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Ortiz
Aeronaut theatrical costume, 2010. COURTESY MONTCLAIR ART MUSEUM

Virgil Ortiz: Odyssey of the Venutian Soldiers

Through March 2021

Virgil Ortiz and Tish Agoyo will appear on Thursday, July 2 at 6 p.m. in the MAM Conversations presented by the Babson Lecture Series. To register for the Zoom webinar, visit montclairartmuseum.org/mam-conversations.

The Montclair Art Museum will reopen its doors on Sept. 12. The museum is at 3 South Mountain Ave. More information is at montclairartmuseum.org, or by calling 973-746-5555.

By GWEN OREL

orel@montclairlocal.news

One wears an oxygen tank. One is a blind archer. The figures marching across the desert are Native Americans, in the year 2180.

“Odyssey of the Venutian Soldiers,” an exhibition of the work of Pueblo artist Virgil Ortiz, opened at the Montclair Art Museum in September. Ortiz imagines, paints and sculpts sci-fi superheroes, inspired by the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. The exhibition, his first solo museum show, includes pottery, costumes, a mural and a film teaser.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the exhibition will remain open through March 2021. Museums are allowed to partially reopen this week, according to Gov. Phil Murphy, but MAM will have its doors closed through mid-September, leaning on the side of caution.

However, tonight at 6 Ortiz will participate in the MAM Conversations presented by the Babson Lecture Series, a Zoom webinar of the Montclair Art Museum.

Ortiz will likely talk about how Native American art draws on traditional pottery and basket-making, but lives in the now. Much of his work embraces the future.

MAM received a grant for $320,000 in June from the Henry Luce Foundation to support its Native American art collection, and will use it to hire a project curator of Native American art and support activities of an advisory board for Native American art.

The curator is expected to be in place by January-February 2021, and have installations at the Rand gallery, where MAM’s permanent collection of Native American art is displayed, by fall 2023.

Ortiz
“Kade, Cacique of the Horseman Tribe,” Cochiti red clay, red and white slips, wild spinach plant pigment.
COURTESY VIRGIL ORTIZ

Among the eight people on the advisory board are Pamela Jardine, curator emerita of Native American art at MAM, as well as Heather Ahtone (Choctaw/Chickasaw), senior curator of the First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City, and Kay WalkingStick (Cherokee), an artist whose work was exhibited at MAM in 2018. 

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READ: FINDING HOME IN THE LAND: AMERICAN ARTIST KAY WALKINGSTICK

READ: NATIVE AMERICAN ARTISTS SPEAK AT MAM

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“Odyssey of the Venutian Soldiers” predates the grant but inspired how the grant was put together, said Gail Stavitsky, the museum’s chief curator.

The Ortiz exhibition, she said, is like an “intervention into our permanent collection gallery space. It makes that space come alive in a whole new way.”

The mural of the Venutians is on view in the Laurie Art Stairway. That piece will be up through August 2021.

“It will be very visible, even from outside,” Stavitsky said. “It made me think it would be interesting to have other artists doing site-specific installations in the Rand gallery that engaged our collection.”

One of Ortiz’s sculptures, “Kade, Cacique of the Horseman Tribe,” is now in the museum’s permanent collection. The ceramic figure has a human top, while the body is a horse.

Changes are happening at MAM: in June, long-time director Lora Urbanelli stepped down. The Township Council issued a proclamation on June 23 to thank her for her service, for expanding the collections, for establishing Free First Thursday and for expanding the Yard School of Art, among other things. Interim Director Ira Wagner began on May 18.

Ortiz
Installation in Laurie Art Stairway. Duggal LUMIPIXELS lightbox. COURTESY MONTCLAIR ART MUSEUM

INSPIRED BY ‘STAR WARS’

Ortiz comes from a line of potters on his mother’s side. His father always painted.

“I always had my hands in clay, since I was a kid,” he said. Born in 1969, Ortiz sold his first pot to his parents at age 6, to get money to buy “Star Wars” action figures.

He did not even know what he was doing was art, just something he did every day after school. “I’d get my hands in clay rather than go outside,” he said. “I thought all the kids were doing it until I realized not everybody did that.”

Watching movies influenced him a lot. When he learned about the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, he realized that he had to find a way to educate people globally.

The Pueblo people rebelled against Spanish colonizers that year, after enduring more than 100 years of missionaries and settlers in Santa Fe de Nuevo, in what is now New Mexico. The Pueblo people, led by Po’pay, successfully drove 2,000 settlers out of the province and killed 400 Spaniards.

Ortiz wrote a movie script about it, and took a fashion photography class. “All subjects and different media go back to the beginning movie script and the revolt,” he said. “The story was swept under the carpet. It was America’s first revolution. It was not called that because of the genocide that happened to our people.”

For Ortiz, there are two things he wants to accomplish with this exhibition: to tell the story and educate the world about the revolt, and to keep alive the Cohani pottery tradition, using traditional methods and materials.

“It’s a dying art form,” he said. “Traditional pottery is the nucleus of everything I do. Everything orbits around it.”

His project, and his movie script, jumps back and forth from 1680 to 2180. 

“I saw the original ‘Star Wars’ four times in one day. I learned where the characters came from, their positions in the story line. I learned that by watching a movie. I wanted to develop superheroes that Native Americans don’t have in the movie world.” Using the point of view of characters in 2180 allowed him to develop flashy and exciting characters. 

It’s easier to get kids’ attention and hold it if there is something cool to look at in front of them, he said. 

Ortiz
Virgil Ortiz works on a clay figure in his studio in Cochiti. COURTESY VIRGIL ORTIZ

WORKING WITH DONNA KARAN

Ortiz grew up on the reservation. He was born in Cochiti Pueblo, located between Santa Fe and Albuquerque, and still lives and works there.  His mother and grandmother and all of the different artisans around the pueblo created their work with limited resources. When Ortiz was older, he was amazed by what they had done, using spinach plants to make black paint, digging local clay.

He began designing clothes because he wanted things he could not afford.

“I taught myself to sew leather, vinyl, plastics. Later I learned those were the hardest materials to work with,” he said.

He worked with Donna Karan on her 2002-2003 spring collection, and learned what it takes to put together a line.

Karan had discovered him during the Santa Fe Indian Market, the world’s largest juried Indian art show, which happens in August, he said.

“Ghosting Donna Karan in her New York office, I felt like I was going to the Fashion Institute of Technology for a couple of months,” Ortiz said. “I ended up designing with her for 2003. She showed me silhouettes for her 2003 collection and asked me to design graphics to go onto the material.” 

He chose graphics taken from his family pottery line, which evolved and adapted to apply to the garments.

Visitors to MAM and the exhibition will notice the costumes on the figure of Nina the aeronaut, and the scarves and T-shirts he designed in the gift store. 

Ortiz has developed 19 characters, said Stavitsky. The models are all people from the community, she said. 

The setting is the future. The models and the style are traditional. The blend: the art of Virgil Ortiz.