Special Exhibit: Folk Art Carvings by Charlie Willeto
July 26, 2019 until September 15, 2019
Charlie Willeto (1897-1964) was a Diné artist who was unrecognized during his lifetime but has, in recent years, received a great deal of acclaim for his folk art carvings. Willeto’s father, Pablo Walito, was a Diné medicine man; his mother Adzaan Tsosie “Slender Woman” was a medicine woman. Willeto himself followed into his parents’ profession, and also married a woman who was born into the traditional Diné healing arts. At the time of Charlie and Elizabeth’s arranged marriage, he was almost fifty and she was 18. They would go on to have six children together, many of whom would become artists themselves. Willeto was a Yei-bi-chei dancer, and his earliest known carvings were what he referred to as “replicas” of the Yei-bi-cheis. His elders discouraged him from continuing to make his “replicas”, and he moved in a different but similarly controversial direction.
In 1961, Willeto began creating the carvings for which he is celebrated today. These works—his early pieces, in particular—bore a resemblance to the “illness” or “healing” dolls made for use in Diné ceremonial functions. They always featured some sort of deliberate aberration, though, as the recreation of these dolls was frowned upon by the Diné. Humans, anthropomorphic figures and all manner of animals were Willeto’s preferred subjects. He painted his carvings with house paint, chalk, crayons, and his wife’s weaving dyes. The carvings ranged in size from a few inches tall to nearly life-size, with the majority standing between one and three feet. Willeto bartered his carvings for provisions, with trader Jim Mauzy. Mauzy then sold and traded Willeto’s carvings to other dealers and collectors. Willeto is believed to have completed about 400 carvings in total. Today, his works are included in many prominent public and private collections, including the Smithsonian and the Museum of International Folk Art.
In 2002, the Museum of New Mexico Press published an excellent book titled Collective Willeto: The Visionary Carvings of a Navajo Artist. The book includes an essay in which Diné artist Shonto Begay describes his feelings about Willeto’s works: “For many years after I came across Willeto’s figures, I was ambivalent about whether Willeto was somebody I should fear or embrace. Willeto’s carved pieces of people and animals, anthropomorphic sculptures with shocked expressions reflecting their viewers, mocked our fears and reverences. Yet, I thought he must be very powerful to make legends and stories tangible. I believed he had to be recognized and honored by the spirits because his figures touch upon the stream of mystery within that is reserved for healing...I see Willeto as an artist who braved the criticism of his people and peers to seek the visions of the sacred mandalas and the secrets of ancient petroglyphs. As an artist of the new millennium, I see this contribution to Navajo folk art as having an impact far beyond my world.”