AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting – Objects Session, May 11, “Always Becoming” by Nora Naranjo-Morse, Gail Joyce, and Kelly McHugh

The last talk of the Objects Specialty Group session focused on the work of Nora Naranjo-Morse, a Tewa Indian of Santa Clara Pueblo who was selected from a nationwide contest to design a composition for display outside the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). In 2007, her idea for five sculptures, ephemeral in nature, came to fruition on the NMAI grounds, entitled “Always Becoming.” The three speakers shared their ongoing experiences regarding their collaboration in this talk, representing artist, collections management, and conservation.

It was Nora’s intention to embody in the sculpture the significance of three main values held by Pueblo families: environment, family, and culture. However, she took a unique approach by engaging community in both the creation and stewardship of the sculptures, and in doing so, highlighted the idea of an intertribal ideal. The ideal was manifested in the cooperation of members of the public, as well as staff at NMAI, who all came together to build the artworks. A series of podcasts as well as YouTube videos (Episode 1) document their collaborative effort under her guidance.

The figures vary in form and materials, comprised of mud, fired pottery sherds, wood, and straw, and other organic materials. Her choices are especially relevant given that Nora’s desire was to allow the sculptures to ultimately return to the earth, promoting stewardship, but not preservation in the sense that conservators typically understand it. The role of nature in shaping their condition and form is welcomed as a part of the process of “Always Becoming.” Weather plays an expectedly large role in the formative processes, and is reflected by the layered structure of the sculptures; as one layer melts away, another is revealed, a process that Nora appreciates in person as she travels to NMAI on annual visits. The return of the materials to the earth is also represented by the re-use of elements. For example, ground up sherds of fired pottery, or grog, were mixed into some of the mud. However, the idea of returning to the earth does not preclude the replacement of all elements. When a bamboo rope used to represent a tie at the top of the teepee form disintegrated, it was decided to replace it with strips of rawhide, offered by a staff-member at NMAI. In this way, intertribal community was also promoted, and the sculptural form maintained what Nora considered a crucial element. This promotion was also clear given the numerous phone updates, dialogues, and discussions that occurred between Nora and the staff over the course of the year when she was not present.

Gail then discussed her experiences in participating from a collections management perspective. She noted the role of human interaction in shaping the sculptures as well, citing an example whereby a homeless gentleman took up short-lived residence in the teepee after carving out a small shelter during a particularly inclement evening. While the sight of smoke and flame was certainly alarming, however brief and quickly addressed by NMAI security, Gail juxtaposed her own reaction with Nora’s, who appreciated that someone considered her work a warm and welcoming shelter. Gail proposed that the idea of the sculpture as a living document and testament to nature, nurture, and conceptual art is often at odds with the traditional museum approach to preservation. Even if roles were re-envisioned, however, a balance was reached whereby all parties contributed. For example, pieces of pottery or memory stones that fell off were to be left; on the other hand, fired ceramic moons, as they represented part of a sequence, were to be sent back to Nora to re-create. A locust wood and rawhide fence was constructed to keep children from climbing on the sculptures and the surrounding plants from being trampled. Gail highlighted the influence of animal interaction with a few examples: mason bees drilling holes into one of the figures, and a robin’s nest in the Y-post of another.

Kelly spoke about her involvement when she took the place of a previous staff-member in 2009, after the construction, focusing on the ongoing role of conservation in the project. She stressed the admirable qualities of Nora’s vision, including community inclusion, the interaction of the sculptures with people and the environment, the importance of materials, but most of all, engagement with both the public and NMAI staff. This point was especially relevant and well-received, given that the AIC Annual Conference theme this year is Outreach. NMAI conservators became more comfortable with the idea of deterioration and the expectation of it, though preservation by creation, through deterioration, is not typically a part of our approach. Kelly suggested that the project prompts a discussion regarding alteration of materials, wherein some ambiguity currently exists. She illustrated this point by noting use of the term “time-based media” to refer to many digital and performance arts, where change is accepted and expected as part of the life of the artwork, and effecting an appropriate conservation approach. She suggests that this very idea is just as appropriate and more useful for sculptural projects such as “Always Becoming,” which is, eponymously, in a constant flux. In conclusion, she expressed gratitude at being given the freedom to experience change, and urges other conservators to be open to similar experiences.