Upton Ethelbah, Jr. Finding The Spirit Of The Stone

Date May 19, 2009 at 10:00 PM

Publication The Santa Fe New Mexican

Categories Local News & Sports

Sculptor Upton Ethelbah Jr. might have gotten a late start in creating his art, but he's been making up for lost time ever since. The 66-year-old Vietnam veteran, who signs his work Greyshoes, began sculpting at 54 after a lifelong career in education and social work. He is the featured artist at the fifth annual Native Treasures Festival of Arts show benefiting the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture over Memorial Day Weekend. He will receive the MIAC Living Treasure Award at the show's Benefit Pre-Sale Gala Friday night, May 22. Both the Gala and the show will be at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center, near the Plaza where the New Mexico History Museum will have its grand opening Sunday, May 24. ;I'm looking forward to the show (Native Treasures). I've done it before, and it's always fun to get together with other artists and collectors,; Ethelbah said. ;I do the Heard show and Indian Market, among others, and they're much bigger and more hectic. I have more time to talk to people -- other artists and collectors -- at Native Treasures, and I like that.; Regarding the award, Native Treasures co-chair woman Ardith Eicher said: ;We selected Uppie not only because he creates beautiful artwork but also because his story is so inspirational in that he found his creative calling later in life after a successful career serving the community. ;It just goes to show that it's never too late to be inspired as an artist. Uppie also has been a generous supporter of MIAC and the Native art community in general, which is another one of the things we consider when selecting the recipient,; Eicher said. She noted that Ethelbah also has served as chairman of the board of directors of the Southwest Association for Indian Arts, which produces Santa Fe Indian Market. As is the custom, the 2008 honoree -- Navajo/Picuris jeweler Connie Tsosie Gaussoin -- will create a special piece for Ethelbah. Tsosie Gaussoin declined to describe the piece, but said, ;it will be very special for a special man.; Ethelbah was born to a White Mountain Apache father and a Santa Clara Pueblo mother. He lives and works in Albuquerque but participates in the Pueblo's traditional dances regularly, and his sculptures often reflect this background. He likes to tell how the name Greyshoes came about: ;In the late 1800s, my grandfather left the White Mountain Apache Reservation in eastern Arizona and enrolled at the Phoenix Indian School, a boarding school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. His given name meant greyshoes and was pronounced 'Keth-le-bah.; The officials of the school didn't attempt to spell his Indian name phonetically, nor did they consider calling him Greyshoes; instead, they created a new 'American' name for him, as often happened to immigrants at Ellis Island: 'Kay Ethelbah. ;In honor of my father's father, I sign my stone and bronze sculptures GREYSHOES,; Ethelbah said. Known for his contemporary, stylized and flowing figures, Ethelbah works in alabaster, marble and limestone. He also creates limited edition bronzes of his work. ;I love working in stone,; Ethelbah said. ;Usually, I have no idea what form a piece of stone will take. I live with it É until I see something in it. Then, I cut the base (with an electric saw). Once the piece is cut and carved, I sandpaper it É beginning with 60-grit sandpaper. I keep polishing, using finer and finer sandpaper -- perhaps up to 500 grit. At 180-grit, I begin using wet and dry sandpaper. ;The more you polish, the more the color comes out and more scratches are removed. At that point, the inherent beauty of the stone shows itself. It's very fulfilling to take a raw piece of stone that is nothing and turn it into something of magnificent beauty. ;It's a very physical art form; I like it that way. It keeps me young. I expect to be carving stone until I'm 80; then, I probably will move into clay and wood in my 80s, 90s and hundreds. Who knows what happens after that?; After graduating from the University of New Mexico in 1971, Ethelbah worked in three institutions in New Mexico: the state Department of Education, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the All-Indian Pueblo Council. Before retiring in 1998, he was director of student living at the Santa Fe Indian School. Ethelbah continues to teach at the Poeh Art Center, -- he is a graduate -- and informally at Santa Clara Pueblo, where he serves as a mentor to up-and-coming artists and teaches sculpture to children.