‘Discomfort Can Create an Incredible Environment for Investigation’: Watch Artist Rose B. Simpson Create Totemic Figures Rooted in Her Ancestral Past

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the "Art in the Twenty-First Century" Season 11 episode, "Everyday Icons," 2023. © Art21, Inc. 2023.

In the expansive landscape of Santa Clara Pueblo, in New Mexico, the artist Rose B. Simpson creates sculptures inspired by her ancestors that bear witness to the land and the people who traverse it. Simpson can trace her own lineage in Santa Clara Pueblo back millennia, and both her mother and great-grandmother were artists and ceramicists who used the materials of the earth in their work.

In an exclusive interview filmed as part of the new season of Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century, Simpson describes her practice and how it has evolved to bridge both her ancestral past and contemporary perspective.

Production still from the "Art in the Twenty-First Century" Season 11 episode, "Everyday Icons," 2023. © Art21, Inc. 2023.

Production still from the “Art in the Twenty-First Century” Season 11 episode, “Everyday Icons,” 2023. © Art21, Inc. 2023.

Simpson puts different kinds of clay together to create a specific aesthetic, but also to invoke the notion that “we’re all made up of many different things, and we’re trying to understand ourselves and be compassionate, and graceful, and accepting of those many things.” This is a personal quest for the multicultural artist, who is “always navigating one foot in two worlds,” and creating art that does the same. Utilizing a method she calls “slap-slab” the artist hand-forms the sculptures, which are then marked by her own fingerprints, leaving a document of creation.

“There’s something so important about witnessing” the artist explains, “Anything is a witness, even inanimate things—or [what] we consider inanimate things.” 

Simpson’s sculptures are constantly evolving, as in her series of “Transformances,” performances using cars emblazoned with traditional pottery designed and based on the lowrider culture of Española, which are driven down the street alongside performers wearing what she called “post-apocalyptic Indigenous regalia.”

“I realized that what empowerment is looking like for me is changing, and it actually is changing from this genderqueer, more-masculine space to actually accepting the feminine and understanding that I can stand in my femininity and still feel that power” she explains. 

“There is no separation between art and life” Simpson says, “When you can’t ever be comfortable in one place, the discomfort can create an incredible environment for investigation. You have to kind of fall back and close your eyes and hope that where you land is exactly the place you need to go.”


Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s series Art in the Twenty-First Century, below. 

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of news-making artists. A new season of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series, like New York Close Up and Extended Play, and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.


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