Sculpting Her Story: How Artist Evelyn Fredericks Captures Hopi Culture
Native American artist Evelyn Fredericks captures the spirit and history of Hopi culture in stone and bronze.
By Rebecca L. Rhoades | Photography by Michael Woodall
To watch Evelyn Fredericks in action is to witness the quiet strength, humility and strong work ethic that has defined generations of Hopi women. Small in stature, with an energy that belies her age, she deftly shapes the hard angles of a large block of marble that rests on a table before her. Wielding a pneumatic angle grinder as though it were an extension of her own body, she moves the tool over the unyielding mound; a fine dust coats her worn denim shirt and bandanna. The loud buzz of the air compressor echoes across the sandy mesa that remains quiet as the sun rises above the horizon. “I like to work in the early morning, when it’s still cool outside and nobody is around,” she says.
A sculptor, Fredericks’ “work” is creating stone carvings and bronze statues, most of which portray the women of Arizona’s—and the country’s—most private and isolated Native American tribe, the Hopi. Her studio is a simple lean-to that’s attached to the rear of her ancestral home in Kykotsmovi Village in the state’s Hopi reservation, about 75 miles north of Winslow.
Stone carving isn’t a customary Hopi art form. In fact, most sculptures crafted by indigenous people around the U.S. are made of wood, with a few exceptions. Inuit tribes of the north are known for their figurines carved of ivory and soapstone, while in the Southwest, the Zuni people use turquoise, malachite, marble and other materials to create fetishes—intricate miniature animals and creatures that symbolize spirits and forces of nature.
Hopi artists are renowned for their katsinas—wood dolls carved from the root of cottonwood trees. Highly sought-after by collectors, these colorful figures portray Hopi spirits and, per tradition, are typically fashioned only by men. Women’s crafts include wicker and coiled basketry, ceramics and sometimes jewelry.
“We still have gender roles that are divided between men and women,” Fredericks explains. “It is frowned upon for women to make katsinas. Most of the carvings are done by men. We take care of the home and teach children the traditions.” Women are also the backbone of Hopi society, which is matrilineal. Bloodlines are traced through the mother’s family, and women own the homes and the land.
“I’m definitely an oddball,” she adds. “I was living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, when I started carving. When I came back home, most people already knew that I did this, so it was acceptable.”
Born and raised in rural Kykotsmovi, Fredericks left the reservation to attend Arizona State University, where she received a degree in education—she worked for a few years as a teacher with the Bureau of Indian Affairs—and later a master’s degree in library science. In 1973, she moved to Santa Fe to work at the Institute of American Indian Art, which is where she first became interested in stonework.
“My ex-husband was a sculptor. I would go into his studio and observe or sometimes help,” she says. “Finally, I thought, ‘You know what, I think I can do this too.’ Growing up, my father always said, ‘You can do whatever you want. Don’t wait around for people to tell you what to do.’ Becoming a sculptor just felt like a natural step to take.”
Fredericks returned to Kykotsmovi to take care of her aging mother and aunt. When her aunt, who had no children, passed away, her house—a simple stone-and-mortar structure that was hand-built in the early 20th century—was passed on to the artist, who still lives and works in it today.
Most of Fredericks’ sculptures are women and children. Their inspiration is the many female role models who’ve passed through the artist’s life. “I grew up around a lot of strong women. I guess it’s just a reflection of my own psyche and admiration for those who really do the practical work,” she says.
From her hands, nondescript blocks of marble, alabaster and limestone are transformed into eye-catching, stylized figures. Mothers cloaked in blankets sit on the ground, babies attached to their backs or in their arms; a family—mother, father and daughter—stand proudly, their arms encircling each other; the bust of a young maiden with elaborate squash blossom whorls highlights the Hopi’s distinctive hairstyle.
“I love working with stone,” Fredericks notes. “It’s just so beautiful. The colors, the veining. You don’t have to do much to it. Anything I do is really artificial because the stone itself is so beautiful.”
When she first started carving, Fredericks focused mostly on creating figures of women with babies, a choice influenced by the miles between her and her own family, she surmises. After returning home, her desire to re-create such bonds in stone had diminished. “Suddenly, everyone was asking, ‘Where are all your mothers and children?’ I think the thing that motivates you as an artist is the longing or an unconscious part of yourself that you’re trying to get to know,” she reflects. “It makes you think about what other people’s motivations are. I like to look at art and wonder where it came from.”
To help Fredericks meet the demands of her collectors who still wanted mother-and-children sculptures, a friend recommended that she start selling bronze castings of her stone sculptures. Now, she makes limited series from each stone piece.
“It takes so long to produce one carved piece. Plus, they’re getting much more elaborate than they were even 10 years ago,” says Robert Walker of North Scottsdale. “If an artist makes a one-off carving and sells it, that’s it. If she does a bronze, she can make and sell 25 copies of it.” Walker and his wife, Pam, are longtime collectors of Fredericks’ work.
“Evelyn, like so many Hopi artists, really captures her culture and lifestyle in her work,” he says. “Every little thing relates back to something in Hopi society, whether it’s the corn that they grow or family relationships. It’s not just art for the sake of something pretty.” His wife adds, “Evelyn’s work is so meticulous and detailed. And although it’s classically Native American, it’s modern too.”
Just like the artist herself, who keeps one foot in tradition and the other in modern-day society.
“I like to share the fact that Hopi is a unique culture,” she says. “Our lifestyle is very much embedded in our history. But even though I live in a remote place, I’m aware that there’s a bigger world out there, and I feel that there’s something beautiful that I can contribute to it.”
“Some people only want stone pieces; others have only collected bronzes,” the artist says of those who buy her work. Robert and Pam Walker of North Scottsdale own four of Fredericks’ bronze pieces, including (left to right): “Walking With Mama,” “Hopi Bowl” and “High Desert Mother and Child.”
“Rock is very solid; it will last forever,” notes the artist. Using a variety of tools, including chisels, hammers, pneumatic grinders and even sandpaper, she polishes and texturizes each piece to achieve various finishes and bring out the stone’s natural beauty. At left, she uses a point chisel to add fine detail to an alabaster figure of a Hopi family, seen in detail above.