Charles Loloma (1921 – 1991) In a 1978 People Magazine profile, Charles Loloma, the Native American artist who excelled in many disciplines, not least of which was jewelry making, was described as, “eccentric.” Today, he is widely acknowledged as the most famous Native American jewelry artist of his day. He achieved worldwide fame with presidents, monarchs, and celebrities as clients.
“A farmer, storyteller, mime, musician, clown, poet, designer, and teacher” is how curator James McGrath described him in the catalog for Loloma’s solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in 1974.
Charles Loloma was born near the small village of Hotevilla on the Hopi Reservation and was the son of Rex and Rachael Loloma who were respected craftspeople in the community. His father was an accomplished weaver and moccasin maker, his mother was an excellent basket maker, and the family lived in a traditional Hopi village.
Charles showed his artistic talents at a very young age and was thought of as an artistic prodigy. He had his early schooling at the Hotevilla Day School and later lived with an aunt in Moencopi while attending the Hopi High School in Oraibi.
When he graduated from high school, Charles was already an experienced painter and had assisted famed artist Fred Kabotie in creating a number of murals. At age eighteen, Loloma had worked with René d´Harnoncourt and Kabotie executing murals for the Federal Building at the 1939 Golden Gate Exposition in San Francisco. Other murals, done while in his teens, may still be seen on the walls of the Employees Club and Dormitory of the Hopi High School in Oraibi.
Charles went on to Phoenix Indian School and graduated in 1940, the same year he illustrated the book Hopihoya by Edward Kennard. His accomplishments before he turned twenty-one included work as Kabotie’s assistant in the reproduction of the Awatovi murals for the Museum of Modern Art’s historic 1941 exhibition “Indian Art of the United States.”
From 1941 to 1945, during World War II, Loloma served in the army, spending over three years in the Aleutians Islands supervising road building. He married Otellie Pasivaya in 1942. The couple later separated and eventually divorced. However, in their early years together, they settled in Shipaulovi on the Hopi reservation’s Second Mesa.
Not long after his Army discharge, Loloma and his wife went to Alfred University in New York under the GI Bill to study ceramics at the School for American Craftsmen. This, according to several sources, was where Loloma first began to flex his stylistic muscles.
Both Loloma and his wife earned a Certificate in Pottery presented in August 1949. In the program, the Lolomas learned how to make stronger mixes of clay and the modern methods of forming and firing pieces, including glazes. Loloma’s goal was to bring these techniques to the Hopi people to make them more self-sufficient.
During his time at the American Craftsmen School, Charles received a fellowship from the Whitney Foundation for research in ceramics on the Hopi Reservation. He worked on this project from 1949 to 1951. In 1954 he and his wife opened a pottery shop in Scottsdale becoming the first tenants of the successful Kiva Craft Center founded by Lloyd Kiva New.
The Kiva New Craft Center in Scottsdale assembled many aspiring, Native American Indian talents under one roof. “They made up a landmark assembly,” said Mark Bahti, principal of Bahti Indian Arts in Tucson.
In addition to Loloma, the group included Oscar Howe, Kenneth Begay, Roger Tsabetsaye, and Helen Hardin. “During the 1950s, adds Bahti, “[this] handful but growing number of Indian artists were butting up against expectations placed on what they were supposed to be producing.”
In many instances, museums and competitions rejected their creations because they were not “Indian enough.” However this was a movement that heralded the future because it was propelled by Indian artists from within the group that would soon become iconic.
In form and materials, Loloma’s work was a major departure from tradition. Like Kenneth Begay, his early jewelry was often rejected but in freely exploring nontraditional styles, Loloma proved that Native artists could express deeply held beliefs that were no less authentic for their innovative form of expression.
Raised or “chunky” inlay is a distinctive Loloma design element. These vertical slabs echo the angular mesas of the Southwestern landscape and the stepped patterns of Pueblo architecture. Loloma’s name means “many beautiful colors,” and using nontraditional materials such as rosewood gave him a rich palette. His angular patterns, while typical of the Southwest, also echo other artistic influences, including the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Over the years Charles Loloma developed a sense of design, dedication and meticulousness considered to be ‘the Hopi way’ in which art is not different from daily life.
Although he was an excellent potter and painter, Loloma found his true passion in jewelry making. Some of Loloma’s designs show much his inspirations were drawn from outside influences. This brought harsh judgment on his art. Comments made about it included, “It’s nice but it’s not Indian.” For example, Loloma’s work was rejected by the Gallup Intertribal Art Show three times.
Most Native jewelers use traditional materials such as turquoise, silver and occasionally accent it with some coral. Loloma used unconventional materials like sugilite, lapis, ivory, gold, pearls, diamonds and wood. He used turquoise as an accent to his pieces and found much of his inspiration in other cultures, e.g., Loloma created Hopi interpretations of Egyptian figures.
Shaped by gems and woods cut into miniature topographies, the jewelry expresses geology and time. It proposes intervals in which what is now visible may shift with a slant of light or a flick of the wrist. Lustrous, flat surfaces border plugs of jagged stone. Iconography rooted in Hopi imagery intersects with motifs from ancient Egypt. When worn, color and decoration celebrate the wearer’s body like brilliant plumage.
After 1955, when Loloma began turning his creative efforts toward jewelry, this new art form took precedence over the popular pottery line of Lolomaware. During the six-year period he had the shop, he also devoted his time to teaching at the University of Arizona, Tucson, at Arizona State University at Tempe, and at their summer extension courses in Sedona.
In 1959, he participated in the initial conference that ultimately launched the Rockefeller Foundation’s Southwest Indian Art Project at the University of Arizona where he remained an instructor for three succeeding summer sessions.
One of Loloma’s dreams came true in 1962 with the founding of the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was the realization of a long time dream he’d shared with Lloyd New: a school to help Indian students find their own ways to express their cultures through the arts. Loloma and New were appointed heads of the Department of Plastic Arts, as well as the Sales Department where student work was sold.
Loloma’s work was featured in the first Heard Museum Fair in 1961 and was exhibited in Fairs held by the Heard in subsequent years. In 1962, Lloyd Kiva New became the director of the Institute of American Indian Arts and recruited Charles and Otellie Loloma to be among the first instructors.
Loloma returned to Hotevilla and set up his own studio while his jewelry was continuing to be sold in the Heard Museum Shop and several other galleries. As his art evolved, Loloma explored the techniques of tufa casting and inlay using stones of varying heights. His technique of including “inner gems” on the interior surfaces of his pieces expressed his belief that “people have inner gems [and it is] why I include inner gems in much of my work.”
Loloma soon discovered that he could market his work by promoting himself as a celebrity. He won first prize in the Scottsdale National Indian Art Exhibition for seven years in a row. He had two shows in Paris.
In 1972, Loloma’s work was explored in a series on American Indian artists for the Public Broadcasting System (PBS). Other artists in the series included R. C. Gorman, Helen Hardin, Allan Houser, Joseph Lonewolf, and Fritz Scholder.
In Japan, Loloma was the 1974 artist in residence. He was also commissioned to make a piece for the Queen of Denmark. He visited many countries and his achievements inspired other Native jewelers such Jesse Monongye as well as many other contemporary jewelers.
Loloma, however, claimed only two apprentices: the Moroccan-raised Eveli Sabatie, and his niece, Verma Nequatewa. Sabatie worked and lived with Loloma on the Hopi reservation from 1968 to 1972, a period when their collaboration coalesced in a huge flowering in Loloma’s experiments.
When Nequatewa joined the studio in 1969, she began to learn – under her uncle’s direction – how to set stones, becoming his stone-setter. Nequatewa worked with Loloma until the studio closed in 1988. For a while, she operated a studio across the street from his in Hotevilla. She signed her jewelry Sonwai.
Charles Loloma was also a Hopi spiritual leader; a member of the Badger Clan and a Hopi snake priest. His powers of charm extended through his ritual life and into his compelling jewelry. In daily life, Loloma never talked about his Hopi religion, but his jewelry, with its exaggerated, masked geometries of Hopi katsinas (kachinas), interpreted as abstractions, are paramount in his work.
The dazzling height bracelets, studded by multiple gems, are as high as an inch and a half and span up to four inches in diameter. Surface contrasts between jagged and smooth, shiny and matte, elevated and flat make the jewelry both earthbound and heavenly. His work deeply engages with the cross-cultural practice of emulating the sacred through materials.
No matter the media or style, Loloma’s Badger clan symbol, along with corn maidens, serpents, lizards, and Chakwaina representations recur throughout his thirty-year career. Collaged turquoise necklaces incorporating Lander blue and Bisbee appear almost painterly. Loloma sometimes extended joclas into unusually long, 10-inch earrings or nested in a branch of coral into a bob slide.
Fashion designs became increasingly important to him after his two trips to Paris in 1963 and 1971. It’s said the biomorphic shapes of the coral, wood, turquoise, ivory and lapis lazuli suggest the undulant figures and strange movements in the paintings of Max Ernst whom Loloma met in Paris.
President Lyndon Johnson made a state gift of Loloma’s jewelry to Imelda Marcos of the Philippines in the mid 1960’s. Movie stars periodically drove up to his shop on Hopi. Despite his deeply held Native American spirituality, Loloma could appreciate a world in which he was a celebrity.
“Two times I’ve been to Europe and Paris and have experienced what fine things are,” Loloma said. His travels also found him staying at the Waldorf Astoria and eating at the exclusive restaurant, 21.
He added, “’To work toward ‘fine’ things I need to know certain of these feelings.”
Loloma was in a bad car wreck in 1986. Despite a brief recovery after rehabilitation, he declined again and died in a nursing home in Phoenix in 1991 at age 69.
Loloma was a man of contradictions. Although he spent his life in the Hopi village of his birth and built his rock house with his hands, he drove Jaguars and flew in airplanes he owned. He took a Dale Carnegie course on influencing people. He traveled to Paris, Egypt, Colombia, and, during the last decade of his studio work, used Mikimoto pearls and diamonds, along with the exotic woods he found on trips through Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Shedding the image of traditional Indian craftsman, he achieved worldwide fame, counting presidents, monarchs, and celebrities as clients. Yet between trips to Europe, Japan, and Egypt, he lived and worked at Hopi Third Mesa, serving in the Hopi Snake Society and excelling as a ceremonial clown.
He explained, “In order to create a unique presentation one must work from his background. This is the primary reason I live up here at Hopi—to be involved with the ceremonial happenings that are our background.”
Loloma’s legacy is work that remains stunning in range, deliberate in its influences, and a refusal to be pigeon-holed into any one world order.