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Christine Nofchissey McHorse, Navajo ceramist, dies at 72
Christine Nofchissey McHorse, Spleen, 2016, micaceous clay, 22 ½ x 14 ½ inches. © Estate of Christine Nofchissey McHorse, courtesy of Clark + Del Vecchio and Gerald Peters Contemporary.

by Penelope Green

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Christine Nofchissey McHorse was 50, and a celebrated Native American potter, when she stopped producing the traditional painted vessels collectors loved. She instead began making rich, black unadorned sculptural forms, mysterious and sensual pieces that owed more to Constantin Brancusi than any Native American vernacular.

Inspired by the photographs of Edward Weston and the buildings of Antoni Gaudí, along with her own internal vision, she tacked away from the artisanal toward fine art (though the line between the two can be unclear), “dropping the ethnic for the universal,” her gallerist, Garth Clark, said, confounding her existing collectors and drawing in new ones. She had more than mastered the traditional work, and chafed at its restrictions.

She used micaceous clay, an incredibly strong, tensile material flecked with mica, which once fired accrues a shimmering, ebonized finish. In McHorse’s hands it became sculpture, akin to bronze.

McHorse died Feb. 17 at a hospital in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She was 72. The cause was complications of COVID-19; she had cancer as well, her husband, Joel McHorse, said.

For decades, McHorse sold pottery at the Santa Fe Indian Market, where the work of Native American makers draws collectors from all over the world.

“Back in the day,” Joel McHorse, a design-build contractor, said, “we were carrying the pots while they were still warm to sell, to pay the electric bill.”

Christine McHorse’s work at the time followed the Pueblo tradition of decorated pots. She was Diné, the traditional name of the Navajo people. Historically nomadic, the Diné were better known for jewelry, basketry and textiles. But Joel McHorse is half-Pueblo and his grandmother, Lena Archuleta, a skilled artisan, taught Christine McHorse how to work and adorn the clay according to her traditions.

McHorse earned multiple awards for her work, which is in the public collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, among other institutions.

She worked slowly and precisely, building a piece from a single coil of clay. “There’s a period where I gain as much of the craft as I can, and then I start exploring structure — how far I can push the shape or how much extension I can get without losing the strength of the clay,” she once told an interviewer.

Christine Carol Nofchissey was born Dec. 21, 1948, in Morenci, Arizona, a copper mining town, one of nine children. Her father, Mark Nofchissey, worked as a bulldozer operator at the mine there. Her mother, Ethel (Yazzie) Nofchissey, was a homemaker.

“If you don’t have anything to play with, make it,” Mark Nofchissey told his children. Encouraged by her sisters, Christine went to boarding school, the prestigious Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. (Founded in 1962 as a high school and postgraduate program by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, it has evolved into a college for Native American arts and culture.)

She was recruited on a tennis scholarship by the College of Santa Fe, and went for a year.

“She was proficient at pretty much everything,” her husband said, adding that the couple played an unbeatable game of pickup basketball in their youth. “But she didn’t see any reason to stay longer.”

In addition to her husband, McHorse is survived by their sons, Joel Christopher and Jonathan, two grandchildren, and seven siblings.

In her later years, she felt a sense of freedom in creating her singular work.

“I’m no longer subject to anything,” the potter told an interviewer in 2017. “I do my work. If it pleases me, I’ll put it out there. If it doesn’t please anyone, that’s fine, too.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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