not-so-museum
artifact world. They're metaphors for the disenfranchised. It's
all there. It's obvious when you see the work, too, and I don't
want to get too bombastic and caught up in an explanation, but
that's what it's about. It's a narration of cultural disintegration
or cultural preservation, however you want to look at it, of urban
Indian experience as well as, perhaps, reservation experience,
of being a Native American or a prisoner of war in a hostile environment.
There are two sides to them. They're not always drinking. There
are several narrations where I did the successful Chongo brothers.
One was the Indian market poster boy and one was a casino master.
It's not all about the Indian that passes out on the road and
falls in the ditch drunk. It's also about the Indian that becomes
involved in tribal politics, opens casinos. They encompass everything
so in that sense, they're no one specific person at all.
LA: "Landscape" (1995) from the American Highway
series creates more of a bleak environment.
DR: The industrial landscapes are void of characters in
most cases. I've done several now, with trailer houses, windmills,
factories. I use a factory down near Bernalillo. I like to put
it in there. It's one of my favorite factories. Once I moved back
to New Mexico from UCLA, the work became much more powerful because
I was back in the environment that I was dealing with. The landscapes
just became more dominant.
LA: You've been influenced by comic book techniques. Your
brother wrote that you address the past through "a placement
of historic design motifs in the same picture plane as a comic
book style drawing." 1 You did the announcement card for
the exhibition at MIAC [Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa
Fe] as issue number one of Chongo Comics.
DR: Actually I'm working on a Chongo Brothers comic
book. I want to do it on litho plates but everybody tells me that
black and white lithos don't sell. I don't even know if that's
what I care about. I want to do a comic book called Tales from
My Father's Past. It's all about him coming back from Korea
and being relocated to Oakland, hanging out at seedy dive bars
with other relocated Pueblo Indians. Tales from the Moulin
Rouge is about a bar that he used to drink at. I want to do
one called Chongo Love, which is about dysfunctional love
stories. I have it all laid out in sketches. I draw constantly.
Even the drawings on the pots are like black and white woodcuts.
LA: What's the technique for getting the drawing on the pot?
DR: I draw it out and Xerox it, then I cut it out like
a paper doll and place it on the pot and draw around it with a
pencil. I stencil it, paint it, and fire it.
LA: What creates the black finish?
DR: It's called Duncan Underglaze; it's commercial. I
use a combination of Native clay and commercial materials, whatever
I need to get the effect I want. I won't handicap myself because
it's not all Native materials. For me, my dialogue and my narrative
is what I'm really working with, but it is Native clay. I dig
the clay, a lot of the slips are Native, the black is commercial,
the gold is commercial, and I fire in a kiln. I experiment with
pit fire, too, but I haven't really perfected that yet.
LA: Do you think you would get the same result from pit fire?
DR: You wouldn't, unless you mastered it, but that takes
years. Lots of trial, lots of error. For instance, all my grandma's
pieces are pit-fired. You can see smoke clouds, and it has more
of a dusty look, not as clean. Mine are whiter and more shiny.
Pit-fired pottery has a certain quality that's very beautiful,
but you can only get it by pit firing. You break a lot of pieces
when you pit fire, which is a deterrent for me. If I've invested
on a bowl, I want to control the firing process as much as I can.
LA: How long does it take to do a piece from beginning to
end, like one of the Time Machine pieces, which is fairly
DR: Maybe a couple of weeks. That's not working eight
hour days, though. It's six hours here, twelve hours here, four
hours here. That one was built by coil. I'm proud of that. I've
got that technique down pretty well.
It only took a day to build the pot, maybe a day and a half.
I came into the studio around ten in the morning and probably
had that pot done by one or two the next morning. Then it has
to dry. The sanding takes another day, then the burnishing, which
has to all be done in one day, too, but not an easy day. That
was probably a twelve to fourteen hour day. I just sat there and
burnished that whole pot from start to finish. Painting it, I
picked at it over a week, maybe get the car in one day, then the
background the next day.
LA: Another very different style of work you do is based on
Greek amphora vessels. What do you see as the main difference
between the American Highway series and the amphora pieces?
The figures in both series seem to have similar faces.
DR: I use Greek imagery, but it's centered around a glorification
of Indian mythology. It's exactly the same as the Greeks. I looked
at a lot of the Greek pottery and amphoras. It's one of my true
loves, the prehistoric pottery from Greece, the narratives with
Hercules and Odysseus and Agamemnon. My work takes the same approach;
it's a glorification of the superhero. It's elevating characters
in mythology to superhero status, giving them Herculean stature.
For instance, "The Runners" is a better example because
it has more of an historical narrative which the "Hero Twins"
really didn't have. I'm still working through this whole Greek
series but it's more of a narrative at this point.
LA: Do you take the figures from Cochiti or Pueblo mythology?
DR: I do. These in particular were the runners that carried
the knot from Pueblo to Pueblo during the Pueblo Revolt. This
piece is called "The Knot Bearers," and how it came
about was I had put the Mimbres bodies on the runners but they
were too exaggerated. The exaggerated bodies worked well for the
Chongo brothers because they're cartoony, almost like Itchy and
Scratchy. They can have that liberty, big arms and everything.
But it didn't really work for the runners. Then I decided, wow,
look at the Greek amphora runners. It would be a gas to start
using these bodies and that style. It really came together. The
Indian technique lends itself to the Greek amphora style. It's
like a high-burnished, etched style. I've seen other people try
to use the Greek technique, but for some reason it didn't work
for me because of the underglazes and overcoats. Because mine
are done with an Indian technique, it pulls together and gives
that luster to it, that sensuous satin finish. It's not a glaze
but it's not matte either.
LA: Do any of your other bowls in this style deal with incidents
from Pueblo history?
DR: I have a whole narrative regarding incidents from
Pueblo history. I'm constantly working on that. Actually, I'm
going to start making Pueblo Indian pottery that has elements
of the Greek amphora, like the handles, and I'll probably use
gold in the style of Sevres porcelain. These are all porcelain,
the gold ones. All this stuff has an historical reference point.
The gold elevates the status of objects by gilding it and making
it not just an object but a trophy. Do you see how that works?
OK, so all these things are coming closer and closer together.
This is all a transition. All these separate elements are unifying
as the art matures, and as I mature as an artist. What I'm working
on now are the vessels and I'm going to put a whole historical
narrative on it, probably dealing with the Pueblo Revolt. Much
in the same way that the Greeks have Odysseus and Agamemnon and
Apollo, I'll have all the Pueblo warlords like Malacate and Pope,
all dressed in their war outfits in the Greek amphora style talking
to Masewi and Uyuyay, dealing with a Pueblo historical narrative.
You open any American history book up and it talks about Christopher
Columbus discovering America, George Washington crossing the Delaware,
the Battle of Gettysburg and the Civil War. But you don't find
any references to the Pueblo Revolt, the Martyrdom of Spanish
Priests, all these beautiful histories, untold histories. You
really have to research it. It's there, though.
LA: And you're bringing that history out on the pots?
DR: Right. I'm narrating it, researching it and bringing
some of the stories to life, much as the Greeks did with their
history on the amphora painting. But they're still distinctly
Indian pots. That's the kick about it. They're all Indian pots.
No matter how far I've pushed it with the porcelain and the cobalt
and the Chinese style, it's still distinctly Indian pottery. I
always wanted to maintain that through undergrad and grad school.
When we'd have our critiques people would say Indian art was a
craft and I was using it as a crutch. These negative views toward
Indian art made me stronger and firmer in the belief that my art
was Indian art and that's what it was about and it was going to
stay that way.
LA: You work with the Greek amphora style, you have a modernized
Mimbres style that you use in the American Highway series,
and a third style based on historic Anasazi designs. How did these
three styles evolve?
DR: That's a good question.
LA: Did they parallel each other or did one lead to the other?
DR: I would say that they kind of paralleled, but not
in a well-defined way. I worked through a number of phases in
my career, and different points in a particular period's work
were carried over into other periods. For instance, the gold Anasazi
vessels are definitely trophies. They are elevated, but as far
as having a narrative, they didn't really address that. Eventually
what happened is different pieces from different styles and different
references carried over into a more successful interpretation
of what I was trying to do.
LA: Red and Gold Hohokam Jar (1993) interprets an Hohokam
DR: This would be an interrelation of this style with
other styles. It's an historical shape drawn from an ancient Anasazi
bowl. I've gilded it and elevated it to a trophy-level status,
to more of an object. At this point, I was pushing the gold. The
gold was the dialogue itself. In this one it's more of an accentuation,
much like some of the porcelain and the reference to gilding.
While it's a beautiful object in itself, I left this style behind.
But I wanted to bring elements that worked in it into other pots.
LA: In the MIAC exhibition, one of your American Highway
bowls is featured next to two of your grandmother's from the early
1960's [a Gila River bowl and a turkey bowl]. They are about the
same size. Do you work from anything that she did?
DR: No, I don't. But she was doing, I think, a lot of
the same things I am. These pots of hers are an historical interpretation
of a Mogollon style, probably southern Arizona or southern New
Mexico. See, my grandma, I realized this later, was influenced
by prehistoric pottery, too. Somewhere along the line I think
she was shown prehistoric vessels and I guess she was highly influenced
by that. For instance, this one is a reinterpretation of old Mesa
Verde pot, and while I was doing the research for this show and
selecting the pieces, that influence started to become more and
more apparent. It wasn't just Cochiti polychrome that grandma
was doing; it was also a reinterpretation of prehistoric pottery.
She was drawing from many influences. I think that's exactly what
I'm doing. And I think my father did that in some of his paintings.
And I find it interesting that it wasn't conscious, it's more
like written in the program, so to speak, that we have this similar
thought process or way of interpreting.
LA: Even though you're interpreting historic and contemporary
life, you're very conscious of protecting Cochiti symbols and
DR: I work within, as far as I know and to the best of
my knowledge, the code and framework of what my pottery tradition
and people allow. People are always looking at my pottery and
commenting, and what's correct for some villages isn't for others.
For instance, Santo Domingos won't paint cloud designs but Cochitis
will. Hopis make kachinas, but Rio Grande Pueblos don't, so even
within ourselves as a culture, what's correct for some isn't correct
for others. That's fine. I just play by my village's rules and
stay away from what I feel to be in bad taste. Particularly, I
don't really like to do religious imagery, such as clowns or kachinas.
That's my personal preference. I feel that my religious life and
my spiritual life aren't really for sale. My art really isn't
about going to the mountain and praying. My art is about these
disenfranchised people, or franchised people, whomever we're dealing
with; it's more about an experience, a less metaphysical spiritual
experience. There's a certain human element to the work that everybody
LA: How much of your family history do you think influenced
DR: From day one I was encouraged to do art. My father
was a painter and art teacher and there was always his aspiration
that some day I would be an artist too, and take it as far as
we could in our family. And my kids do art. Some people emphasize
sports from day one with their children. I just grew up drawing,
making pots, and reading comic books.
1 Mateo Romero, Chongo Brothers: Third Generation Cochiti
Artists, exhibition brochure, Museum of Indian Arts and Culture,
Santa Fe, NM, dated July 10, 1995, unp.
2 quoted from the accompanying wall text
Chongo Brothers: Third Generation Cochiti Artists, Museum
of Indian Arts and Culture, Santa Fe, NM, 1995
Tamarind Collaborative Lithographic Workshop, group exhibition,
Albuquerque, NM, 1994
University Art Museum, group exhibition, University of New Mexico,
Albuquerque, NM, 1994
Institute of American Indian Arts, group exhibition, Santa Fe,
Jason Silverman, "Showcasing Works of Remarkable Cochiti
Family," Pasatiempo [Santa Fe New Mexican] (August
11-17, 1995), pp. 6, 63.
Mateo Romero, Chongo Brothers: Third Generation Cochiti Artists,
exhibition brochure, Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, Santa
Fe, NM [dated July 10, 1995], unp.
Kathleen Brown, "Space and Time: Artful Encounters in the
Denver International Airport," Southwest Art (April,
1995), pp. 77-80, 90.
Lis Bensley, "1 Potter + 1 Painter = 2 Bros," Pasatiempo
(December 9-15, 1994), p. 8.
William Clark, "Artist Links Pueblo Roots, Urban Life,"
Albuquerque Journal (August 19, 1992), pp. 37, 46.