4/1/2013 1:08:00 PM Hopi Obsession: The Return of Sally Hall
By Louise MacDonald Special to Kudos
The vast expanse of Western sky -- unendingly blue, unendingly clear. That's what Sally Hall sees; it's what brought her back to these wide open spaces.
The sky and a childhood fascination with the Hopi culture, the Hopi kachina doll and all that it stands for is what she has missed all the many years that she has lived in other places.
Now Sally Hall has returned to the area she has always felt connected with. For, during many summers at the Grand Canyon with her father from the age of nine this land became ingrained in her imagination, her spirit and her soul.
Sally Hall's oil paintings resembles those of no other Western artist. She hones in on the face of a Hopi kachina doll, or the designs on a Hopi plate, magnifying them to the nth degree. Always in the background we find the soaring blue sky. Sometimes there's a wisp of cloud. In these paintings landscape barely plays a role.
Hall's work is starkly realistic but pervaded by the spirituality of Native American culture. Her most evolved work today is "The Magnificent Seven" in which seven Hopi dolls face us frontally with their hard black slits of eyes riveted on us.
There is nothing ethereal about these dolls. Sharply delineated, their facial markings clearly etched, they face you head-on demanding -- requiring -- your full attention. In a turn-about, the largest is the Hummingbird. He bears the intent look of one who seeks sustenance for eternal flight. He looks ready to put you out of business. Do the Hopi see him as physically larger than other birds because of his heroic, endless flight?
He is the sign of springtime and the flourishing of crops. "Because of his determined nature, he is also the warrior," say the Hopi. The smallest kachina figure in "The Magnificent Seven" is the black-faced Aholi, who has the greatest responsibility: confirming the life plan for the coming year.
Another kachina painting presents the huge head of "Mother Crow," butting into the side of the painting. No ambivalence here. She's strong. Her stare demands to know who you are. Do you have permission to be here? She is in charge of health and discipline of the tribe. From her head, feathers strike out forcefully in all directions.
The dominant element in Hall's work is a stark, fierce reality; as in the dicta of the Hopi, all is emphatically defined. There is something childlike about this approach to art. A child's bright-eyed perception that what she sees is what we're getting. Starkly printed on the retina, never forgotten. But this realism brings with it love, admiration and a longing for understanding of a culture very different from our own. It's not the sharply delineated technique, although the technique is very fine, that fascinates us and defines Hall's work. It is the power of Hall's vision, surprising, shocking, uncompromising, that comes to us through the tilt of a head, the angle of a feather.
The Hopi believe that all things exist in both visible and spirit forms. Kachinas represent the spirit form, acting as messengers between the Hopi people and the gods. The Hopis'
very way of life is dependent upon the kachinas which are regarded with great reverence. Highly respected today as an art form, kachinas can be found in major museums throughout the southwest. I found myself fascinated by two of them in the Baltimore Museum of Art years ago.
When Sally was a young child, the imagery that fills her canvases today came to her right out of the ground on the North rim of the Grand Canyon. At age nine she served as "assistant" to her father, Joseph Hall, professor of biology, in his research on the Kaibab squirrel. His work led to lengthy expeditions in search of the "beautiful, white-tailed, fortunately or unfortunately, very shy animal," as she refers to it.
The child was fascinated by remnants of the "Ancients," tribes who had inhabited the area for hundreds of years. It might be a broken pot found along a trail, near the family tent or on some far-flung trail or fire road along the Walhalla Plateau. These distant people and the mystery of their lives were profoundly embedded in her childhood experience.
For Sally Hall today the black lines and stark patterns that decorate these ceramic antiques serve as maps charting the manner in which those ancients looked at their world. Frequently the artist will take a fraction of a black-and-white pattern, a mere portion of a plate of the Mimbres people, to create a striking painting. One such painting won a prize in Bern, Switzerland in 2005. In some of these painting cracks and jagged holes appear through which one glimpses the landscape of her youth. In one such painting the brittle bowl has shattered in the air, reflecting psychological tensions in the her life, the artist says.
Sally Hall has shown her paintings to Hopi elders who gave their approval and bought a few prints. They refused, however, to allow her paintings to be shown at the Grand Canyon; the area is "too sacred, too close" to spiritual sources for such a display.
This artist has discovered subject matter that has captured her heart and her imagination, honed her talents, prodded her to create fine art. Where is she going from here? In the future she will find it expedient to expand her horizon and delve into new subject matter, find new challenges, explore and develop new styles, as she continues her career in oil painting. She is a capable painter with a promising future. Fortunate we are in Sedona that Sally Hall, well-known and appreciated elsewhere, has come to us to further her career in art.
The artist completed undergraduate studies in California, Utah and Washington, followed by an MFA at Washington State University. She has lived in several major U.S. cities, including Boston where she raised her two sons. Recently she became a research associate at the Peabody Museum at Harvard to further her knowledge of Mimbres pottery.
Sally Hall's vision of the depth and grandeur of ancient cultures jars and fascinates us today, even as that little girl became riveted to her findings in the Grand Canyon long ago.
The artist's website is: Sallyhallpainting.com
Louise Sheldon MacDonald is a free-lance writer living in Sedona. She has been an art reviewer in Washington, D.C and Baltimore, MD for over 20 years.