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Fonseca Art Lecture

[Feb 15]

"Exuberant Images": Lecture on Native artist Harry Fonseca

On Saturday, February 15 at 2 p.m. at the Grace Hudson Museum, independent scholar and curator Brian Bibby will present an illustrated lecture, "The Life and Art of Harry Fonseca." Bibby will discuss the work and legacy of the internationally renowned painter and printmaker, who was of Nisenan Maidu, Portuguese, and Hawaiian origin. The event is free with Museum admission. 

Fonseca was born and raised in the small community of Bryte, across the river from downtown Sacramento. The ancestral village of his Maidu great-grandmother was also nearby, at the confluence of the Sacramento and American Rivers, adjacent to downtown. However, the local Maidu culture and ceremonial life had been badly fractured since the arrival of Euro-Americans and the establishment of Sacramento. Thus, Fonseca grew up in a mixed-cultural family in an urban environment without much exposure to traditional Maidu or Native activities. 

However, a close friend of the Fonseca family was Henry Azbill, a Maidu-Hawaiian man who had been born and raised in the Maidu community at Chico. Azbill became a primary resource and inspiration for Harry concerning Maidu culture, as he had experienced the last days of the great cycle of ceremonial dances at Chico in 1905-1906. Azbill’s mother, Mary, had been one of the main female dancers and was also a basket maker. Around 1971, Azbill took Harry to the Wintun-Pomo-Wailaki community at Grindstone Reservation (Glenn County) to attend the Hesi ceremonial. This was Harry’s first experience with the beauty of Native Californian dance, song, and ritual, and inspired him to explore the many other ceremonial dance figures and material aspects of the culture.

In 1979, Fonseca moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, which has a strong Native arts scene, and dedicated himself to his artwork full time. He developed a colorful, exuberant, and yet highly crafted style, in which Native icons--most notably, Coyote--sport leather jackets or snappy suits, lounge in cafes, and otherwise take their place in the modern world. “Coyote is the trickster figure found in traditional Maidu oral literature," Bibby says. "Harry positioned this figure into every possible scenario, freeing it from the past and placing him in the present. Coyote is the master of disguises. He is both creator and destroyer, sometimes all within a single stroke. Maidu (and others) Coyote myths are outrageously funny, and Harry ingeniously injected a ridiculous humor into his Coyote works, capturing much the same effect of the old stories.”

Bibby frames the large corpus of Coyote stories as a reflection on the human condition. “Coyote is the trickster who himself is usually tricked in the end. The trickster literature (nearly a universal human concept) was/is an ingenious method of revealing the contradictory nature of life on this planet.”

Fonseca had a prolific art career, creating a wide range of works, or series of works, including his impressionistic works based on Native rock art; a large series entitled The Discovery of Gold & Souls in California, addressing the effects of the mission system and gold discovery on Native societies; and Pollock-inspired works referencing the seasons. 

Bibby and Fonseca became friends when they met at Sacramento State College in 1972. He now helps administrate the Harry Fonseca Trust, which is dedicated to preserving his legacy. (Fonseca died in 2006.) Bibby has consulted on and curated several exhibits on Native culture, including The Fine Art of California Indian Basketry (1996), Precious Cargo: Childbirth and Cradle Baskets in California Indian Culture (2004) and American Masterpieces: The Artistic Legacy of California Indian Basketry (2010). However, Bibby maintains that the most important aspect of his own career and life has been his many years spent among his friends and elders, immersed in Native culture and everyday life, including his initiation into the ceremonial roundhouse at Grindstone Reservation nearly 50 years ago. 

This presentation is linked to the Museum's current exhibit, Metaphor, Myth, & Politics: Art from Native Printmakers. The exhibit features contemporary works on paper from 29 Native and Indigenous artists from around the globe, all drawn from the C.N. Gorman Museum's collection at the University of California, Davis. The show is traveled by Exhibit Envoy and supplemented at the Grace Hudson Museum with works by California Indian printmakers. 

The Grace Hudson Museum is at 431 S. Main St. in Ukiah. The Museum is open Wednesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 4:30 p.m. General admission is $4; $10 per family; $3 for students and seniors; free to all on the first Friday of the month; and always free to Museum members, Native peoples with tribal ID, and standing members of the military. For more information please go to or call (707) 467-2836.

(by Roberta Werdinger)

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