Nez, Kathleen: Navajo potter passes away at 56

Sante Fe, New Mexico (AP)

Award-winning Navajo potter Kathleen Nez has died after a long battle with liver disease.

Nez was 56 when she died Jan. 10, said her daughter, Nicole Nez.

Nez began working as a potter after coming to Santa Fe more than 30 years ago and earning a bachelor’s degree in fine art at the Institute of American Indian Arts.
Simply called “Nez” by most who knew her, she participated in Santa Fe’s annual Indian Market show beginning in 1983 and won numerous awards for her stoneware, according to her family.

She also participated in mainstream ceramic shows, including the “Objects for Use” show at the American Craft Museum in New York, and her work was owned by numerous museums and collectors, according to Robert Nichols, who sold Nez’s work in his gallery on Canyon Road for the last several decades.

Nez was born in Tuba City, Ariz., in 1954 but was adopted and raised in Los Angeles.

Nicole Nez told the Santa Fe New Mexican that because her mother was not raised on the reservation she did not have the same cultural references to draw upon as some of the other Native artists she studied with in Santa Fe, so she borrowed designs she liked from other cultures – notably the Mimbres and Anasazi – and modified them for her own pottery.

“Which is unusual for a Navajo today and a little controversial among my family on the reservation because the Mimbres were historically enemies of the Navajo people,” Nicole Nez said.

Nichols said the fact that Nez’s work was functional kept her prices moderate, and some of those who bought her pots did use them for cooking.

Nichols described Nez as “brilliant,” and said he is planning to hold a retrospective of Nez’s work in May.

Nez’s daughter Caitlin Murphy said her mother was “driven” and “determined” and often found success doing things others frowned upon, but she had many friends and loved to laugh.

In addition to her two daughters, Nez is survived by a son, William Nez, of Middletown, Calif., and her longtime partner, Philip Felch of Santa Fe.

Nicole Nez said the family held a ceremony in Tuba City and her mother was buried in the Citizen Cemetery in Flagstaff, Ariz.

Nicole Nez said she is planning several projects around her mother’s legacy, including a book. She hopes to generate some funds to help Native American artists struggling with alcoholism.

“Part of the project is honoring her and her legacy but not ignoring that alcoholism was something that took her life,” said Nicole Nez, who said her mother suffered from liver disease for about five years before she died. “I think it’s important, because I think the whole Native American artist community at large struggles with alcoholism.”