Roxanne Swentzell

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The Denver Art Museum's American Indian collection is an artistic experience for lovers of art, and more explicitly art lovers of pieces that remind all that view it, of the Native American heritage. From ceramics to garments to glass work, the museum's pieces are unmatched to many art exhibits in the country. Visitors can enchant themselves with an opportunity to be greeted by massive sculptures, Arapaho crafts and a collection of print artwork that is stellar in illustration. One particular artist whose work graces the walls of the Denver Art Museum is that of Roxanne Swentzell. Swentzell has frequently developed pieces at the museum for all to watch. Her pieces add a special forte to the rare and exquisite inspiration that is represented by the museum. 

Main Thesis

Roxanne Swentzell has enlightened the world with her spirited approach to pottery and sculpture. Her pieces are vibrant, unprecedented and engender a lively discussion on contemporary Native American art.


Native American art has consistently offered many diverse attributes to the realm of art. Native Americans, for more than a century have used a noteworthy amount of cultural materials. The purpose and manner of these materials vary noticeably depending upon the tribe the artist comes from. Anthropology has documented that Native American mores from regions such as the Northeast, the Woodlands, the Southeast, the Plains, the Southwest and the Northwest Coast flow as an undercurrent in the assorted art forms. History has noted that the first half of the 20th century was specifically dominated by formal dances and thematic scenes in the majority of Native American arts. The latter half of Native American art in the 20th century continued in this refrain but also included in its painting more of a slant towards cultural, political and communal issues. Some Native American art pieces have included a whole host of styles such as abstraction, Pop Art and Expressionism in addition to European realism. All Native American artists have stated that they hold their techniques to high regard in their works as an expression of folklore that links the Native American art of today with that of yesteryear. Tradition is characterized by Native Americans as a familial knowledge and an investigation of these concepts have permeated the sphere of paintings. Some of the earliest academics of Native American art considered themselves archaeologists and anthropologists rather than historians of art. They consistently explored the tribal elements in paintings and other collected baskets, sculptures and garments associated with Native American artists. Many have noted that the chief function of several artists is the ethnographic aspects that are both imaginative in nature and useful to the demonstration of Native American customs and art as a whole.   Roxanne Swentzell has incorporated many Native American traditions into her art pieces in order to preserve the birthright of her ethnicity.

It can be said that Roxanne Swentzell was destined to become an artiste. Emerging from a family of potters and sculptors, the talent that encompassed her was wide-ranging. Roxanne created her first piece of art at the age of four and through an extensive amount of formal training; she was able to develop her own technique, which she noted as representing the human spirit. One of the more noteworthy attributes of Swentzell's work is that she has often been described as saying that "people are out of touch with their environment and hopes that by relating to her expressive characters [this] will help them get back in touch with their surrounding and feelings."   Swentzell has throughout the years focused intently on female portraits as an approach to bring equilibrium between the male and female aspects that are represented in her own American Indian culture. Art collectors and critics have stated that she frequently makes use of humor in her sculptures in an effort to communicate the semblance of emotion and mood. Roxanne Swentzell was educated at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1979, Portland Museum Art School in Portland, OR in 1980. Prior to receiving her education, Swentzell, had a myriad of apprenticeships in printing and sculpturing that helped shape her craft.  

Swentzell has been frequently asked how she creates her art. In her book, How I Make My Sculptures, Swentzell states "first I feel something that I want to show. I feel how this feeling or thought would be shown in a human body. This may happen very suddenly in the middle of something I am doing. Usually it has something to do with where I am in my life. I use clay to make my sculptures. They start off looking very much like pots. I coil the clay up smoothing the coils as the walls go up." Swentzell states that she uses a very special knife, a swivel, a plastic bad to keep the clay from drying out, a spray bottle, a kiln, which is an oven that turns clay into shiny items. The process of her creations take anywhere between two to four days to where she can begin to create her work of art. Swentzell states that often she examines what she has made and asks a friend their opinion. Following this, Swentzell, discusses how she lets what she has created sit around for a few weeks to ensure that it is dry, as when she is sculpting her creations the clay is extremely damp. Once the sculpture is dry, she then puts it in the kiln. The kiln firing process takes approximately a day.   Swentzell’s pieces have a glow to them as a result of this process. They speak to the spirit of the viewers illustrating the simplicities and difficulties of life.

Swentzell first received appreciation of her work at an Indian Market in Santa Fe in 1984 and two years following that she won eight awards for her pottery and sculpture at the very same event. Swentzell's work became known for being grounded in tradition, while offering a present-day twist. Swentzell has remarked that pottery is deeply delicate, while her sculpture is intensely rooted in the norms of the Santa Clara Pueblos. Most of her work is female dominated, as Swentzell has stated that women play a central role in the core of society. Much of the heritage that Swentzell has expressed in her art has been predominately made of clown figurines as she has stated that with clowns, she can bring to the surface the identities of the Native American people, more than any other figure. Her approach to creating and crafting clown figures is progressive in touch as she accentuates both the perfectness of the face and the depth of the body. The clown figure in the Pueblo credence is known as a Kosha, and the belief is that the clown can instruct others through actions.   

As a result of her acutely rooted Santa Claran birthright, many historians and writers have touched on the correlation that Native Americans have to using clay in their art, and more emphatically, feminine figures. Pinup (2000) and Reality Check (2001) address the "cultural frameworks and expectations for women and the unrealistic physical expectations for women presented in popular culture. In both [works], a Pueblo woman, [who is] voluptuous confronts a headless image of a skinny bikini-wearing white woman." The implication of this is the challenge that many womanly artists have had in their representations of how women should look. Thus, Swentzell has formed her own course in the realm of femininity and how the woman is portrayed. Swentzell has consistently challenged the notions regarding women and more importantly, Native American women. The strength of her work is imbued with dedication to extol truth and influence surrounding females and the practices of Native American culture.   Much of Swentzell’s work then can be reasoned to be biographical of her life and the lives of the Native American people. It has been said that it is a private rumination of a path dominated by experience and emotions.

Artist Mateo Romero said that Roxanne Swentzell’s art "emotes. Figures of clowns, old men and women, and children twist, turn and undulate, laugh, cry, repair themselves, interact with each other and love each other. It is through this intricate balance of elements that her work reaches our humanity and engages us as both audience and participant."   Romero continues by saying that "the life and work of Rox can be seen as a complex interplay between opposites and polarities. Although, she has a mainstream art education, her work and sensibilities are firmly grounded in a sense of Pueblo identity. Her work is in demand in the blue chip commercial art market, but it is clear that the integrity and personal vision of the work comes first. Risk taking, experimentation, and content-based narratives in the work defy the simplicity of the lowest common denominator of the marketplace. It is the breath of sincerity that emanates; appeal is based on a shared emotional connection between artist and audience."  


Perhaps Roxanne Swentzell is not the first Native American artist to spark discussion, but she is one of the most prolific to do so. Her artwork unveils a whirlwind of passion, drive and determination to speak what she perceives to be her truth as a woman first, and then as Native American. Her artwork has found its way into many a showcase, in galleries and in museums worldwide including the Museum of Wellington in New Zealand, the Santa Fe Convention Center and the Smithsonian. One cannot pass by a Swentzell painting in the Denver Art Museum and not recognize it for its tasteful and elegant craftsmanship and dexterity.


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Fauntleroy, Gussie. Roxanne Swentzell: Extra-ordinary People. New Mexico: New Mexico Magazine Artist Series, 2002.

Swentzell, Roxanne. HOW I MAKE MY SCULPTURES. N/A: Roxanne Swentzell, 1993. Print.

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