“Transformations” is a word that art historians have used to discuss the career and body of work created by Harry Fonseca. During the course of his career, Fonseca (Nisenen Maidu/Hawaiian/Portuguese), 1946-2006, took up big themes which he would explore for a time and then move on to another subject, returning to the original theme later with new approaches and insights. The Maidu origin story and Maidu tradition, Coyote, the images in petroglyphs that he called “Stone Poems,” and the chaos and devastation of the California Gold Rush are only some of the overarching themes that Fonseca explored.
Harry Fonseca: An Artist’s Journey, follows some of the paths this talented artist traveled and some of the transformations in his art.
Fonseca was born and raised in Sacramento, CA, where his family had lived for four generations. He is best known for his depiction of the Coyote character, a powerful trickster in the lore of many Native cultures. However, Fonseca’s first encounters with Coyote grew out of his study of his Maidu cultural heritage in the early 1970s. Fonseca spoke about his cultural education during a 1991 symposium organized by Margaret Archuleta, then curator of fine art at the Heard, in conjunction with the Shared Visions exhibit she developed with scholar Rennard Strickland.
Fonseca said, “I’m known basically for my coyote work; however, the work that preceded that was all traditionally based, and dealt with dancers, mainly, and ceremony. I became initiated as a dancer. I participated in the ceremonies, and it became such a tremendous part of my life. And the older I get, the more important I see that experience.” It was in these ceremonies that he first experienced the coyote figure in dance.
Fonseca also noted how he was introduced to his Maidu heritage at age 25 by his uncle Henry Azbill, a Konkow Maidu: “I was taking a class on Native American art that was being taught by Frank LaPeña at California State University in Sacramento. And for my final, I asked my uncle if he knew a creation story, and if he would give me the story, and he did, and it was a tremendous, tremendous gift.” This opened the door to Fonseca to examine his heritage as a Native American. Fonseca talked to other elders and was given a grant by the California Arts Council to depict the Maidu creation story, which he did over the course of two years.
Discussing Coyote’s role in traditional Maidu culture, Archuleta wrote in 1986 about the breadth of the Coyote figure as one responsible for “the existence of work, suffering and death.” More than a trickster, he assumes many disguises and teaches by his unacceptable behavior how one should not behave. In many stories, Coyote’s greed and impulsive behavior lead to grave injuries or even death, but then he returns in another adventure. Archuleta has pointed to that adaptable survivor aspect as a feature that attracted Fonseca to the subject.
Over the years, beginning in the mid-1970s, Fonseca depicted Coyote in many non-traditional settings, reflecting his ability to insert himself into many urban roles in a variety of cultures. He created a girl friend named Rose for Coyote, and together the two had many adventures. Coyote became quite popular and intimately associated with the Santa Fe scene.
Fonseca could have spent the rest of his career painting the adventures of Coyote, but as an artist who wanted to grow and transform, he moved on. When Fonseca posthumously received a lifetime achievement award in 2007 from the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts, his friend, artist Bob Haozous, said, “Harry should be an inspiration to us all. He took a lucrative career, found it unsatisfying, and went on to something less marketable.”
In the mid-1980s, Fonseca moved from New Mexico back to California, where he transformed his career again. After a brief stay in Santa Barbara, he returned home to Sacramento. In the 1970s, he had worked briefly with images inspired by California petroglyphs. During the mid-1980s, he returned to this theme; however, this time he used large unstretched canvases, working with four or five at a time. Fonseca said that he used the petroglyphs as a departure point for what he termed self-exploration. In discussing an exhibit at the American Indian Community House in New York City in 1991, he commented, “When I was looking at the petroglyphs, I was impressed with the space around them. There were no boundaries. There’s a real freedom to them.”
Fonseca’s petroglyph images spilled off the canvas and onto sculptural work in some pieces whose basis was packing crates. In his 1991 presentation for the Heard symposium, he discussed the return of his paintings from the traveling exhibit Coyote: A Myth in the Making that Margaret Archuleta curated:
“When they brought the crates back into my studio, the only thing that was in my studio were these canvases on the wall. And so they brought these crates in, and they were just so wonderful. They had a sculptural quality about them, and I just was mesmerized by them, and I would walk around them. It sort of reminded me of a coyote sniffing something just kind of, you know. And I wondered how a painting would look on this. And so when I painted it white, it really had a presence and expanded a little bit. And so, I felt at that time that if I approached the box with the painting, that it would work.”
In the early 1990s, Fonseca spent time painting along the American River near the site of the discovery of gold in California. Fonseca saw that period along with the Spanish missionization of the California Indians as major cultural tragedies, with incredible devastation that native people had managed to survive. Fonseca’s abstract landscapes of the Gold Rush convey turbulence and chaos, and his work played a role in convincing California authorities to transform the planned gala celebration of the 150th anniversary to a more subdued commemoration of the event.
Fonseca’s work underwent another transformation when he delved into design in traditional art from other cultures, such as Navajo blankets, which he depicted with a rapidly painted process that art historian Aleta Ringlero has referred to as action drip technique, which emphasizes the artist’s gestures. Fonseca said the idea of this was to keep the dignity of the design while making a contemporary statement.
Fonseca moved on yet again to explore several other themes and continued to break new ground throughout the remainder of his life; some of these included exploring the Icarus myth; St. Francis of Assisi, whose Franciscan order was instrumental in founding the mission system; and his “Seasons” series. In 2005, he received an Eiteljorg Fellowship for Native American Fine Art. Until the end of his life, he continued to transform his art and inspire all who knew him with his courage and intellect.
The Heard is fortunate to have in its collection a number of paintings and drawings that represent figures and events in the Maidu creation story and an ink and colored pencil depiction of the entire story. The Heard Museum’s Billie Jane Baguley Library and Archives is also the repository for Fonseca’s artist papers.