A cloud of stone dust fills the air along with the whine and growl of a grinding wheel setting an image free from its lithic confines, and at the center of that talent-fueled cloud you’ll find Robert Dale Tsosie (Picuris Pueblo/Navajo).
He is an award-winning stonecarver, having placed at numerous shows around the United States, and spent 15 years teaching stonecarving at Poeh Cultural Center in Pojoaque, New Mexico.
Robert is currently the featured artist in the Art Through Struggle Gallery at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center.
Although widely known as a stonecarver, Robert is a talented artist in multiple mediums. He works with stone, paint, wood, mixed media, and even bronze from time to time—but it was in Native American jewelry where he got his start.
The family ran a jeweler’s supply in Santa Fe, and Robert’s sister began taking him to shows and teaching him jewelry-making when he was about 12 years old. “My sister sold so much jewelry that, man, we couldn’t keep up,” he recalls. “They had to hire more jewelers, so that’s when I jumped on the torch to start making jewelry, too. I got to travel with her to major art shows around the country, and we’d always sell out. Man, it was pretty wild.”
Robert was taken with the excitement and buzz of the shows, and the power that came with throngs of people all gathering together in the name of art, especially Santa Fe Indian Market. We asked which medium grabbed his attention back then: “I think it was jewelry, because back then that was the heyday of the Santa Fe Indian Market jewelry scene—and all mediums. I remember when a lot of sculptors were selling big truckloads of stone sculptures—but money’s not the thing that was the big draw, it was just mainly the attraction of the excitement of art in Santa Fe. It was just the total excitement in the air every year.”
Making jewelry with his sister was far from Robert’s only early artistic influence. His dad worked at the American Institute of Indian Arts (IAIA), making frames for artwork. The students would bring their artwork to have frames made, and Robert would get to see them all, examining the different styles and methods, and go in and out of all the studios. That’s when he knew he wanted to be a full-time artist.
“I guess to enhance my creativity, I went to the Institute of American Indian Arts when I was 29 years old. I didn’t have a degree, so I went to get an art degree,” Robert says. He received an Associate of Fine Arts, plus a top honor. “To me, that was good enough to start my career right there. Upon graduating, they gave me the T.C. Canon Award for the highest artistic talent and academic achievement.”
That award encouraged Robert to keep on going, and during his two years at IAIA, he also worked for Charles Pratt, a renowned Cheyenne-Arapaho artist known for welding and metal sculpture. “It’s amazing that I haven’t tried [metal sculpture] yet. I used to weld all his stuff, shine and polish it, and while he’d be at art shows, I’d be making it. So I was alone a lot in the studio, creating his pieces. We worked side by side for four years. That was like a four-year apprenticeship under Charles Pratt.”
Attending classes at IAIA and working for Charles Pratt filled Robert’s schedule, but he still found time to study under another prominent artist. “During that time, in my free time, on weekends and nighttime, I’d go next door—[Charles] lived right next door to Bruce LaFountain. Bruce taught me how to make the big ones—the six-footer stone sculptures—out of marble and soapstone. That was a hard job, but we did it, like I said, moonlighting whenever I could.
“[Bruce] taught me the polishing process, and he taught me how to move the big pieces, and how to handle large outdoor sculptures. That was amazing. I went through two years with Bruce, ‘90 and ’91. When I graduated [from IAIA], I pretty much graduated from those guys, too. That’s when I had my first art show—1991—and that was at the Eight Northern Indian Pueblos Arts and Crafts Show.”
It was at his debut show that Robert placed for the first time. He went on from there, doing Santa Fe Indian Market/SWAIA, the Heard Indian Fair & Market in Phoenix, and the Southwest Museum show, which turned into the Autry Museum of the American West’s American Indian Arts Marketplace. Robert still participates in shows, winning First Place in 2017 and 2018 after returning to SWAIA after a seven-year break.
“When I entered those art shows, I started accumulating all those First Place awards, and that’s when I got chosen to be a teacher at the Poeh arts museum in Pojoaque Pueblo.” Robert taught at Poeh for 15 years, teaching the craft of stonework to around 400 students.
“I did teach a lot of hand tools at the beginning for any student that came in. They had to learn the basics, and then I moved them on into the power tools, which I’d say 60% of sculptors use all power tools nowadays. I know a lot of people are hesitant about using power tools because the traditional way of carving stone’s not done that way. But here we are in the modern age, so I made sure those tools were available for the students. There’s very few people that use the hand tools, but they’re good to learn because sometimes you need to go back when you’re finishing. I do all my finishing by hand. You have to take off all of your machine marks and give it that hand touch.”
With all of the mediums Robert creates with, one might wonder why he spends most of his time with stone.
“I guess because it’s alive. It’s the power of the Earth, and when you use that power, you can add our own human power to it, and make something that’s beautiful that will last, if taken care of, for a very long time.
"I think it’s because I’ve always loved the three-dimensional front and back, which you can’t get with a painting, so shadow, and the light . . . It calls you in a way, like spiritually. Only a few people can be called to the stone, I believe, the way I’ve seen it.
“It’s more of the spiritual aspect, the invisible creativity, where the stone smiles upon you, and lets you carve it. I don’t know how else to explain why I chose stone—it chose me, you know. It goes both ways.”
When spending so much time creating the stone figures, Robert sometimes becomes attached to them. “There’s been a lot of stone sculptures that I made in the past, especially the huge four-to-six-feet range, that I’ve had a lot of difficulty letting go of, but I knew that it had to leave, like a son or a daughter, they eventually grow up and you just . . . once they’re done, and you just have to let ‘em go and say ‘bye.’ Sometimes I talk to them and say ‘I’ll never see you again, but please take care of the family that you’re going to, and give them peace.'
"I don’t see that many on eBay of mine, so I guess a lot of them are still with the families,” he adds with a laugh.
In the past, many of Robert’s works were more aesthetic, but lately he’s been infusing more storytelling, more narrative about matters important to him.
“When I do those pieces like I’m showing at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, it’s just something within me that wants to be let out.
"For example, the historical trauma, the lady that’s broken, I just felt that for many, many, centuries Native American women have had to—they were brutalized, experienced genocide and everything, and they still made it through all of that negativity to be here today, and still beautiful, still intact, even though they’ve had to sometimes rebuild themselves.
"So that’s what I want to show, that we’re still strong, and we’ll always be strong and be here no matter what."
“On that black painting, the DWI—Drinking With Indians—I grew up around drinking and drugging, seen it through all Native communities, at IAIA, in my own family. It’s just a part of life in the new Native upbringing, our social world.
“I grew up in an abusive environment, so that’s why that one came out because I saw my uncles, cousins, aunts, grandpas dying from that liquor, maybe live up to like 50-something, but no more than that.
"Luckily, I came out of that, ‘cause I had my heyday for 11 years. Pretty much art is the one that saved me. I found art and I knew I wanted to do that instead of drink my life away. I haven’t had a drink since age 27, so 30-some years now.
“That’s one good thing about art, any medium, you can always throw a message, whatever’s on your mind. You can put that kind of content into your work and it helps you to go to another level, instead of just technique, polish, style, all that.
"Making a non-objective piece is way different from putting content into your piece. It puts you at a level where museums start looking at you, and I kind of want to go that route now. I think I’m kinda ready to move on more full-time into content within my art—because it’s very explosive and you can say whatever you want.
“It’s harder to sell, though, and that’s why a lot of people don’t do it. You can’t really make a living that much when you do content. There’s a lot of risks involved when you’re an artist—should I or shouldn’t I?—and sometimes it’s better to do it instead of listening to your ego telling you to go the safe route and make money. Not no more. I’ve passed that already.
“That’s when meditation comes in, and quiet, and you really have to listen to your soul and ask ‘Is chasing the money even worth it?’ It goes away and the you get broke again. I’ve been through all those times. So it’s better just to go with your soul and maybe make some content for people to learn and to get healed more, or to understand, to teach people.
“History needs to be told the way it was, the way I hear it from my elders.”
To see history through the eyes of Robert Dale Tsosie and his elders, visit the Art Through Struggle Gallery through mid-January 2020.
The Art Through Struggle Gallery is a unique space for creating dialogue on difficult subjects, a place to talk about the realities of what it is to be Pueblo, to be Native American, living today with the atrocities of both the past and present constantly surrounding us.