Alumni Spotlight—Russell Frye (Pueblo of Tesuque) ’15
Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) Alumni Russell Frye (Pueblo of Tesuque) ’15, who has found his artistic voice in creating glass and cast bronze forms inspired by his family’s legacy of Pueblo pottery, began his journey in glass art at IAIA, where he continues to be involved. Frye works with glass most days of the week, first at his job at Prairie Dog Glass with Patrick Morrissey, who is also the glassblowing instructor at IAIA, and second during IAIA’s Special Topics: Glass Material Process class, where he is a student and assists Morrissey. “He’s kind of like this mad scientist that knows all about these furnaces and the electrical, where a lot of people look at this, and they’re just like, ‘No way,’ but he, you know, he sees it, he can read it.” Frye shares. Just a few weeks ago, Frye also participated in the glassblowing demonstration at IAIA’s Open House. While he wouldn’t claim to be “totally affluent in glassblowing yet,” Frye has gained the skills to safely teach others. “But now, I can work with this material with a sense of confidence and start to help other people learn how to work with this medium. I was—now, I’m still a student, but I would say I’m in an intermediate level now … and I think that’s what’s great about this program is, we’re able to have people in so many different levels of their working ability.”
This year, Frye won a first-place blue ribbon at SWAIA Santa Fe Indian Market for a glass sculpture. The annual IAIA Student and Recent Graduate Art Market allowed him to get his “foot in the door of what it was like to be at Indian Market” and gave him “more experience doing markets.” He has also shown at the Poeh Cultural Center’s Pathways Indigenous Arts Festival, and he is represented by Gallery Hozho at Hotel Chaco. Frye was previously represented by the former Shidoni Gallery and Sculpture Garden and has displayed work with the New Mexico Glass Alliance at the Albuquerque Sunport.
At IAIA’s annual Benefit & Auction this year, he was a guest at the table of renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly, who is notable for helming a glass program in the early days of IAIA. However, when Frye was a young student at IAIA, “there was nothing” offered for glass, but now, IAIA has a “full-blown glass studio.” Recognizing Chihuly’s connection, he shares, “So, it’s kind of cool to see it, you know, come full circle now, where we have a new glass program emerging at the new campus.”
After graduating in 2015, Frye took a break from glass. “It’s been about a year and a half now since I’ve been making art again,” he mentions. In the time between, he pursued another creative pursuit. “I was cooking before. And I loved the restaurant biz. Like there was a restaurant in my hometown that was owned by this family that were good friends of ours, that my dad would go fishing with, and they had kids. So, we all grew up together,” he shares. “But yeah, I think like, just like, I love that family vibe of a restaurant and feeding people. I love that, and food in of itself is a form of art, you know, totally.” The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture exhibition Clearly Indigenous: Native Visions Reimagined in Glass prompted him to return to glass. “And I was just like, ‘Okay. I gotta get busy,’ with like a lot of signs happening telling me to get back to work again.”
He views the process of glassblowing as similar to the cooking experience—both are challenging sensory experiences. “And in the same way, it kind of reminds me to cooking—being in a kitchen where there’s just all this commotion, especially during a rush. Of like—you’re just having to get into this flow state, I guess. And so, I think there’s something about that—that I am able to get into this flow state. And for me, that’s how I’m able to create, and it’s also good for just my emotional well-being, honestly, like I’m able to process a lot of stuff that I’m thinking about in that state of mind.” The satisfaction of seeing progress is “really rewarding,” as is the response of others. “And even seeing people’s eyes, you know, and whether you make them a great dish, something really good to eat, like they know that it was made with love—or an incredible piece of art.”
Frye first learned to work with glass during a group IAIA internship with fellow students Crystal Worl, Monica Gutierrez, Cameron Tafoya, and Daniel Gringnon. “I first started painting, and then I got into printmaking. And I was really—I—if I didn’t find glass, I probably would have settled for printmaking, which I still want to get back into.” Frye credits a lunchtime conversation with Worl for the internship experience. “The story is that IA didn’t offer glass at the school. So, Crystal wanted to do glass for her project. So, she took it upon herself to bridge this partnership with a glass studio in town and IAIA. So, I was part of that original group of kids that got to go for one of their classes off campus.” The group attended the New Mexico Experimental Glass Workshop, directed by Stacey Neff and Patrick Morrissey. “And I was kind of hesitant about taking it. I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know. I’m scared,’ but it was really the best thing that I—one of the best choices I’d ever made.”
While Frye grew up making art and drawing in high school, he didn’t plan on being a professional artist. He previously attended Fort Lewis College, where several family members went. “I don’t think I was honestly ready because I was going from the Ramah-Navajo rez straight up to, like, you know, white, privileged Colorado—it’s culture shock, immensely. And so, I didn’t last there. I did one year, and I came back down to Santa Fe, and I was with my family.” His grandmother suggested he go to IAIA. “And I was like, ‘You know what, Grandma, you’re right,’ and I applied, and I was like, you know, a little hesitant, but it was honestly the best thing for me because I was able to mature at IA.” IAIA provided him structure, independence, and “a very safe space” to grow. “And I was like, ‘You know what? I want to be an artist.’ Something, it clicked. And being around other people and seeing all the amazing artists that were coming out of IA, I was just like—and my family and the connection—I was just like, I felt like I’d found my home.”
As children, Frye and his siblings were provided with a variety of art supplies by their father, who was an art teacher. His parents were also both ceramists. Frye and his siblings would make pinch pots with the clay. “I think I was never satisfied with my pinch pots, though, and my brothers and sisters were always so much better at their pinch pots—frustrated about this,” he emphasizes. His brother Jacob Frye has since become a potter. “I still wanted to create pottery, though, and I was fascinated. I think it was seeing, yeah, Tony’s work—Tony Jojola—how he was able to do these pottery shapes in glass. And I don’t know—I think that’s when something clicked, and I wanted to be a glass artist because I knew I could still stay true to my family, and, you know, working with these forms, but in a different way.” Recently, Russell Frye showed vessels and plates made of glass and bronze in Gallery Hozho’s sales show, The Fryes and Friends. “I did some pieces recently in bronze that were kind of taken from that traditional Pueblo form, but done in bronze, and it was kinda cool how I did it, too, because I was coiling the wax—you know, very small little coils, which is very similar, you know, to how they did it in the early days—just very small little coils of clay.”
Frye’s ongoing education in glass has included working with notable Indigenous glass artists. Frye first met the late Tony Jojola (Isleta Pueblo) ’76 during his IAIA internship. “And then it was last year that I got to actually work on one of his pieces, which was amazing.” Frye sandblasted a design for Jojola shortly before he passed. “I was really sad, you know. So, it kind of broke my heart that we lost him so early.” Jojola “was a big mentor” to glass artist Ira Lujan (Taos and Ohkay Owingeh), who also trained out of Prairie Dog Glass. Lujan and Frye recently conducted a “Hot Stuff Glass Demo Day” together for Gallery Hozho. “I thought they were gonna put us on the parking lot or on the sidewalk, but we were actually on the street. So, our bench, when we’re making the glass, we had cars just driving right next to us. Very different than in the studio; it is more a street performance than anything, which I can’t wait to do it again.” Frye has also learned from Robert “Spooner” Marcus (Ohkay Owingeh) A-i-R ’18, another notable glass artist. “To have these people, you know, and to be able to work with them is, yeah, it’s kind of a—I don’t want to be cliché, but it is a dream come true,” says Frye.
More experimentation is in the works for Frye. “Yeah, I think that you’ll probably see more of my glass being incorporated with metalwork,” he says. The collaborative context at IAIA fosters the exploration of new techniques. Studio Arts Faculty Craig Tompkins worked with Frye to create a 3D print. “And I haven’t shown it to the world yet.” He plans to use the 3D print as a mold to cast work. “And then even Jasmine Novak—she’s taking the glass class this semester,” he shares. “And she, bless her heart, has been hard at work, and she’s actually creating some really remarkable stuff over there. She’s getting it ready so that we can do glass castings now. So, I might take this piece—instead of casting in metal, I’ll be able to cast it in glass now because of what Jasmine’s been able to do over there.” Novak is working on a fox and rabbit. “And then I have this cow that I want to do. So, I think you’re gonna see a lot of little glass animals coming,” he chuckles.
To keep updated on IAIA’s glassblowing classes, view the IAIA College Catalog.
Quotes have been edited for brevity and clarity.
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Neebinnaukzhik Southall is the IAIA Communications Writer. They are a graphic designer, artist, photographer, and writer specializing in covering and promoting Native cultures, arts, and design.