Master Hopi Kachina Carver

Cecil Calnimptewa, Eagle
Eagle Kachina by Cecil Calnimptewa.
Note the musculature, the capture of action.
This figure is 25" high, with a wing spread of 28".

Cecil Calnimptewa Count on your fingers the five best Hopi Kachina carvers, and Cecil Calnimptewa would be among the top three. He is acclaimed because of his sculptured Kachinas, bringing motion, detail and accuracy to the figures he carves. He uses da Vinci-like muscle tone to bring out tension. The articulation of his figures combine with the swaying folds and tassles of the capes and kilts, defining action and grace. Indeed, a true artist.

Cecil Calnimptewa putting finishing touches
on the Eagle Kachina shown above.

Actually, its Cecil, Jr. He was born in Moenkopi, Arizona, in 1950. (Moenkopi is a Hopi "outlying village" just outside of Tuba City, AZ.) As a teenager, Cecil was first taught by his father, Cecil, Sr. By his own words, Cecil says that his first real introduction to art was while going to high school on the Reservation. He then attended Haskell Junior College in Kansas for three semesters. He intended to learn a trade, but spent most of his time studying art, using both oil and water colors. He was then young and married, and went into construction as a dry-waller. This lasted for 14 years, when he then started carving full-time, mostly so that he could stay home with his family. His wife, Muriel, tragically died in 1991, as the result of pneumonia.

A few springs ago, we (Tom and Jay Tallant) visited Cecil while he was finishing a commission for one of our Canyon Country clients. The following are exerts from our conversation with Cecil.

"Kachinas have changed a lot in that last nine to ten years, one-piece carvings are becoming more common. Real game feathers went out in 1975, with the government's Migratory Bird Act; so we have all had to adapt to all-wooden feathers. Actually, I think the figures are better now than back then. However, me and my dad started making all wood figures, before the government outlawed anything but domestic foul feathers.

"We were also making one-piece figures back then. Today, I make all my figures one-piece, except the Eagle. For that Kachina, especially the big ones, I have to make the wings separately. For one thing, my wings are thinner and more delicate than most carvers, and this can create problems.

Cecil Calnimptewa

"Many people think we use balsa wood. However, balsa wood isn't strong enough to take the pressure of the knife we must use in the finishing stage of the doll. Hopis all use the cottonwood root. We square off a block, and then draw a rough design on it. We grub out the big spaces with a hand router and a Dremel tool. We finish the work with an Exacto knife. We put a lot of the detail in with an electric burner.

Cecil sketches on a cottonwood root blank
that is about the size of the one he used for the Eagle, above.

"When any one of my Kachina dolls goes out to a collector, I say, 'You are going to be a Hopi, and you are going out to a nice home. You'll be living with a bunch of new friends. Take care of those people, where ever you go.'

I listen to the spirit of the doll as I carve it, and that gives me new ideas. They don't become alive until I carve the eyes, and when I open them, I feel they become a real spirit.

"My father came from Old Oraibi, and I dance there every season. From this experience, I make my dolls as accurate as I can. When I dance there I am the Yellow Fox. He is how I was initiated in my first dance.

Cecil Calnimptewa

"I have taught a lot of carvers in the past few years. I've worked with maybe 25 to 30 young carvers. I am now teaching my boy; and my second oldest, my daughter. Everybody out here needs money. There are no jobs, so I do what I can to help. The new carvers are doing a great job. I hope they are able to start further ahead than when I started. It took me a long time to pick up carving. With help, I hope they can do it faster.

Cecil shows the roughed-out wings for the Eagle.

"One time my boy asked me how I was able to get the muscle and vein features in my dolls. I told him that I just looked in a mirror and there was the perfect figure. Maybe at one time, but not anymore. [Cecil had a big smile on his face and chuckled as he said this.] Actually, I picked up the knack of muscle tone when I was painting. I take every opportunity to study the human form. I go to museums and study the bronzes and marbles. When I go to Santa Fe, several time a year, I always take time to visit the art galleries and study the works there.

"Some people ask me about doing bronzes. I made a couple for Bruce [McGee]. However, I won't do bronzes anymore. They are kinda cold. The lock up all the doll's spirit inside them.

 

 

Cecil Calnimptewa

" I started by carving a Crow Mother. I start all my young carvers with Crow Mother, including my kids. But, my favorite? It'd have to be the Eagle. They take the longest. Putting on the feathers takes the most time. I like all the dolls that have a lot of feathers. I collect eagles, ceramic, wood, whatever.

"I just noticed, I'm going to have this mudhead pulling on a rope, about so long, and put tension on his face."

"What's the future? I'd say the dolls are going to continue to get better. The young carvers are much further ahead than I was at their age. Realism in going to be more important. Detail will get better and better. There'll be more action, more motion, like a sash swaying, a kilt in motion, more realistic positioning of the figure."


We had a good time talking to Cecil. We found him to be friendly, articulate, humorous at times, and to have a genuine concern for his Hopi fiends.

If you would like to commission a Kachina by Cecil, please give us a call at 800-401-1192. He will carve most any Kachina you may choose. They are really the best.

 

 

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