Roxanne Swentzell

Cat. no. 35. Roxanne Swentzell. Santa Clara Pueblo, born 1962. Nap, 2003. Santa Clara clay and glaze. 7 1/4 x 11 1/2 x 22 1/4 in. Collection Tweed Museum of Art, University of Minnesota Duluth. Marguerite L. Gilmore Charitable Foundation Fund, D2013.23.


I’m Roxanne Swentzell. I’m from the Pueblo of Santa Clara in northern New Mexico. I started at an early age playing with clay because my mother was a potter, as well as her mother. And so it’s kind of a generational event in our family to play with clay. But as a very young child, I was um…had a bad speech impediment, where I couldn’t speak. And I found that if I created small figurines with clay, I was able to show an image that I could use to communicate to my mother. So, for instance, like when I started school, I was pretty miserable. And so I came home and I would coil a little figure of a girl crying on a school desk. And then I could give it to my mom, and then she’d know what was going on with me because I couldn’t tell her in words. It is to me, my first language.

Well, sometimes I think of myself as a clay woman or mud woman. Because if I’m not building a house out of adobe and plastering it with mud, I’m out in the garden digging in dirt trying to grow vegetables and whatnot. Or I’m in the studio making a sculpture or a pot out of clay. And it’s all variations of the earth.

For Pueblo people, you know, that’s our mother. The earth is our mother – very much so. So when you’re interacting with her in whatever way, you’re dealing with your mother. And so you treat her in a way that is your mother. You don’t just take it and use it in whatever way you want. You’re respectful, and grateful, and thoughtful. Careful in how you do that. So, clay, dirt, adobe – it’s all very much a relationship with our mother, and I’m grateful that she’s been very gracious to me in my life. Has held me up in every aspect of what I’ve chosen to do.

The piece in the exhibition is called The Nap. And it’s actually an older piece. During the time in my life that I was a mother of young children, and of course, trying to give them a nap. And all my pieces have to do with something I’m going through in my life. So, if you lined them up in time-wise, it would be like a 3-D journal of my life. And this piece in particular is the feeling I was having of children crawling all over me. And I’m really the one needing a nap – more than the kids. I mean they need a nap, but I really want a nap.

And it’s based on the whole storyteller way of making a piece, where you have these larger piece with very small figures. It’s usually a larger mother/father figure with small people all around her. So in a way, she’s a storyteller.


This community has chosen not to have their language translated for this exhibition. Mia respects the decisions of each sovereign Native nation.


Roxanne Swentzell describes her sculptures as a kind of three-dimensional journal, since they are always related to something going on in her life. Nap is from a time when she had young, active children, and she wanted them to nap so she could rest too. Swentzell’s ability to capture the fine nuances of expression began in her childhood. Because she says she had trouble finding her own voice, she sculpted small figures to communicate her feelings. Swentzell has said she sees the body language depicted in her art as a form of communication that can cross cultural barriers.