In Her New Show, Indigenous Artist Rose B. Simpson Paves Her Own Path

By Christian Allaire February 23, 2023 for Vogue

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Indigenous artist Rose B. Simpson has grown up around clay her entire life. Raised on the Santa Clara Pueblo reservation in New Mexico, Simpson was exposed to the material from a young age: Her mother, Roxanne Swentzell, is an acclaimed ceramics artist herself, as are many of Simpson’s aunts, uncles, and grandparents. (Simpson says her family has been working with clay for over 70 generations.) “My mom would give me a little chunk of clay just to get me to go away,” Simpson laughs. “I remember squishing it into a little square and then eating it. I’ve been playing with clay my whole life.”

The artist soon began creating her own artworks with clay. She learned how to mold forms or fire kilns by watching her family members and quickly learned that the Pueblo approach to pottery is one of a kind. (Simpson is an enrolled member of the Santa Clara Pueblo tribe.) “We started experimenting with glazing when nobody was doing that,” Simpson says. “We don’t play by the rules. We’re always looking for new ways to express ourselves.” This contemporary approach to such a traditional craft has been a strong point in Simpson’s recent works: She enjoys adding unexpected details, such as glazes inspired by tattoos or graffiti lines, onto her tall, commanding figures. “I realized [during college] that I can make this something that I care about—I didn’t have to do what my family did,” Simpson says. “It can represent youth culture and experiences that are personal to me. I don’t have to perpetuate stereotypes.”

Simpson’s distinctive approach is certainly on full view in her new showcase. Today, the artist presents her first solo exhibition in New York City, titled Road Less Traveled, at the Jack Shainman Gallery. (It runs through April 8.) The inspiration for the new body of work stems from the idea of creating her own pathways—challenging herself to work with clay in a manner that feels totally unique to her. She first thought of the concept in 2020, when she began looking back on her work. “I started looking at what the road less traveled is for myself and how can I honor that,” Simpson says. “I began challenging myself and asking, ‘Is there another way to make this?’ You have to resist the urge to make it easy: It’s so easy to put a feather or a drum on something and sell it. But through my work, I pushed myself to do the harder thing.”

Every work in the new exhibition reflects this spirit. Simpson makes an intentional (and successful) attempt at differentiating her work from her family’s long lineage of artists. She does so by allowing herself to explore her most wild or experimental concepts through clay. 

The first piece she made for the show, for instance, is titled Guides and is made of clay, steel, and grout. It is a figure with three extra heads floating on top and is inspired by the “mysterious figures” who have been guiding Simpson throughout her life. “In the [past] few years, I’ve had this very clear awareness of having guides on multidimensional planes that are helping me out,” she says. “The more that I’m aware they’re there, the more that I can remember to ask them for direction.” 

Her work Conjure II features a head made of clay, grout, and New Mexico pine; floating rings hover just above it, representing a cloud of intention. The piece represents Simpson’s relationship with faith. “I believe really deeply in prayer,” she says. “I think about Conjure II as remembering how to visualize our clear needs and wants and how to believe in manifestation.” 

Simpson started the works on exhibit here in March of last year. Most of them were built, dried, glazed, then fired in a kiln. “I use my mama’s commercial kiln [for most of them,]” Simpson says. “I need to fire them high, because I ask a lot of the clay—and I only fire them once.” All the pieces were built from the bottom up. They’re large in stature, some over six feet high, but hollow like a pot, which in itself holds a certain meaning. “Since they’re hollow, they hold space,” Simpson explains. “I often think about the space inside as holding intention; I want them to go out and do work in the world and be vessels for that intention I’m putting out there. The eyes are also hollow, because I want people to feel like they’re being watched. We’re always in relationship to things that we consider inanimate.”

The artist’s favorite part of creating her work is always the ending, when she adorns her figures with jewelry. (ID, for instance, wears a necklace made of trade glass, pyrite, and turquoise beads.) “I’ll ask the piece what they want to wear,” Simpson. says “Sometimes I’ll dress a piece up, and they don’t like it. They’re like, ‘Dude, this is dumb.’ I have to listen to them. Wearing jewelry is a form of self-love and self-worth; I like to give them moments of beauty.”

When visitors begin walking through the exhibition space, Simpson hopes Indigenous and non-Indigenous folks connect with her figures beyond their aesthetics, though. “I think about how my experiences meet humanity as a whole and all of the things we struggle with,” she says. “I have a stronger voice when I’m meeting us as humans, rather than me as a Native person and you as Other.” She does want her art to convey certain emotions, however.  “I want people to leave braver, slower, and more self-aware. It takes strength and courage to be self-aware,” she adds. It’s a lesson she’s also been trying to teach herself and her own family. “I always tell my daughter, ‘Don’t behave—be considerate,’” Simpson says. “Be thoughtful and accountable. Ithink that that’s what I’m trying to do for myself. And that’s what my work is trying to do.”

Road Less Traveled is open now through April 8, 2023, at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York.