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1/5/04: Missing Pieces

It was getting late when the doorbell startled my wife and I into a scramble, as we dashed down the hall to be sure that no unsuspecting eye caught us in our "house attire." I quickly pulled on a sweatshirt and ran my hands through my hair. We were just about ready for bed, and I had been lying lazily in front of the television, catching up on a little "Jay Leno," when our visitor came. It's not that often that we're surprised late at night, but once in a while someone will stop by - usually in need of a favor or some help. We have somewhat of an open-door policy, so I welcomed another opportunity to be of service.

As I opened the interior door, I saw our friend and neighbor, Gary Polacca. As you may already know, we're big fans of his work, and I'm always excited to see what he's working on next, but Christmas had me strapped. So I was a little worried when I saw the precious little bundle, wrapped in baby blankets, tucked snugly under his arm. I knew I was going to love the piece - probably enough to make it a part of the "permanent collection" as I sometimes do - but I also knew I wouldn't be able to afford something this large and elaborate. I was really sweating it as I invited him in to sit down. Any other time of the year I would have been able to justify one expense or another - pull a few strings on the ol' family budget - and alleviate my friend of his pottery. I must have thought of a thousand excuses in a minute and a half.

He took his seat and I took mine, and we made small talk for a little while. The sharp contrast of the yellow cotton cloth against his dark jacket kept grabbing my attention. Like Pandora's Box, I really wanted to see what was inside, but I knew it would be to my ruin: both beautiful and deadly - to my pocket book. I figured that if I didn't ask, maybe he wouldn't tell, but eventually we reached a point in our conversation where a natural segue made itself available, and he reached for the treasure beneath his arm. As always, I was amazed by its beauty and imagery. His murals and themes are always so unique and provocative. He asked me if I recognized the figures featured prominently around the pottery's surface. I replied that I did recognize them - I recognized them as taboo to the Hopi, and as I wondered what his meaning was in creating this piece and bringing it to me, I asked him to elaborate on it's more fundamental significance. I had heard him explain the story before, but my memory of the incidence had faded, and I was eager to hear him tell it as I knew only he could. As he proceeded, it reminded me of the many times I was fortunate enough to listen to the migration stories that his father, Tom Polacca, used to recount to us. For a moment I felt like he was here again - it was good to be in his presence. I could see how Gary was responding to his father's passing by truly "carrying the torch."

The designs were primarily abstract Hopi themes of clouds, water, and corn, but the central figures were clear depictions of the Hopi One-Horn and Two-Horn priests - figures who generally strike fear and suspicion into the hearts of traditionalists. I knew Gary had been brought up as an initiate, and that his uncles, from the Second Mesa village of Shungopavi, were leaders and priests among these various upper-order societies. I knew he knew their ways, but had decided to travel a different road. Still he maintains a great degree of reverence and respect for his traditional heritage. So why would he cross a line like this and manifest a pottery for which neither his own people nor the non-native collector, would have an explanation for or understanding of? As we continued to talk, I began to realize that this was really at the root of his visit.

He his concern to me that both natives and non-natives would misunderstand this piece, and that it would take a certain amount of spiritual discernment and understanding to correctly interpret it. So I simply asked him "why;" why did he make the piece? His answer was bold, "Because I am not afraid. Because I understand it. It is a part of me." He went on to explain that Hopis, like many people, are afraid of those things they do not understand. But once there is an understanding, then the eyes of our enlightenment are opened and we are able to see things for what they really are, and not just as the symbols of things they represent. He went on to express an additional concern for his people, that they might not be blinded by tradition, but able to see the world around them and correctly and usefully incorporate and interpret their own teachings into life in this modern world. "Without understanding, our traditions are in vain," he said to me.

So why the piece? Why something potentially controversial that will surely be misunderstood and overlooked for what it really is? He tells me that he hopes people will take notice and ask the questions that need to be asked. Whether we are Native or non-Native, do we understand our own traditions? Do we ask the questions that need to be asked? In the end, it is the opinion of both myself and my friend Gary Polacca, that all of the human race will someday discover their mutual roots - a shared heritage, obscured by centuries of jealousy, greed, and misunderstanding.

As he picked up his pot, he wrapped it securely back into the folds of the cloth, and without ever asking me to purchase it, he left. It was a profound experience that I was grateful for and an "object lesson" that I will never forget. But before he left, he said "If I didn't have to sell them, I would keep every one. They would line the walls and tell the story of my life." The next day he brought it into the gallery and let go of another piece of himself.


Thanks for reading,

Brandon (aka "The Permanent Rezident")


"One-Horn & Two-Horn Priests" by Gary Polacca (8 3/4" H by 7 1/2" D): $1,050.00
To inquire about this piece, please contact us!

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