The Highlight of the Month program at The Indian Craft Shop focuses on a particular craft area, region or artist family/group. Our aim is to illustrate the diversity of tribal groups and the wide variety of artistic expressions and traditions in the country today.
Derrick Kaamasee has made a name for himself in fetish carving by creating highly detailed and imaginative depictions of a wide variety of subjects. Originally carved as a part of the Zuni religion, fetishes are small carvings that are still used ceremonially by many Zuni people today. As with many forms of religious art, interest in fetish carvings spurred the development of this secular art form which has evolved into a distinctive tradition.
Derrick started carving fetishes as a teenager, working with his uncle. "My first fetish, carved out of green snail shell, was a fish jumping out of the water," says Derrick. "It took a while before I became used to the materials and they began to speak to me." Derrick continues to let the materials speak to him, allowing the shape of the bone, shell or stone determine the carving. He works in fossil walrus ivory, flourite, ricolite and serpentine, but amber, picasso marble, pipestone and antler are his favorite mediums.
"I've always liked trying something different," says Derrick. He has gone beyond the relatively small group of animals carved for ceremonial uses to produce an unusual array of animals and mythical figures. On his worktable, a seahorse, octopus, housecat or chimpanzee might sit next to hummingbirds, badgers, eagles, owls and bats.
His figures are also diverse, standing from 1 1/2" to 12" high. He draws from his culture to create traditional Native dancers -- eagle dancers, buffalo dancers and rain dancers. He also draws on his imagination and love of books to create mythical creatures and figures -- Merlin the Sorcerer, dragons and gargoyles.
Today, Derrick works out of his home studio in Zuni. Working with a dremel -- a high-speed rotary tool with a diamond bit -- somewhat like a dentist’s drill, Derrick captivates visitors as he coaxes the forms of owls, bobcats, and eagles out of pieces of deer antler, stone or shell. He looks at the untouched material for a few minutes, turning it over in his hands and in his head, developing a mental image of the finished piece. Then, with not so much as a pencil mark, he starts grinding away material to form the rough shape of the animal. When the shape of the animal is complete, he lightens his “touch” with the tool, and subtle details such as feathers or the texture of fur begin to emerge. The final step is to inlay the eyes of the figure with small pieces of turquoise.
"Each carving is unique. I may carve the same figure again, but it is always different. I can't make the same thing again, even if I try," says Derrick. He likes to capture the moment with his figures, happy when the animal looks ready to jump or run.
"I hope that people get a good feeling when they see my carvings," says Derrick. "Each one has its own energy. It's often hard for me to let them go. I just hope that people who buy them will cherish them."
©The Indian Craft Shop 2003