He dug. Alone, in the fading light of the setting sun, he dug as he had when he was 6 years old, looking for arrowheads on the outskirts of Tucson.
Only he wasn't looking for arrowheads anymore: For 20 years, Richard Bazurto dug in the Northern Arizona desert. And it was among the old clay pots and human bones that he discovered his passion for sculpture. But the true artist would not be born until he learned important lessons about life, spirituality and art from the Hopi Indian tribe.
"By knowing the Hopis, they helped me stay alive," Bazurto said. "Art is like a religion; it's spiritual. They taught me how to be a person, not a gravedigger."
Today, Bazurto is a sculptor and the director of Clan-Wise Gallery on Fourth Avenue, which will honor American Indian Heritage Month with a month-long exhibit, Autumn Gathering and Native Visions, at the ArtCulture Partnership Gallery. The exhibit will feature the contemporary Native American-style and tradition-inspired work of four artists.
The 56-year-old artist began illegally digging as an amateur archaeologist, going layer by layer, logging information and taking photographs. But after discovering the remains of four babies near the Colorado River, Bazurto looked to his Native American friends for guidance. "Learn from the people who are alive, not the people who are dead," they told him.
"I took all the stuff back, and a Hopi Indian came and redid a proper burial," Bazurto said. After that experience, Bazurto explored the Hopi culture, learning and living their beliefs and customs, which he said mark every step of the artist's process today.
"The Hopis taught me that you have to ask permission before you begin," Bazurto said. He was taught to pray and ask permission from the spirits before choosing clay (which he digs out of the desert), mineral paint and wood for a fire, which he uses instead of a kiln to harden the clay.
"I camp out at Mount Lemmon, make a depression in the ground, and once the fire is down after the barbeque, put the pieces in overnight," he said
Bazurto is a self-proclaimed trader of both products and ideas. He has learned how to build adobe pueblos, where to find cottonwood root--a precious commodity in the Hopi community, "sure to always keep food on your table"--and most importantly, how to channel his spirituality through his art. He's also picked up a few other tricks along the way.
"It took me years to learn how to do red paint," he said. "I couldn't get it! Then this Zuni guy at the Gem Show said, 'Man, you're missing one step,' and he told me what it was. I did it, and it turned out perfect."
Bazurto's pieces, which he calls his "ladies," are shapes reminiscent of women. "It's weird when you're working with clay," he said. "It's kind of controlling you; sometimes, the ladies try to take control, but I have to get it back."
The pieces reflect Bazurto's adoptive Hopi roots, featuring soft shapes and native tones. He said he hoped the show will honor the Native American culture, and bring something new and exciting to Tucson.
"I wanted to give something back," Bazurto said. "It gives me a chance to give them (the Hopis) some recognition, because they took me under their wing. I'm finding myself. To me, it's like a second awakening."
The exhibit also features three other Native American-inspired artists: David Moreno, Marlow Katoni and Scarlet Kinney.
David Moreno was born in Phoenix, son of artist Eulogio Moreno and descendent of the Yaqui Indians of Northern Mexico. Moreno's sculpture reflects his interest in everyday people, especially Yoeme'm, people of his tribe, and the Earth's natural beauty.
Marlow Katoni is a contemporary artist, a Navajo born in Northern Arizona to the Di'ne tribe. His paintings feature bright colors and geometric forms, largely influenced by his tribe's pueblo villages.
Scarlet Kinney is a shamanic artist, writer and performer. The basis of shamanism is communication with the spirit world, and Kinney has integrated the teachings from Mohawk Indians in Maine, where she was born, and the Bear Spirit Clan, which initiated her into shamanism, into her paintings.
The artists' reception is at 7 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 27. Hector Valencia, or "Tettenkume," in his Native Yaqui language, will be playing his flute and telling stories. Following Valencia's performance, Bazurto will speak about the exhibition and his journey into Tucson's art community.
Though he would not reveal his Hopi name, the secret ingredient to his red paint or where he finds his cottonwood root, Bazurto speaks openly of his past days in the dirt: "I'm not ashamed to say I was a gravedigger. I still love the dirt! It's how I got here, and it's so much fun."
The Clan-Wise Gallery presents Autumn Gathering and Native Visions, opening Thursday, Oct. 25, and running through Saturday, Dec. 1, at ArtCulture Partnership Gallery, 949 E. 35th St. An artists' reception is at 7 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 27. Normal gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Wednesdays and Thursdays; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Fridays; and noon to 4 p.m., Saturdays. Admission is free. For more info, contact Xóchitl Gil-Higuchi, ArtCulture Partnership coordinator, at 792-3617.