Caddo artist reacts to DMA break-in, his damaged work

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Chase Kahwinhut Earles had crafted Caddo pottery for more than a decade before the Dallas Museum of Art acquired one of his pieces, a 4-foot long sculpture entitled Batah Kuhuh: Alligator Gar Fish Effigy Bottle. “It was really overwhelming,” said Earles in a phone interview. “It legitimized my work as […]

Chase Kahwinhut Earles had crafted Caddo pottery for more than a decade before the Dallas Museum of Art acquired one of his pieces, a 4-foot long sculpture entitled Batah Kuhuh: Alligator Gar Fish Effigy Bottle.

“It was really overwhelming,” said Earles in a phone interview. “It legitimized my work as representing my Caddo people. It legitimized me as an artist, that my work’s good enough to be in these prestigious museums.”

So when the 45-year-old Oklahoma artist received word that his piece was one of four objects destroyed in a June 1 break-in at the DMA, he was devastated. Not only for himself, but also for his tribe.

"Batah Kuhuh: Alligator Gar Fish Effigy Bottle," a contemporary Native American piece by...
“Batah Kuhuh: Alligator Gar Fish Effigy Bottle,” a contemporary Native American piece by Caddo artist Chase Kahwinhut Earles, was among the four artworks destroyed by a vandal June 1, 2022, at the Dallas Museum of Art.(Brad Flowers)

“That was a defining piece for my career,” said Earles, the only living artist whose work was a victim of the vandalism. “To be one of the first Caddos that had a piece in a major museum like that was a big deal, and for it to be destroyed, it was a blow not only to me, but to my tribe and for representation for our culture.”

“What I was worried about immediately, more than hurt,” Earles added, “was that we no longer would have a piece in a museum.”

The ceramic, which the DMA acquired in 2020, was a showpiece of the exhibition Spirit Lodge: Mississippian Art from Spiro” when, on June 1, according to police, 21-year-old Brian Hernandez threw it to the ground, smashing it in a destructive spree that also damaged three ancient Greek ceramics.

Earles has other works on display in Spirit Lodge — a traveling exhibition of ancient and contemporary works by members and descendants of Native American peoples known as the Mississippians — but the alligator gar was the only sculpture in the DMA’s permanent collection.

Chase Kahwinhut Earles' sculpture was on display in "Spirit Lodge: Mississippian Art from...
Chase Kahwinhut Earles’ sculpture was on display in “Spirit Lodge: Mississippian Art from Spiro” when it was damaged by a vandal on June 1.(Chadwick Redmon)

“That’s just a rare accomplishment of an artist’s life,” said Earles, whose work is also in the collections of other museums, including the Houston Museum of Natural Science and the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.

Michelle Rich, the assistant curator of the Arts of the Americas at the DMA, said she had planned on putting the alligator gar in the fourth-floor Arts of the Americas galleries after the “Spirit Lodge” exhibit concluded in August. Rich, who came to the DMA in 2018, said Earles’ piece was her second acquisition for the museum.

“We’re really looking at making sure that Indigenous artists from across the Americas are being represented in the collection,” she said, “and I think it’s a really strong statement to make sure that we start here, in our own region.”

The six-month-long process of making the piece, Earles said, was painstaking, because he forged it “using the same methods that our tribe would have used circa 800 A.D.” He dug up clay from the Red River, adding crushed-up freshwater mussel shells as a temper to strengthen the material. Once he had sculpted the piece, he hand-burnished it — rubbing a river rock along the surface to make it shiny — and used an open bonfire as a kiln. The final step was hand-engraving the outside of the hollow sculpture with geometric designs.

“Caddo pottery is actually as prolific and as grand a tradition as any of the tribes in North America, but not many people know about it,” said Earles. “My whole purpose and statement as a Caddo artist is to bring our pottery tradition back into the light.”

Pottery was a prominent art form among the tribe, now based in Binger, Okla., for over one thousand years, according to the Texas Historical Commission. Caddo ceramics remain so unique, the commission noted, that they are “the prime evidence used to identify and date Caddo sites.”

In its heyday, the Caddo ceramic tradition encompassed both decorative and utilitarian styles. Caddo effigies, or sculptural representations of animals, were one common design, Earles said. Other ceramics were used for everyday purposes, like kitchenwares. Eventually, Earles said, almost all of the pottery ended up as grave offerings, interred during burial rituals. “Pottery and Caddos are inseparable,” Earles said.

Earles is one of the few who continue to practice these passed-down pottery traditions, which began to slip away as colonization displaced the Caddo tribe. The deep-rooted techniques Earles uses to make his ceramics link him to ancestral rituals, but they also result in highly fragile pottery. When a low-fired piece like his effigy bottle breaks, parts of it may be pulverized into dust, he said, making it much harder to reassemble, even for museum conservationists.

Artist Chase Kahwinhut Earles had been making traditional Caddo pottery since 2009.
Artist Chase Kahwinhut Earles had been making traditional Caddo pottery since 2009.(Travis Caperton)

Earles said he has little faith that the piece could be faithfully reconstructed. “I mean,” he said, “the soul of the structure is gone.”

The DMA’s interim chief conservator Fran Baas said last month the conservation team was “optimistic” about repairs for all the damaged objects. A slate of conservation experts said that in most cases, fragments can be pieced back together with enough intervention.

But it’s the interventions that worry Earles.

“I hope that they’ll reach out to me to consult with me, because I don’t think many people know much about Native American ceramic,” he said. “In the end, I don’t want them reproducing or repairing something that looks completely different from what I gave them, or that represents me — because it still does represent me and my tribe.”

The DMA declined to provide details on the extent of the damage to the effigy bottle, but said in a statement that it “has a history of working with living artists on restoration and recognizes this option as a best practice standard when appropriate.”

The exterior entrance to the Dallas Museum of Art, which was broken into on June 1, shown...
The exterior entrance to the Dallas Museum of Art, which was broken into on June 1, shown Thursday, June 9, 2022.(Allison Slomowitz / Special Contributor)

Another of Earles’ concerns is that a reconstructed piece would resemble an ancient artifact “dug up from a grave,” rather than a contemporary work of art — an illusion he said could reinforce the stereotype of Native Americans as a primordial people absent from modern society. There are about 7,000 people currently enrolled in the Caddo Nation, a federally recognized tribe.

Whereas a contemporary piece “shows that our tribe is still here and that we’re still living people and we still produce vibrant and relevant art,” Earles said, displaying only pieces that appear timeworn could send the wrong message. The DMA has several other Caddo ceramics in its permanent collection, but they are all ancient.

Earles said he would prefer the museum commission a new piece altogether. If it did, he wouldn’t try to replicate the damaged sculpture — “every piece that I make has to have real meaning and heart behind it,” he said — but might make another alligator gar, an animal indigenous to the Caddo homeland. He recently wrote a children’s book about the fish that he is hoping to publish, so any new piece may include “more storytelling elements,” he said.

Caddo artist Chase Kahwinhut Earles uses an open bonfire to fire his pottery, a traditional...
Caddo artist Chase Kahwinhut Earles uses an open bonfire to fire his pottery, a traditional tribal technique.(Chase Kahwinhut Earles)

Commissioning a new piece, the DMA said in its statement, is not out of the question. “Should the determination be made that the piece is not salvageable, the commission of an additional piece is a very strong and promising option,” the museum said. “We have been so proud to showcase a Kahwinhut Earles piece and the culture it represents. We look forward to making sure Kahwinhut Earles continues to be part of the DMA community.”

Rich, too, said she “would love to give the public another opportunity to see his work.”

“I want to showcase his best self,” she said. “I want to be able to make sure that in our collection, we are representing any artist at their most talented and best moments.”

If the DMA were to acquire another of his sculptures, Earles said, he wouldn’t have qualms about its safety, despite lingering concerns about security at the museum. His main goal, he said, is ensuring the public “can still see what a Caddo pot looks like.”

“I am mad. I am sad. It does hurt,” he said. “I have hope that it will be remedied one way or another, and that I will still have a place in the museum.”

Chase Kahwinhut Earles tends to an open bonfire, which he uses to fire his ceramics, at a...
Chase Kahwinhut Earles tends to an open bonfire, which he uses to fire his ceramics, at a presentation he gave on Caddo pottery at the University of Central Arkansas on March 11, 2022.(Madison Ogle)
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