Carving Katsintithu: Experience a Thriving Tradition at the Moab Museum

This winter, the Moab Museum has come alive with color. A wide array of intricately carved and vibrantly painted katsintithu – widely known as “kachina dolls”– are on exhibit through February 2022. The temporary exhibition entitled Hopi Katsina: Evolving Styles, Enduring Meanings, offers a glimpse into the flourishing cultural and creative tradition of Hopi katsintithu carving, a practice closely linked to long held traditions for Hopi people. Carving demonstrations provide visitors the opportunity to learn firsthand from carvers and experience the creative process as it unfolds.

Visitors to and residents of the Southwest may recognize “kachina dolls” from gift shops and galleries across the region. To non-Natives, these carvings are widely recognized as beautiful and are often collected by art lovers. To Hopi people, Katsina is a way of life, and the carvings hold meanings related to Katsina spirits that visit Hopi people. Katsintithu are used ceremonially, and also serve to educate children about Hopi beliefs and culture. The tradition of katsintithu carving dates to the 18th century, and carvers began creating them specifically for market around the late 19th or early 20th century.

The exhibit features dozens of katsintithu from numerous contemporary Hopi carvers of all ages. Visitors to the Museum are able to view both contemporary and traditional katsintithu, and see how different carvers depict the same Katsina spirit in their own unique ways. The exhibition explores how katsintithu are used in ceremony and in Hopi families, and also traces stylistic changes in carving and painting styles through time. Most of the contemporary katsintithu on exhibit have been loaned to the Museum by Moab resident Thom Moreau, and many also come from the collection of the Kopell Family.

In October and November, the Museum welcomed carvers Hongvi Marquez and Adam Suetopka for demonstrations of carving. Each carver spent two days sharing insights into the creative process and cultural tradition in the Museum gallery, offering audiences the opportunity to experience firsthand the process of transforming a piece of paako (cottonwood root) into a colorful carving.

The process begins with shaping the soft, lightweight cottonwood root with blades and files. Once the desired shape has been achieved and a basecoat is applied, it is time to paint. Both Marquez and Suetopka make their pigments themselves, seeking out colorful pigments in the rocks around the Hopi Mesas in Arizona to mix into vibrant paints. Lastly, tied feathers and other ornamentation are attached to the figure. Visitors to the Museum were able to experience this process unfolding, and had the opportunity to talk with Marquez and Suetopka about their work. The Moab Museum is honored to welcome a third carver, Shawn Deel, on Friday and Saturday, December 10th and 11th. Described as stylistically “groundbreaking,” Deel’s work fuses tradition with innovation. Visitors can expect to watch the entire process unfold and learn firsthand about how Shawn’s work blends tradition and new ideas.

Hongvi Marquez painting a katsintihu at the Moab Museum in October 2021. (Photo: Nathaniel Clark)