We recently got to create acrylic display cases for three hand carved katsina dolls, which are representations of Hopi spirit messengers. This unique collection looks stunning in their new displays and will be preserved from dust and breakage for years and years to come!
Curious? Here’s a little bit about Katsina dolls from the Heard Museum in Phoenix:
Traditionally, katsina dolls are used as teaching tools. They are the carved representations of the Katsinam, the spirit messengers of the universe. The Katsinam come to Hopi in the form of clouds, which bear life-giving rain. The Katsinam appear in physical form in Hopi villages between the winter solstice and the beginning of the monsoon season in July. Different Katsinam represent different aspects of life; for example, the Soyoko Katsinam help teach children proper behavior. Misbehaving children are threatened with being given to the Soyoko, a threat that most often instills a great desire on the part of the child to correct his or her behavior!
The dolls are given to Hopi girls, beginning in infancy, to help them learn about their responsibilities as women in the community. The dolls are carved by initiated Hopi men using cottonwood roots; in earlier days, all katsina dolls were colored with natural dyes, which made them non-toxic for a teething baby to handle. The dolls created for the open market, however, sport modern dyes and paints.
While both the deeper meaning of a katsina doll and the material from which is carved – the root of the cottonwood tree – is unchanged through the centuries, carvers have transformed the outward representation of a katsina doll over time. Over the years, as more non-Hopi collectors became enamored with katsina dolls, and as power tools like Dremel rotary tools became available, Hopi katsina doll carvers also became more creative. The formerly flat doll carvings are now full-figured, with lifelike movement, brighter colors and elaborate regalia. Some contemporary carvers make the cottonwood root from which the dolls are carved seem to move as if it is the drape of a robe or a rain sash.
At present time, there are roughly three approaches artists take to creating a figure. One approach is realism and action, representing a figure as it would look and move in ceremony. This approach has been greatly aided by the tools and materials developed since the 1970s. Another approach, begun in the mid-1980s, is to represent the Katsinam as carvers did in the early 1900s but with the contemporary carver’s individual style. The third approach is to carve not an actual katsina doll but a sculptural figure representing that represents the Katsina and may tell a story.
Even though katsina dolls created for the public have evolved into more of an artform, the ancient spirituality of the katsina religion still endures and is nurtured in Hopi communities. The ardor of collectors for the dolls that have been used to teach proper behavior and what it means to be a Hopi for millennia also endures.