Harry Fonseca

Fonseca was born in Sacramento, California in 1946, and is of Nisenan Maidu, Hawaiian, and Portugese heritage. He studied for a time at Sacramento City College and with Frank LaPena at Cal State University at Sacramento, but was reluctant to become an academic stylist, so he decided not to continue formal art education in order to pursue his own vision.

In his close to twenty-year career as an exhibiting artist, Harry Fonseca's work has gone through a number of transformations, but the one constant has been his openness to new influences and sources of inspiration.

Fonseca's earliest pieces drew from his Maidu heritage. He was influenced by basketry designs, dance regalia, and by his participation as a traditional dancer. Further, the creation myth of his people, as recounted by his uncle, Henry Azbill, became the source of a major 1977 work, Creation Story. This piece visually embodies the underpinnings of Maidu culture. Margaret Archuleta has noted that the work is a pictorially complex sequence set in a spiral motif. The central focal point is Helinmaiden, the Maidu Big Man, Great Man, or God, as he appears on the raft with Turtle. The continuing pencil and ink drawings are linked together as they rotate in a clockwise movement around the central axis of Helinmaiden, whose importance is expressed by his central placement. The spiral design echoes the cyclical rhythm of the storytelling in connection with the seasonal celebrations.

This myth continues to inspire Fonseca, as his 1991 The Maidu Creation Story shows. The basic imagery of this painting recalls petroglyphic symbols, and although less figurative than the 1979 work, still seeks to give visual form to myth. Fonseca does not replicate his past imagery but looks for new ways of connecting to tradition. Regarding the 1991 work, Darryl Wilson has pointed out that Fonseca "was particularly struck by ancient rock art from the Coso Range in the high desert country near Owens Lake [north of Ridgecrest, California]. Because of its powerful appeal, he incorporated some of its images into the similarly powerful and appealing creation story Henry Azbill told him."

Another level of transformation is evident in the Coyote series, which Fonseca began in 1979 (and which, after a few years' hiatus, he has started again). The subject of these works is Coyote, the trickster and transformer. Fonseca resituates the culture hero into contemporary settings, such as San Francisco's Mission District. Coyote can become an updated and sneaker-wearing Rousseau, holding his palette on a Parisian quay (Rousseau Revisited, 1986), or headress-clad and sneakered (Coyote in Front of Studio, 1983). Coyote becomes an alembic through which Fonseca filters his vision of the artist, and the Indian, in society.

Fonseca's continuing interest in rock art led him to develop the Stone Poems, an extensive series of works exploring the imagery of petroglyphs, not only from California but throughout the West and Southwest, especially Utah. The Stone Poems are not meant to be so much an interpretive recording of rock images but a way of self-exploration. The canvases, some as large as 6' by 12', suggest the size and scope of petroglyphic panels in situ.

Fonseca's work took a more political turn with the 1992 Discovery of Gold and Souls in California series. Each of these small mixed-media pieces, measuring about 15" x 11", offer subtle variations on the image of a black cross surrounded by gold leaf and partially covered with red oxide. Fonseca has stated that this series "is a direct reference to the physical, emotional and spiritual genocide of the native people of California. With the rise of the mission system, and much later the discovery of gold in California, the native world was fractured, and with it, a way of life and order devastated."