Visual Arts

Retha Walden Gambaro's Sculpture Work Is Worth Facing the Elements on the Heard Museum's Patio

On a recent 100-degree afternoon — sun blazing overhead — a Heard Museum guide hurried a tour group onto a newly renovated patio. The space that once housed a garden of native plants as part of the museum's permanent "HOME: Native People in the Southwest" exhibit is now the Nichols Sculpture Garden. These pink-skinned, Bermuda-shorted tourists (far from being native people of the Southwest) took in two or three of the patio's offerings at their guide's suggestion before retreating into the museum's dark, cool innards.

The garden portion of their tour lasted all of two minutes, and I was, frankly, glad when they and their chatter left me alone with the sculptures. The museum opens at 9:30 six mornings a week (11 a.m. on Sundays), so maybe the garden's best visited then, saving the cool galleries for later in the day. But one could totally tough it out with sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat. Sculpture and the elements are meant to coexist, right?

That brisk guide had made a point to walk the group over to a particular piece, Retha Walden Gambaro's Acceptance. All the works in this new exhibit, "Attitudes of Prayer: A Universal Expression of Human Emotion," are bronzes by Gambaro, a Creek Indian with childhood ties to the Southwest who began her career as a sculptor at age 52.

Gambaro considers the "daily observation of spirituality in art forms" during her childhood here and in Oklahoma to be her greatest education, one that took place when Arizona's statehood was, itself, in its infancy. Gambaro was born in 1917 (doctor arriving by horseback) in a one-room cabin in Oklahoma, where Creek Indians had been "resettled" from the southeastern United States in the late 19th century.

What the guide was pointing out to her followers that afternoon, from her own perspective as a member of the 60-plus tribe, is that Gambaro sculpted this bronze at age 80. The implication is that we should be as impressed as we are when an old person like Jack LaLanne (RIP) crunches his abs or Phyllis Diller belts it on Broadway into his or her 90s. Gambaro sculpted all the lost-wax bronzes in this exhibit in her 70s and 80s. We might be careful, however, neither to trivialize nor revere work based solely on the artist's age.

What's perhaps more impressive — beyond mere intention turned execution — is that in a world of leaked radiation, economic ruin, and fatal E. coli, an artist of any age succeeds in creating a sincere celebration of life.

Don't be so quick to cue the Carlos Nakai. Gambaro's work isn't a cutesy look what Grandma can do, but it isn't dream-catcher new age-ism, either.

Sure, the Heard Museum cultivates a careful aesthetic. And Gambaro's work certainly fits the Spanish Colonial architecture and the carefully placed succulents and palo verde trees that we associate with the museum's genteel mojo. Her work is tasteful, introspective, contemplative. It almost seems private and whispered, like prayer itself.

If you ever ground corn kernels on a metate while on a fourth-grade field trip to the museum, Gambaro's Harvest (1997) will feel especially familiar to you in this setting. The round figure of a woman sits, uh, cross-legged holding a basket of offerings — foods that, as the plaque notes, "existed solely on this continent until approximately 1492," among them tomatillo, potato, corn, prickly pear, and jalapeño. Gambaro's applied a different patina to the basket and the foodstuffs, which enhances their many textures and contrasts with the smooth, strong bronze of the figure.

If any of the sculptures are sensual in an expected, even staid, way, Harvest is. But the others are more bold and sensual in both physical and spiritual ways. Gambaro's paid close attention the female form, always draped in long, flowing garments that suggest movement, even momentum.

At the south end of the garden is a semicircular brick structure meant to showcase a single sculpture; in this exhibit, it's Gambaro's Gratitude (1996). Countenance upturned, head shrouded, she faces a magnificent palo verde at the end of its blooming cycle. The figure holds her hands in perfect Bikram pranyama posture, her elbows sharp angles against the structure that encircles her with strong, broad shoulders, breasts, definition of a feminine waist, and square-ish buttocks as subtext for the human-ness of the emotion Gambaro feels and reminds us to.

Under that tree, toward which Gratitude gazes, sits Acceptance, Gambaro's self-portrait. A female figure is seated, knees together and hunched over in study of what it cups in both hands, a fallen leaf. Her skirts are gathered at her feet and a long ponytail falls loosely over her right shoulder. Where the shoulders of the figure in Gratitude are Olympic-swimmer strong, this figure's shoulders are more vulnerable, frail.

The mound-like Family (1997) is one of only two works that feature more than one figure, and the only work with a clearly narrow-hipped male figure. Four huddle in a symmetrical embrace, mother and father enclosing two small children, all heads bowed toward each other. The prayer here may not be offered to some higher power or mother Earth, but to each other's existence, to bonds that Gambaro terms "wondrous."

This bond is also present in First Prayer (1996), a Madonna and child in which a mother cradles a toddler. The sculpture is low to the ground, and you must scrunch up under it to see the mother's expression from the child's perspective, something you likely haven't done in a very long time. The expressions on Gambaro's faces are fantastic, many with closed eyes and mouths, somehow both knowing and expectant.

Lost-wax bronze sculpture is intensely physical and arduous work — for an artist of any age. The complicated multi-step process may be lost on some viewers who see Gambaro's shapes as almost boulder-like in their simplicity. The ideas that her works convey, though, are not so simple. But it is just flat-out nice to think about the "gentle nature of the human spirit," as well as qualities like courage and connectedness.

Gambaro, whose work has been displayed prestigiously in the likes of the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History and the Kennedy Center, seems to have learned to express something spiritually universal just as she prepares for that most physically universal of equalizers.

Don't rush through an exhibit that's meant to evoke contemplation and meditation, even if a guide is trying to usher you out of the scorch zone. A winter visit for the faint of summer-heat heart can be in the cards, because Retha Walden Gambaro's bronzes will cook under our Arizona sun for more than a year. The exhibit may, sadly, even outlast the artist herself. Gambaro took her time, and so should we.

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Tricia Parker
Contact: Tricia Parker