Monumental sculptures by Rose B. Simpson to be exhibited in the Ames Family Atrium
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Monumental sculptures by Rose B. Simpson to be exhibited in the Ames Family Atrium
Rose B. Simpson working on Strata in her studio at Santa Clara Pueblo, New Mexico. Photo: Kate Russell.

CLEVELAND, OH.- Two monumental figurative sculptures by Native American sculptor Rose B. Simpson will soon be installed in the Ames Family Atrium at the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA). Rose B. Simpson: Strata, commissioned specifically for the museum’s expansive, light-filled space, consists of two 25-foot-tall sculptures constructed from the artist’s signature clay medium, in addition to metalwork, porous concrete, and cast bronze. Visitors to the CMA will enjoy these towering sculptures in the Ames Family Atrium beginning July 14, 2024, and running through April 13, 2025.

Simpson’s relationship with clay is ancestral. “I think in clay,” said the artist in an interview with The New York Times. One of the Times’s breakout Stars of 2023, Simpson balances her tribe’s inherited ceramic tradition with modern methods, materials, and processes. Her work is informed by her identity as a Native woman of the Kha’po Owingeh (Santa Clara Pueblo) tribe in northern New Mexico. She is from a lineage of women working in the ceramic tradition that dates back to the 500s CE. Simpson, based in Santa Clara Pueblo, NM, creates her pieces in a studio attached to an adobe home built by her great-uncle.

“Simpson’s signature clay sculptures are beautifully handmade and delicate,” explained Nadiah Rivera Fellah, curator of contemporary art at the CMA, “When seen in person, one gets a sense of the artist’s hands and finger impressions in the clay and can see how she works the surface of her objects to shape them. For this reason, Simpson’s work will be perfectly situated in the Ames Family Atrium, in that her work is striking from a distance, and it also rewards close observation.”

In 2022, Rivera Fellah invited Simpson to visit Cleveland and consider creating a project for the atrium. “According to the artist, the pieces are inspired by a visit to the museum, the architecture of the building, and tumbled clay brick fragments from the shores of Lake Erie,” Rivera Fellah said. She added, “Simpson considers the atrium itself a collaborator in the process of creating Strata, and says, ‘the space spoke to me with its beauty,’ and inspired the design of her sculptures.”

Simpson says, “This piece is called Strata, and it’s basically two beings, super earthy. They have these really big, chunky, solid bodies with clay busts and they’re witnessing each other. They have these big cloud headpieces, kind of like aircraft aluminum. A lot of my works are either witnessing each other or they’re building relationship with the viewer. The intention is to give consciousness to the inanimate because we’ve disconnected from that. Because it’s Strata, in a sense it’s about history, it’s about something bigger than humanity.”

Simpson’s large-scale sculptures represent a bold intervention in colonial legacies of dependency, erasure, and assimilation, combining experimental artmaking practice with centuries-old traditions. Her work asserts a pride of place and belonging on land where Native residents have been forcefully dispossessed of their territories and cultures.

Simpson’s work was first exhibited at the CMA in fall 2021 in Picturing Motherhood Now, a special exhibition that brought together works by a diverse range of contemporary artists who reimagine the possibilities for representing motherhood. Currently on display in the museum’s contemporary gallery is Heights III, a sculptural self-portrait of Simpson holding her daughter. The mother and daughter are connected through a bridgelike form linking their heads. The mother-and-child subject is one of Simpson’s most iconic sculptural motifs. The arms of the figures are missing, replaced instead with handles, symbolizing their likeness to double-handled, Pueblo ceramic vessels.

The CMA collaborates with a Native American advisory committee, prioritizing its commitment to creating respectful, enduring, collaborative relationships with Native artists and communities represented by works in the collection, which embody knowledge and traditions passed down through generations.

The CMA’s presentation of Rose B. Simpson: Strata includes a richly illustrated catalogue with contributions by Nadiah Rivera Fellah, the CMA’s curator of contemporary art; Anya Montiel, curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian; Karen Patterson, executive director at the Ruth Foundation; Natalie Diaz (Mojave / Akimel O’odham), Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry at Arizona State University; and artists Rose B. Simpson and Dyani White Hawk (Sicangu Lakota).

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