Roxanne Swentzell was born on December 9, 1962 in Taos, New Mexico. She loved art from an early age. As a child, Swentzell struggled with a speech impediment that prevented her from communicating. Unable to articulate her emotions through words she began to make miniature figures in clay to convey her feelings. The sculptures she created as a means to express herself to others continues to be her primary artistic medium. While still in high school, Swentzell attended the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and completed the program in 1979.
The descendant of a long line of the talented potters of the Santa Clara Pueblo, Swentzell grew up with customary methods of Pueblo pottery making. She watched her mother harvesting clay then hand-coiling and pit-firing pots. She learned from an early age how to dig, mix, and process her own clay. After her two years at IAIA, Swentzell attended Portland’s Museum Art School in 1980. She left after one year. While Swentzell’s formal education ended with her departure from The Portland Museum Art School, Swentzell does not consider that the end of her education. Swentzell has said that:
“Every day is an amazing new book, a test in every discipline, a chance to advance myself, and great times on the playground.”
This philosophy is reflected in her decision to home school her two children — daughter Rose Bean Simpson, who followed in the family practice of making art — she’s a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, and also earned an MFA in Creative Writing from IAIA. Her son, Porter Swentzell, is the Chair of the Indigenous Liberal Studies Department at IAIA and a newly-appointed regent for Northern New Mexico College. Of this experience, Roxanne has commented that raising and home schooling her children was an education for her as well.
Swentzell’s clay sculptures have moved and delighted audiences around the world. Her artistic endeavors have won Swentzell numerous awards since her early twenties. Swentzell’s first public exhibit was at the annual Santa Fe Indian Market in 1984; two years later she won a total of eight awards for her sculpture and pottery at the same event. In 1994, Swentzell also won the Market’s Creative Excellence in Sculpture award. Swentzell’s work combines personal and society commentary and reflects a deep respect for the earth, family, and cultural heritage. Her sculptures have shown at the White House in Washington, DC and in galleries and museums worldwide. Some of her permanent installations are at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, Cartier in Paris, the Santa Fe Convention Center, and the Museum of Wellington in New Zealand.
In addition to her art, Swentzell farms her own land to provide self-sustenance. Swentzell is the Co-Founder and President of the nonprofit Flowering Tree Permaculture Institute created in 1987 at the Santa Clara Pueblo. Flowering Tree is an organization that is based on the theory of ecological design which seeks to build sustainable human living and agriculture. The Institute provides lessons on different techniques and methods for healthy living. Swentzell’s work with the Institute reflects her dedication to nurturing the Earth and sustaining its resources. To further her work with the Institute, and to her own personal philosophy, Swentzell looks to her ancestors as examples of preservers and protectors of the earth. Her concerns extend not only to preserving the earth but topreserving the indigenous knowledge of conservation. She initiated the Pueblo Food Experience, in which participants only ate foods available to pre-contact Tewa people.