In 1999, at the age of 53, Felice Lucero went home to San Felipe Pueblo, known within the community as Katishtya, after moving between Albuquerque and Washington, D.C., for most of her life as an artist. There, she was immersed again in the landscape that had long informed her drawings and paintings, and could converse once more in her native Katishtyame, a dialect of the Keres language spoken among some Pueblo peoples in New Mexico. During Lucero’s 40-year career, her art, activism, and advocacy have taken many forms, from visual records of her people’s stories to designs for early-childhood courses taught in Katishtyame; she has also worked in agriculture and become a language preservationist. Though these activities appear to divide neatly into separate professions, all are shaped by Lucero’s dedication to her Puebloan tongue and terrain, her deeply felt sense of place.
After a childhood in San Felipe Pueblo, Lucero lived as an adolescent in Santa Fe, primarily at a Catholic boarding school, and studied briefly at the Institute of American Indian Arts during high school. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque in 1979, and stayed in Albuquerque to participate in the local arts community, where many artists, such as Emmi Whitehorse (Navajo) and Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (Salish/Kootenai), had ties to the university. Lucero attended meetings of the Grey Canyon Artists collective, founded by Smith in 1977 to unite and create exhibition opportunities for a new generation of artists who viewed their respective Native cultural traditions through the lens of contemporary art. Lucero’s participation was limited, and mostly consisted of conversing informally with core members like Larry Emerson (Diné) rather than contributing work to exhibitions.
“Grey Canyon” refers to the concrete environs of Albuquerque, nestled along the Rio Grande between the Sandia-Manzano Mountains and the West Mesa. Lucero recalls that the city’s abandoned storefronts also provided abundant space for artists to show their work, particularly through the organizing efforts of Albuquerque United Artists, of which she was a member, working to connect artists with resources and sustain their community. By the mid-1980s, regional institutions like the Albuquerque Museum and the Heard Museum held her work, having committed to collecting contemporary art by Indigenous artists in the Southwest long before other parts of the American art scene took notice.
Santa Fe and Albuquerque may have given Lucero opportunities to collaborate and show with other artists, but they were never the focus of her drawings and paintings. That was reserved for Katishtya and the area around it. The deep enmeshing of land and language that permeates Lucero’s work is not only conceptual but also technical; her compositions often orient to Katishtya by marking cardinal directions and diagramming the pueblo’s built and natural features. They include excerpts of lore and memories that follow geometric lines and continue into corners, weaving her story into the landscapes she depicts. Her work mediates between two spheres of knowledge—that expressed in written English and that implicit in her images of Katishtya—inviting viewers to consider what it’s like to navigate these overlapping worldviews.
Lucero explores this duality in her “Boarding School” series (1979–81), made while she lived in Albuquerque. These drawings reflect her childhood experience in the San Felipe Day School, which the United States government built and operated on Pueblo lands. Lucero did not encounter English until she was enrolled in the compulsory education system. For Gov’t Property (1981), she adopted a diagrammatic language of lines, geometric shapes, script, and stenciled letters to visually narrate the geographic relationship between San Felipe Pueblo and the school buildings. The most prominent shapes are nested rectangles, the innermost of which is an American flag. Small triangles skirt the middle of the drawing, while other angled forms coalesce into a mountain range in the bottom left. Cursive script in the top left offers personal reflections and flashes of memory. I REMEMBER A FRIEND WHO LIVED IN THIS DIRECTION, reads one fragment, which continues further toward the edge of the sheet with AND HER NAME WAS.
Notations dot the entire surface of this work. Small stenciled letters that identify landscape features and community landmarks crescendo into the blatant stenciling of gov t prop-erty in black across broad earth tones and a portion of the flag. The forms and their arrangement are legible to community members but can appear abstract to those outside it. Curator Barbara Loeb explains some of the configurations in her essay for the 1991 exhibition “Felice Lucero-Giaccardo: A Contemporary Pueblo Painter” at the University Art Museum at Arizona State University (Lucero signed much of her work during this era under her then married name). The square and two circles—frequent Lucero motifs—correspond to the pueblo’s plaza and a pair of semiunderground chambers known as kivas, which the Pumpkin and Turquoise clans use to perform rites. Though the plaza and kivas are central to community life, here, the large center-left rectangle, lined with small x’s, instead takes up the most space. This is a depiction of the school grounds, with barbed wire surrounding the campus—a design used to keep out cattle in other reservations, and replicated in San Felipe Pueblo despite the fact that livestock are not abundant there. Three triangles that evoke pitched roofs designate the school’s main buildings. Even without firsthand knowledge of the pueblo, viewers can sense the stark differences in how the community related to these two realms, given the school’s imposing scale and prominent barricade. Lucero’s strategic placement of text, recording snatches of thought, suggests that a relationship to a place does not form through imposed labels but through experiences that link one’s own story to the land.
Another drawing from the “Boarding School” series that employs those symbols of Katishtya’s plaza and kivas also incorporates landscape features like blended pastel bands of black, purple, and blue, representing the nearby Black Mesa; elongated peaks that indicate the Sandia Mountains; and gently curved lines with an expanse of blue to suggest the Rio Grande. This time, the conventions of mapping are upended, as the barbed wire wraps dimensionally around the school acreage in a way that suggests both aerial and lateral views of the Pueblo. This collision of two planar fields presents the demarcated square of institutional architecture, drained of color, as a destabilizing presence. Additionally, Lucero includes solid and dashed lines to indicate paths perhaps walked by the artist or by figures in the fragments of inherited stories she inscribes across her sheets. Maybe because they represent not just physical journeys but also passages through time and memory, the tracks wind through landscapes, across mountains, and into thin air, yet simultaneously anchor the artworks’ structure.
Looking at a Lucero composition, one is prompted to decipher how its many layers of marks form a meditation on belonging to a community, a state, or a country—whether by birth, choice, or external force. If Katishtya is Lucero’s guiding point, it does not limit the complicated histories she weaves in her work. For example, Homage to North and Homage to South, both acrylic paintings from 1983, are as much about the territorial domination of the Southwest as they are about an Indigenous homeland whose past transcends the current boundary between the United States and Mexico. These companion pictures share, as collaged material, parts of a single postcard emblazoned juarez, the name of a town just over the border from Texas and New Mexico in, according to the printed text, “old Mexico.” Lucero sliced off the card’s J and incorporated it into North, leaving the rest of the word in South. The reference to the city locates both compositions geographically, while Lucero’s decision to split the card into pieces signals the arbitrariness of such territories and naming systems when mapping a landscape. To that end, there are no discrete shapes in the paintings: grids, triangles, rectangles, straight, and wavy lines all overlap without regard to boundaries.
That story expands into a larger tale of settler colonialism—and resistance to it—as Lucero layers other partial narratives in scribbles and scripts that blend together, sometimes making writing and drawing indistinguishable. In the central triangle of North, she carefully writes, YOUR DAUGHTER WAITS / VISIT / PLEASE COME in black cursive atop a series of softer blue marks that look like handwriting but do not resolve into legible words. The text in South is less intimate: AND THEY CAME FROM THE SOUTH—A WHOLE ARMY IN ARMOR / LATER THEY BROUGHT THE BULLS… These brief passages operate differently. The second refers to conquest, foreshadowing what would happen to the land and how the people who already lived on it would respond. It also alludes, perhaps, to all that barbed wire elsewhere in Lucero’s work. The other line, by contrast, is inscrutable but seemingly familiar, capturing a sense of yearning for someone, a desire for reunion.
In forming larger wholes and bigger pictures with these fragmented stories, Lucero seems to ask what it means for a person to be formed through such experiences, to have to grapple with assimilating Indigenous perspectives and Western rubrics. Or, put another way, she asks how it feels to profoundly love a place onto which so many ideologies have been superimposed. All Lucero’s works hold histories that are sometimes in painful tension with the pleasures of being at home and in nature. In this sense, it’s clear why, after the “Homage” series, Lucero intensified her use of collage: the technique mirrors the complexity of subject formation from disparate parts, and the influence of the past on the present—themes Lucero consistently investigates in her work.
LUCERO MOVED FROM ALBUQUERQUE TO Washington,D.C., in 1986. She had already been thinking about the work of Jasper Johns, having kept a poster with one of his light bulbs and stenciled lettering in a house she renovated. Johns incorporated words and actual objects such as brooms, forks, and cast body parts into his work as signifiers of art’s construction and a way of insisting that an artwork is an object whose meaning begins and ends on its surface, rather than pointing to ideas beyond it. Once in D.C., Lucero further developed the formal strategies of stenciled lettering and collaged elements, mostly paper, in her paintings, partly to add signification and largely to build up their topographical layers. Physical forms of written language also offer opportunities for transformation. In Portrait of School Children (1986), for example, Lucero attached a stencil template for part of a capital D and an entire E to the canvas and then joined the fragments to her own private iconography by linking them with a dotted line to curved symbols in white paint and graphite. Elsewhere in the composition, stenciled letters make up directionals; the Keresan name for river (CHEE NA); and phrases like ALTAR CLOTH and POSE FOR. The latter phrase loosely relates to imagery such as a xeroxed photograph of young students from the neighboring Santo Domingo Pueblo (Kewa) and a report card bearing Lucero’s name, over which she stenciled a large A+ on top of a grid of other grades, humorously reassessing herself on her own terms. The phrase altar cloth complements a human skull drawn on computer paper, alluding to the Catholic rituals and representations of death that Spanish missionaries imposed.
As with many of the signs in Lucero’s work, each word or image in this piece holds several meanings. The skull might suggest mortality, an association reinforced by the fact that it is collaged on a black field plotted with white crosses. But here too Lucero embeds personal memories within a longer history, recalling as a child having seen a skull resting on an altar covered with a black cloth on All Souls Day in a local church. In the composition, a piece of white fabric with a small red cross at its center floats above the skull and partially obscures the word ALTAR. This detail refers to another recollection involving her mother—in this instance, helping her iron the church’s liturgical cloths for mass. Lucero folds in yet another colonial institution, the tourist economy, through collaged postcards emblazoned with words like GREAT SOUTHWEST. While at least one of the cards appears vintage, Lucero also remembers sightseers at the Pueblo from her youth offering children coins to “pose for” snapshots. With these references, Lucero seems to process how one lives with symbols of violence against a culture in both conspicuous and mundane ways.
Portrait of School Children marks an important shift in Lucero’s work. Thousands of miles from home, she meditated on the generational changes in experiences of childhood in Katishtya from a remove, both in terms of time and geographic distance. Again using her cursive script for poetic reflections, after setting down an orange ground on a collaged piece of drawing paper attached to the canvas, she melds two memories when she narrates looking at a photograph with her father (not identified in the text). In her own handwriting, Lucero recounts his saying that the “young boy[s] wore clothes made from flour sack cloth… and they had decorations on it already,” describing an old practice of making children’s clothes from branded flour sacks to conform to government school dress codes. Lucero’s telling of this story conveys a certain ambivalence, characterizing her father’s expression when he looked at the image as a “remembering smile” but then layering the xeroxed photograph of mostly unsmiling children on one of the tourist postcards in the collage. The picture’s sense of melancholy pervades Lucero’s writing, nowhere more so than at the top of the canvas, which reads: WHAT THOUGHTS UTOPIA? DREAMS BORN OF OTHER MINDS BROUGHT TO MINDS THOUGHT TO BE DEVOID OF CIVIL THOUGHT. Utopia, derived from the ancient Greek words for “not” and “place,” describes one of the many ways that Katishtya appears in Lucero’s drawings and paintings, which protect and preserve an idea of Katishtya connected to the precolonial past but also balanced with experiences in the present.
While Lucero offers glimpses of quotidian scenes, historical tensions, and individual memories, she does not directly connect or complete all the painting’s stories, perhaps to illustrate the tricky nature of memories as things that surface from the deep recesses of the mind and are always culturally encoded. She reiterates that difficulty in the rectangular band of black scribbles at the top of Portrait of School Children, which, upon closer inspection, obscures more stenciled and handwritten print. The most visible portion of this text is, appropriately, a series of question marks at the end. Unlike Johns, who has insisted that his signs perform only a literal function devoid of biographical significance, Lucero slips between public and personal meaning in her work. Throughout her oeuvre, some references are specific to her individual experience, some are familiar to other Katishtyame, and some are obvious to anyone exposed to the often reductive imagining of the Southwest in popular culture.
WHEN LUCERO FIRST RETURNED TO KATISHTYA in 1999, she took an administrative position with the Farm Services Program, quickly involving herself in local organizing and eventually becoming the organization’s director. During her tenure, she helped secure Pueblo water rights, revived native farming practices, and developed the San Felipe Farmers Market.
In the 12 years she spent there, Lucero did not maintain an active studio practice, but, through conversations with her network of artists, came to see her work at Farm Services as consonant with her artistic sensibilities. Agriculture is the lifeblood of Puebloans, and Lucero’s support of traditional farming practices was rooted in her engagement with land, language, and community.
Today, living once more in Albuquerque, Lucero is dedicated to designing early-childhood education courses in Katishtyame, advocating for curriculum reform with tribal members. One of her proposals centers on instruction that follows the seasonal cycle, with spring, summer, autumn, and winter each providing a unique context in which to teach core academic subjects and nurture students’ shared native language. Since Keresan and its dialects are traditionally spoken, not written, Lucero’s lessons are anchored in imagery. With the help of her daughter, Gina Giaccardo, a graphic designer, Lucero is adapting the familiar formal components of her artwork—the circles, squares, and triangles—into curricula for Katishtyame instructors to use. The experience of childhood and the development of identity at home and school are central to Lucero’s art, so it seems fitting that, now a grandparent and a teacher, she focus her energy on Katishtyame education. “Language is the beginning place,” Lucero maintains. “It tells us who we are.”