Many who have visited the National Mall in Washington, D.C., have witnessed the creative vision of Nora Naranjo Morse. Her group of sculptures, Always Becoming, lives on the grounds of the National Museum of the American Indian along Maryland Avenue. Hundreds of thousands of people pass by them each year. Made from a mixture of clay, soil, sand, wood, and stone, these molded and woven figures stand in stark contrast to the hard-hewn, marble monuments that otherwise dot the city’s landscape.
Always Becoming is a thought-provoking work that changes with time and captures the imagination. The sculptures’ sloping sides collect and shake off blankets of snow and rain as the seasons pass. Their surface textures change, and the plants and birds that thrive around them shift along with temperatures and migratory patterns.
“I’m hoping the Native community sees themselves in this,” Naranjo Morse said in an interview in 2008. “[I want them to see themselves in a way] that’s always changing, that’s always relating to the environment, and always adapting and transforming. And in that process being empowered.”
And for many years, Naranjo Morse has fostered that spirit of empowerment in her multimedia works. She is perhaps best known in museum and collector circles as a member of a famous and prolific family of potters from Santa Clara Pueblo, a Native American Tribe of northern New Mexico that shares the Tewa language and culture with other Native Pueblo communities in the region. However, Naranjo Morse’s work is distinctive in its scope, content, and voice. Her clay sculptures and poems about her character “Pearlene” are just some examples. Aleta M. Ringlero described Pearlene as Naranjo Morse's alter ego, whose story flouts “the social and cultural conventions constraining female behavior,” and whom U.S. poet laureate Joy Harjo described as an “unforgettable character…the wild thing in all of us.” Naranjo Morse challenges viewers’ perceptions of what clay can achieve and express.
Her more recent works are also distinctive in their explorations of the value of the discarded. In an interview with Folklife Magazine in February 2021, Naranjo Morse explained how her inspiration for moving in this direction began in an unexpected place, at the New Mexico clay vein where Santa Clara potters have been gathering materials since time immemorial.
“I was taking a break from gathering clay, and I walked to the top of another hill,” she said. “Below was our Pueblo’s dump: couches, plastic—discard of every kind. The visual juxtaposition between culture and environment and the waste compelled me to drive into the trash. I felt confused that so much was being discarded in what I always considered a sacred place. That thought encouraged my curiosity. I gathered plastic and wire and drove it to my studio where I spent a year learning about whatever I’d collected, and deconstructing my own attitudes about consuming and waste.”
Since that year, Naranjo Morse has worked to incorporate recycled materials into many of her ceramic projects. “Clay is a grounding material. It’s very forgiving. It’s anchoring. In my most recent works, I’m working with discarded materials, although clay plays a crucial role in the design and technical aspect of each piece. I have used clay as an anchor for large kinetic sculptures of wire and plastic. Through this work I’m reminded of what is sacred and am learning to see it in everything. I’m also learning about adaptability and, most recently, recovery.”
Creating During the Pandemic
While Naranjo Morse’s practice of recycling materials has continued despite lockdowns, she has also been profoundly shaped by this period in our collective history. For many people in the Pueblos and throughout the American Southwest, the pandemic was not an abstract illness.
“I got COVID in November 2020 and I ended up in the hospital,” she said. “It was scary. COVID hits people of color harder and at a higher rate, especially true for Indigenous communities. I had cousins in the hospital that didn’t come home.”
Naranjo Morse’s recovery was a slow one, and she still feels the effects of her illness. However, one of the new practices she has begun in earnest since her return home is walking around her community. “I walk along the fields below the village of Kha’p’o Owenge [Santa Clara Pueblo]. Pueblo people have been growing food in these fields for centuries. Now when I walk, I see men taking hay to their horses and plowing their fields. Children ride bikes down the same dirt roads their ancestors traveled on. It’s quiet, beautiful, and full of animal and natural life. Those fields helped in my healing.”
Since November, Naranjo Morse has continued her work on one large sculpture in particular. It is composed of plastic grocery store bags and old gunny sacks, used throughout northern New Mexico to sell chili peppers.
“My work also helps with my recovery. I’ve started working again, returning to sculptures and other art projects I started before COVID. I return with a new perspective. The forms are larger. I’m still using discarded materials which have become more familiar to me and of course, I’m still working with clay.
“COVID rocked my world, and shifted paradigms, but ultimately it made me stronger. My COVID experience is sewn into every stitch of these chili sacks tailored to fit a wire form—the materials are repurposed to start a new chapter.”
She sees this statement reflected all around her at Santa Clara. “Since the pandemic, our Tribal leaders and the community have supported one another. First responders in our village risked their health to deliver food to everyone, but especially the elders. When I returned from the hospital, people brought me food. I felt supported in my recovery, and that was a gift that helped in my recovery as well.”
Their gift returned the one that Naranjo Morse gave many of her fellow community members earlier in the pandemic. “Through a number of organizations and private donations, our community was supported during the initial stages of isolation. Donations I collected turned half of my studio into a humble food distribution center. Relatives and friends helped to organize and distribute food baskets.”
With these additional funds, Naranjo Morse was able to purchase reusable, brightly colored laundry baskets to share with people in need, and she filled these baskets with necessities.
“I wanted our food baskets to be colorful, hopeful, and filled with grocery items that were special and usually out of reach for many families in our villages. I bought quality food products, items grown locally, along with a few sweets for the kids. Historically, when our communities were given relief foods, it was through a government commodities program. We were given and became comfortable eating food with a long shelf life. I thought of commodities when putting together these baskets.”
For Naranjo Morse, like for so many of us, the pandemic has presented a period of deep reflection about life and what matters most.
“I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about where I come from, the value systems that I grew up with as a Pueblo person, and how I’m connecting those value systems to my everyday life as well as my creative work.
“Our ceremonies have been postponed. Our families and community connections are socially distanced and have been for more than a year now. Through all we have been through, we are still gathering as a community through our service to one another. Communal living and sensibilities made the Pueblo strong and dynamic in the past: we lived together, worked together, and built a worldview based on shared values. Those traditional Pueblo values are even more important now as we navigate through this virus.”
Naranjo Morse has also been impressed by her Tribe’s response to the threat of illness and the realities of living through the pandemic. “Santa Clara has been using the resources from the federal government to make sure that everyone is being tested for COVID or receiving vaccinations. If there are people who need food assistance, that is provided. Our Tribal leaders and staff have taken their responsibilities to their community seriously.”
Naranjo Morse described how most of the Tribal villages in New Mexico have shut down, and membership or a Tribal ID is required to enter them. At Santa Clara Pueblo, the five entrances to the main village are now guarded by men, around the clock, and their sacrifice protects the rest of the Pueblo. Many community members have stepped up as Kha’p’o Owenge’s first responders.
These acts of service, Naranjo Morse added, “have given young men who guard our village, who take wood to elders, an opportunity to get to know their community and feel empowered. We still have our challenges, but as a whole, I’m humbled by people’s generosity and grace. We have one another to depend on.”
On the Other Side
Nearing the one-year anniversary of the pandemic’s onset, Naranjo Morse reflected on the months and year ahead. “I’m hoping that after this time, there will be a type of collective awareness to our environment, culture, ourselves.
“Tewa people are taught to welcome a new day with gratitude, and when I greet another person in the morning, I’m acknowledging them and also acknowledging our environment. I’m acknowledging the Pueblo worldview that has sustained Pueblo culture for centuries, empowering us to be our best selves.”
Naranjo Morse also discussed the legacy of the 1918 flu pandemic on her family. Her mother, Rose Naranjo, remembered the devastation of that illness as it swept through the United States and their Pueblo, and how she had lost her own parents—Naranjo Morse’s grandparents—because of it. “My mom was young at that time, but her recollections of the 1918 flu pandemic were vivid, telling me, ‘There were so many people passing that the church bells never stopped ringing.’”
Even today, Naranjo Morse feels lingering anxiety in her community from 1918. Reflecting on its effects, she wondered how her own children and grandchildren will remember this time.
“How do I tell my grandchildren what this was like? Right now they’re very young, and everything for them is just happy. Part of me wants to keep it that way, but the reality is these are challenging times. This is when I turn to the Elders for their wisdom and experience. They are the key to our survival. Their cultural knowledge passed down to new generations becomes our navigation as we move forward as cultural people.”
The pandemic has also changed Naranjo Morse’s thoughts about the future in other ways, particularly because so many have endured this illness. “Now I realize that anything can be a resource. And really, that goes back to traditional Pueblo thinking very little was wasted and resourcefulness was key to our survival. How do we take care of our resources? How do we use them in a respectful and meaningful way?
“These value systems are important for me to hold closely as I continue my creative exploration, mindful of my place in the world and my responsibilities to culture, land, and people.”
Despite the many traumas and hardships of this time, Naranjo Morse continues to create, and her work continues to be showcased across the United States and abroad. Perhaps the latest and highest-profile show featuring her work is the recent traveling exhibit Hearts of Our People. This collaboratively curated show of contemporary and historical work by Native women included Naranjo Morse’s clay sculpture group, Our Homes, Ourselves.
In the exhibit’s accompanying catalog, Naranjo Morse’s sister, Tessie Naranjo, describes her with help from their other sister, Dolly Niekrug: “Nora, the youngest of the Naranjo female siblings, is a natural artist. Early on, Nora knew making art would be her life’s passion. Dolly remembers watching Nora as a youngster using colors that Dolly would never have thought to use.
“Dolly says Nora creates magic from things others might consider mundane or from material that has been thrown away.”
And it’s through this magic that Nora Naranjo Morse changes her surroundings and alters those who encounter her and her work. It’s the type of magic that reminds us that the world is always shifting, always changing, and that value is not lost, but rather transformed. It is a hopeful type of magic to encounter when nearing the end of a long year and beginning a new one.
Emily Buhrow Rogers is an ACLS Leading Edge Fellow at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.