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Power Object: Rose B. Simpson’s Maria

From American Craft Inquiry: Volume 2, Issue 1

Power Object: Rose B. Simpson’s Maria

From American Craft Inquiry: Volume 2, Issue 1
Rose B. Simpson, Maria

Rose B. Simpson, Maria, 2014

Kate Russell, courtesy of the artist

Every inch of Maria is matte black, except for the lines and curves of the shiny, geometric design that animates its surface. It looks as though these glossy areas were carefully burnished to make them visually pop against their flat background. The abstract shapes are inspired by the work of Maria Martinez and echo Pueblo motifs of a vast and dramatic natural landscape dating back centuries. As for horsepower, you’d have to ask the artist, Rose B. Simpson.1

I should clarify that Maria is a car, not a piece of pottery. Fashioned from a 1985 Chevrolet El Camino in 2014, Maria is Simpson’s homage to two artforms she holds dear, both of which have deep connections to the world she calls home. In addition to holding an MFA in ceramics from the Rhode Island School of Design, Simpson is an expert in lowrider customization, a form of auto body work deeply rooted in New Mexico’s car culture. After finishing up at RISD, she moved back to the Southwest. “Instead of moving to New York City like many of my peers,” she tells American Craft Inquiry, “I came back home and enrolled in the Automotive Science program at Northern New Mexico College,2 because I have always been inspired by the Española Valley community that I grew up in – the Lowrider Capital of the World.”

Lowriders are classic American muscle cars that have been retrofitted with hydraulic systems allowing drivers to raise and lower them at will, and retro-style wire wheels that shimmer as they turn. Their history can be traced to the community of Mexican Americans living in Los Angeles in the mid-1940s who customized their cars to roll along slowly, allowing onlookers to appreciate in their designs in full. Lowriders are made to cruise, becoming vehicles for artistic expression, which means that they embody the exact opposite of what most drivers expect from their cars.3 So in addition to being roving canvases, lowriders offer a sly rebuke to the frenzied pace of and performative aspects of American capitalism. To be visibly harried is a sign of success in America – and valor in the face of overwhelm is a symbol of importance and indispensability. Your car gets you from here to there, probably too slowly for your liking, and you might regularly experience fits of traffic-induced pique on the road. Lowriders flip this dynamic on its head: They are typically kitted out for pleasure, not profit, and they don’t lend themselves to an efficient commute. In aesthetic terms, they’re art for art’s sake. They are the automotive equivalent of a delicious meal that lasts for hours on end.

Nor is this subversion the only complexity at play. In a statement about the 2016 exhibition “Con Cariño: Artists Inspired by Lowriders” at the New Mexico Museum of Art, in which Simpson’s Maria was featured, curator Katherine Ware put it diplomatically, but clearly: “Despite the care and craftsmanship that goes into these cars, they have sometimes had negative associations.”4 In movies and television, notably the AMC series Breaking Bad which was set in Albuquerque, and the 2016 movie Lowriders that takes place in Los Angeles, the cars are, if not exclusively the props of criminal characters, then at least crime-adjacent.

According to Ben Chappell, the author of Lowrider Space: Aesthetics and Politics of Mexican American Custom Cars, this perceived association with gangs is largely unfounded. The investment of time and money that the customization of a lowrider requires suggests a life of stability and access to resources. And one of the resources Chappell, a professor of American studies at the University of Kansas, describes in a 2012 interview with the New York Times is a craft community: one of mechanical know-how and tools. “[A] car should be an expression of the owner,” Chappell said, “and you have to work to build and maintain it. So working on cars and sharing knowledge is a big part of it. People will barter labor and parts. There’s a really extensive social network around lowriding.”5

One of the other stereotypes about the lowrider world is that it’s male. This is often true, but for Rose B. Simpson, work and creativity know no gender. Simpson grew up on the Santa Clara Pueblo in northern New Mexico, and is a member of the Naranjo family, which includes generations of ceramicists. Her mother, Roxanne Swentzell, is a figurative ceramic sculptor who, according to Simpson, built the house they lived in, fixed cars, and never let anyone borrow her chain saw.6 Her father, Patrick Simpson, is a sculptor who works primarily in wood and metal. Simpson’s maternal grandmother, Rina Swentzell, made contemporary pots on the wheel. Her great-grandmother, Rose Naranjo and several of her nine children, made traditional pottery by hand. For a period of time, her mother turned off their electricity to see if they could live off the grid. “We were very empowered to figure things out on our own,” Simpson told Pasatiempo magazine in a 2016 interview.7

Thus Simpson comes from a world where men and women get equal time making things, using tools, and solving problems, and where traditions are both maintained and reinvented. Maria is inspired by the work of potter Maria Martinez (1887 – 1980) who was born and raised in San Ildefonso Pueblo, about 10 miles from Santa Clara Pueblo where Simpson grew up. By the time Martinez began making pottery, the proliferation of commercially produced wares was rendering handmade ceramics, if not obsolete, then not necessary for daily life. The work for which Maria Martinez is renowned, then, is not part of an unbroken Pueblo tradition; rather, it was a conscious historical revival. In 1907, Dr. Edgar Lee Hewett, director of the Museum of New Mexico, approached her about creating replicas of ceramics based on recently unearthed shards for a museum display. Already known as a talented potter, Martinez began working on these revival forms along with her new husband, Julian Martinez, a self-taught painter. The pair began experimenting with surface designs and techniques; she made the vessels, and he decorated them.

By 1918, they had produced their first black-on-black piece, and these vessels, with burnished designs that stand out from a matte background, earned wide acclaim. Martinez became a symbol of Southwestern craft and Pueblo aesthetics, demonstrating pottery-making techniques at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, the 1914 Panama-California Exposition in San Diego, and the 1934 World’s Fair in Chicago.8 It may not have been obvious to buyers and collectors that she wasn’t merely carrying on an existing ceramic practice, but revitalizing and adapting it to new times. She made them individual expressions of her artistic intent by signing them, something that Pueblo potters had not typically done in the past.

It was very clear to Simpson, however. “I knew about Maria Martinez work for most of my life, as many people in my community made work similar to hers,” she tells ACI. “Her black-on-black style was groundbreaking and incredibly influential. The designs that her husband Julian painted on her pots are cultural symbols and metaphors for a lifeway and perspective that I am familiar with, sharing the same Pueblo culture and place-based religious belief system.” The choice to use a car, of all media, as a tribute to Maria Martinez was a meaningful choice for Simpson: “I am paying homage to the back-and-forth ties of history and preservation and customization and recycling and inspiration and cultural integrity. Vessels such as the ones that Maria Martinez created are no longer in daily functional use for many Pueblo people, but vehicles are.”

Cars were as much a part of Simpson’s local ecosystem growing up as art was. She told Pasatiempo magazine: “In Española, when I was growing up, I saw lowriders everywhere.” She fixed up her own used Jeep Cherokee before she even entered middle school. “The Jeep epitomized freedom. It became my turtle shell in many ways. I even lived in my car for a while.” The metaphor of the turtle shell is an apt one, as Simpson makes the case that Maria is a vessel, made from different materials. There isn’t much precedent for recreating the look of Santa Clara black-on-black pottery in automotive paint. Her professor at Northern New Mexico Community College was skeptical, but her use of two different paints one matte and one ultra-shiny paid off. The vehicle also has a custom-made 410 horsepower, 350 small-block engine, which is one reason that Simpson has described the work as a “power object.”

Simpson has noted that one aspect of her experience in graduate school was a newfound awareness of the Western paradigm that art is separate from life itself. Cars, though their models are still sculpted from clay in automotive design studios, don’t generally fall under the umbrella of craft. And lowriders are not typical of cars: They’re part art project and part vehicle. Like Martinez, who began signing her pots as her profile rose, Simpson has made something unique and thought-provoking working in a genre whose practitioners have either been anonymous or known only to a small group of insiders. Simpson rebuilt and customized Maria during her 2013 residency at the Denver Art Museum, and it was there that she premiered the piece in front of the museum, driving the car herself, as seven models sporting Mad Max-inspired leather ensembles accompanied her on foot. The car’s sound system played the sound of a human heart beating a full volume. Though a viewer unaware of Maria Martinez’s body of work would probably not immediately think of ceramics while witnessing Simpson’s performance at the DAM, her choice to frame Martinez’s motifs in the form of a lowrider is perfect. There’s no hurry. Curbside viewers can take in the full glory of her design as she rolls.

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1. Special thanks to Annie Carlano, senior curator of Craft, Design & Fashion at the Mint Museum, and Garth Johnson, former curator of ceramics at the Arizona State University Art Museum, for bringing Simpson’s work to my attention.
2. The Automotive Science program at Northern New Mexico Community College has since been closed.
3. “Lowriders Are the Beating Heart of Chicano Culture in the Southwest,” Samuel Gilbert, Vice, September 16, 2016. culture-in-the-southwest
4. Press release for “Con Cariño: Artists Inspired by Lowriders,” New Mexico Museum of Art, May 2, 2016. 
5. “Lowriding: This Culture Is About More Than Cars,” Phil Patton, New York Times, December 4, 2012. 
6. “Three Questions With Rose B. Simpson,” Alex de Vore, Santa Fe Reporter, May 17, 2016
7. “Auto-Body Experience: Rose B. Simpson and Her El Camino,” Casey Sanchez, Pasatiempo, May 20, 2016.  
8. Charles Eldredge, Julie Schimmel, and William H. Truettner. Art in New Mexico, 1900–1945: Paths to Taos and Santa Fe, Washington, DC: National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1986.
9. Sanchez.