American Indian Heritage Month featured artist: Roxanne Swentzell

Laughing at the Ducks, Roxanne Swentzell, hand-built clay, 19.75″ h x 7″ w, 1995

I wanted to do something to recognize November as American Indian Heritage Month so I took a look through the art objects in the permanent collection. One piece really caught my eye and I wanted to share it with you. The sculpture is called “Laughing at the Ducks” and was created by Santa Clara Pueblo, New Mexico artist Roxanne Swentzell.

Swentzell began working with clay as a very young girl.

“My Mom potted so the clay was right there where I saw it all the time. I had a speech impediment so I had to communicate in other ways, and I started making figures that would depict what I meant.”

As Roxanne developed as an artist, she began working on a larger scale.

Laughing at the Ducks, detail

She moved from making small, solid clay figures to making hollow-built sculptures. Although the scale changed, the message remained the same.

“I would say I am still communicating with figures. I want to symbolize women, and my culture, and humanity. I am trying to say things to the world…”

“Laughing at the Ducks” is one of my favorite pieces in our collection. The woman depicted looks happy and free, like she doesn’t have a care in the world.

Kosha Appreciating Anything, Roxanne Swentzell, 2007, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

The Sabatini Gallery is not the only place you can see Roxanne Swentzell’s work up close. Another sculpture of hers is just a short drive east at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, MO.

The Nelson’s piece, titled “Kosha Appreciating Anything” is displayed in the American Indian Galleries that opened in 2009. If you haven’t been to see the Galleries yet, I highly recommend it.

Roxanne Swentzell creating Mud Woman Rolls On, Denver Art Museum, 2011

Finally, we head west to the Denver Art Museum to see a larger than large scale sculpture, “Mud Woman Rolls On”. Mud Woman is made of unfired clay and plant fiber and sits/stands 10 feet tall. Roxanne Swentzell, her sister, and museum volunteers spent 6 months making the sculpture. I was lucky enough to be in Denver during the creation of the work and I went back recently to see the finished piece. It’s hard to believe that’s just clay and straw, but the in-process photos and a 3 1/2 minute video tell the story.

Whether large scale or small, Roxanne Swentzell’s sculptures have a broad appeal for me. I admire her not only for her ability to turn clay into figures, but also for her ability to imbue these figures with character, personality and their own individual stories.

Pottery by American Indian Women: The Legacy of Generations, by Susan Peterson
Topeka Room – Moses Collection – 738.3 PET






Brea Black is the Art Librarian and Book Arts Curator in the Alice C. Sabatini Gallery. Her favorite thing is to share the wonderful world of artists' books with the community. She also leads the Arts & Crafts team and teaches workshops on bookmaking, altered books, and a variety of crafty topics.