The Midwife of Indian Art

Kenneth M. Chapman, a tireless advocate for pottery and pueblo culture, is remembered in a new book by his relatives

Date August 7, 2008 at 10:00 PM

Categories Local News & Sports


If Edgar Lee Hewett was both magnet and catalyst for Indian art in New Mexico, Kenneth Milton Chapman was its midwife. The largely unheralded artist, curator and leading force in what would become the Santa Fe Indian Market, €œChap,€ as he preferred to be called, is the subject of a new biography by Janet Chapman and Karen Barrie, both members of his extended family. The pair will appear in the book tent on the Plaza during the Santa Fe Indian Market Aug. 23-24.

The project took root when Barrie and her father-in-law John Chapman (Chap€™s nephew) came to Santa Fe and combed through the School of Advanced Research archives. Janet, Chapman€™s grandniece who lives in Tijeras, said a treasure hunt unfolded as they discovered his memoirs and correspondence.

The SAR research librarian €œsaid they had 12 bank boxes full of his research notes and his memoirs,€ said Barrie, who lives in Wilmette, Ill. €œWe were flabbergasted.€

The book traces Chapman€™s Indiana upbringing, his adult life in New Mexico and his development as a leading force in the revitalization of pueblo pottery. Chapman was a founding staff member of the Museum of New Mexico, what was then known as the School of American Research, (now the School of Advanced Research) and the Laboratory of Anthropology. He also served as the first professor of Indian arts at the University of New Mexico.

€˜A child prodigy€™

Chap€™s passion for pueblo pottery stemmed from his artist€™s eye, Janet Chapman said. He abandoned his own career as a watercolorist and cartoonist to encourage and promote native artists like famed San Ildefonso potters Maria Martinez and Tonita Roybal. He convinced both artists to look to historical pottery to create new and innovative designs.

€œI think Chap was a child prodigy who perceived in Indian art something transcendent,€ Barrie said. €œWe have no evidence that he was religious, but he was profoundly spiritual. I just think they sang to him.€

At the time, pottery-making was dwindling because the railroad brought cheap commercial ware for practical use.

€œThere wasn€™t a lot of interest in it as art,€ Janet said. €œHe really was successful in creating a market. He educated Anglo Americans to recognize a good pot, so the potters would make good pots and get a good price. Before that, pottery was being sold by the pound.€

Chap was one of the first Anglos to recognize that each pueblo had evolved its own distinctive pottery style. He was committed to documenting and cataloging the designs as a reference library and legacy for the artists. But he kept getting lassoed into administrative duties at the museums, partly out of loyalty to his mentor, museum founder Hewett, and to his friend Frank Springer, who provided much of their original funding.

In 1922-23, Chap helped found what was then known as the Indian Fair as a way of promoting and marketing pottery. Santa Fe summer resident Rose Dougan put up a $1,000 bond as prize money. The fair would mushroom into that sprawling behemoth that has become the Santa Fe Indian Market, the largest of its kind in the country.

Later, Chap would form the Indian Arts Fund to collect pottery that would remain in New Mexico.

The great potter Maria spurred Chap€™s resolve when she told him San Ildefonso potters had no historical pottery to use as a reference point because anthropologists had moved it all to East Coast museums.

Museum clashes

Chap€™s continual clashes with museum director Hewett are woven throughout the book like a simmering fuse. Extravagant, charismatic and extroverted, Hewett was Chap€™s opposite in both personality and work methods. While Chap was methodical and analytical, Hewett had no time for details and focused on his own grand visions.

€œHewett was one of those people who was good at starting things but not following them,€ Janet explained. Hewett went to San Diego in 1914 to help with the Panama-California Exposition after founding the two New Mexico institutions (the School of American Research and the Museum of New Mexico.)

As a result of Hewett€™s frequent absences, Chap often took the role of museum director, which tore him away from the research work he loved. But New Mexico was too small for Hewett.

As Chap€™s disgruntlement festered, the tangled triangle of clashing egos and good intentions shattered over the founding of the Laboratory of Anthropology. John D. Rockefeller agreed to fund it with $2,500 with Jesse Nusbaum, who had helmed Mesa Verde as its director. At the time, Hewett was still in San Diego. Previous overtures by the Hewett-backed American Institute of Archaeology to Rockefeller fizzled after Hewett failed to produce a required report.

€œYou don€™t do that,€ Barrie said. €œRockefeller was very, very cautious about choosing people.€

The critical moment came when Rockefeller€™s wife Abby asked Chap about the pottery still being stored in the museum€™s basement.

€œAbby says, €˜Why are these here?€™€ Barrie said. €œChap says, €˜This is not really a museum enterprise.€™€

Rockefeller booked a tour of the pueblos the next day, asking Chap to tell him about the pottery.

€œAnd out comes his passion,€ Barrie said. €œBy the time they get back from the pueblos, Rockefeller hands Chap a check.€

In 1929, the pottery collection moved to the Laboratory of Anthropology.

Hewett never forgave Chapman. His cronies referred to Chap as a €œdamn Judas.€

The rebuke stung Chap deeply, Barrie said. But Hewett had a long history of falling out with his proteges.

€œHe called these professionals €˜my boys,€™€ Barrie said. €œAnd they were his surrogate sons. They all broke with him badly.€

Chapman retired from his museum work in 1942. He became the first person in the United States to teach Indian arts when he went to UNM, Barrie said.

Chapman retired from the school in 1945. He died in 1968, still cataloging and documenting his beloved pots, Barrie said.

€œHe was working on San Ildefonso when he died,€ she said.