By Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer (Choctaw Nation), Artist in Business Leadership Fellow 2015
It was a down-home, rez style gathering. That was how First Peoples Fund trainer and board of director, Ron Martinez Looking Elk (Isleta / Taos Pueblos) described the recent Community Spirit Award honoring for Cliff Fragua (Jemez Pueblo). Held in the New Mexico Jemez Pueblo community, the gathering recognized Cliff’s service, life, and art.
A talented and well-respected artist, Cliff received a 2017 Jennifer Easton Community Spirit Award (CSA). This is First Peoples Fund’s longest running program and includes a cash award for artists to continue their good work in their communities. We held a special event in Cliff’s community to honor not only his art but his leadership and spirit of generosity he expresses to all.
“Artists appreciate that they can come to my studio for help, advice, or learn tips,” Cliff said. “My door is always open.”
Over the past 40 years, Cliff has demonstrated his dedication to helping Native artists whether through his award-winning art, committee and volunteer work, or teaching. In 1990, he was instrumental in founding the Towa Arts and Crafts Committee which evolved into the Jemez Arts and Crafts Association. Cliff saw the need for such an organization early on to help local Jemez Pueblo artists. The association facilitated venues and shows for artists to sell their work, creating an art economy so they could provide for their families. Now Cliff helps other Indigenous communities set up their own associations.
This year, with funds from his CSA, Cliff is building a series of mosaics and developing a lamination process with stone. He updated his equipment and acquired new tools to help him create with this technique.
“My ancestors did stone overlay and stone lamination in their jewelry,” Cliff said. “It still continues among some of the artists in the region. I want to take that technique and form to another level, to apply it to my stone sculptures. It produces a dramatic effect and allows me to combine the colors of the stone and to create scenarios or visual enhancement with the use of different colored stones and shapes when I apply stone on stone.”
Cliff presented several of his art pieces at the CSA honoring, a representation of his impressive body of work and accomplishments within his community.
“He did it,” Ron said about Cliff’s honoring. “He maintained that artist’s life and came out the other end as a master artist.”
But the special honoring for Cliff in his community nearly didn’t happen. He came down with a temporary health condition shortly before the event. But he knew how much effort everyone had put in, and he wanted to move forward.
“There were quite a few artists in the room that Cliff had mentored,” Ron said. “They spoke about what a tremendous gift Cliff is and how much his creativity and inspiration drove them to become the artists that they are.”
When those artists spoke, words intertwined with emotion. Several of the men teared up.
“That’s how much impact he’s had on different artists within the community and how he gives selflessly,” Ron added. “I don’t think people realize the effect artists like Cliff have. When we played the video about his work, it showed what a huge impact Cliff has had on the community. It was beautiful.”
Surrounded by family and friends at the gathering, what surprised Cliff most was the emotion.
“Among us, we’re all good friends, and we joke around, have a good time,” Cliff said. “But at that moment when it got emotional, I wondered, ‘has my friendship really influenced their lives so much as artists?’ It touched me.”
A member of First Peoples Fund’s staff read from Cliff’s original CSA application about what his community means to him, of why it’s important to represent them, and his gifts to the community.
Cliff followed that with speaking about the economic disparities of living on a reservation and the challenges of having access to employment. His life shows what it truly means to be self-employed as an artist.
“That’s his gift he can give,” Ron said. “His knowledge and ability to sustain an artist’s lifestyle and show the community that it’s relevant and a part of the cultural sustainability of the community. He talked about hardships, but really how that defines who the people of Jemez are. He was so proud to represent them and be a part of the community.”
These are the kinds of artists we honor through the Community Spirit Award. We recognize the work of culture bearers who uphold the Collective Spirit®. These artists live the traditional values of First Peoples Fund — generosity, wisdom, respect, integrity, strength, fortitude and humility. Cliff humbly embodies these values, and acknowledged First Peoples Fund’s partnership and influence in his community.
“I try to express to others that when somebody helps you, that person is a part of the progression of your culture,” Cliff said. “When you help others and they take that help and use it, it moves the community up another level. I felt that with First Peoples Fund and what they are doing for the artists. It’s everybody helping each other. Whatever help you receive, you in return give to others.”
At the honoring, Cliff’s final surprise was the star quilt presented to him by First Peoples Fund. Embroidered with his name, it flared with several color combinations unique to the Southwest. The act of honoring someone with a star quilt goes back to the buffalo robe traditions of the Lakota people.
His family surrounded Cliff during the honor song played by the Grammy award-winning Black Eagle Singers drum group.
“I think this (CSA) recognition is quite an honor,” Cliff said. “To recognize those in the different communities and to encourage artists who have love for their work, their art, their culture; that’s honorable for an organization to do.”