Published on June 17, 2013 by Amy
Leo was born in 1905. He was an accomplished sculptor and mosaic worker and a veteran of World War II, where he served on the Zuni firefighting crew. He taught himself to carve using hand tools, including a pump drill and a hand grinder. He did not convert to an electric grinder until the late 1950′s. His equipment was geared toward lapidary work only. Leo’s daughter Veronica recalls, “He used to get these tiny files…if one would break, he would make it to where he had a real fine edge…that’s how he used to do the face carving”.
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Leo was one of the first carvers to use dot inlay as a decorative element in his carvings, such as on the wings of birds or the backs of frogs. He also developed a technique for improving the pitted look of some corals, filling the pits with coral dust generated from drilling beads.
Leo was known to trade with other Zuni artists for the needed materials, which were very scarce. In the 1950′s, he was experimenting with other non-traditional materials like lapis lazuli. Of his work, Veronica Poblano recalls, “He would go beyond; he would take their advice but go beyond”.
From 1939 into the early 1940′s Leo was married to Daisey Hooee Nampeyo, a Hopi/Tewa potter, and he taught her carving and mosaic work, which she practiced until the late 1940′s. She also studied relief sculpture at L’Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris in 1929, and she taught him the relief techniques that he used extensively in his sculpture and mosaic work. The Poblanos sold or traded all their work to C. G. Wallace and were often paid in food, secondhand furniture and other items.
Leo and his last wife, Ida Vacit married around 1947. Ida Vacit also learned his lapidary and carving skills, and became an accomplished carver and jeweler in the mosaic style. After his tragic death in a firefighting accident in 1959, Ida completed many of her husband’s unfinished pieces. Their daughter Veronica continues the family tradition in her contemporary mosaic work.
Zuni mosaic work is derived from the prehistoric tradition of setting cut and polished stone and shell onto wood or shell backings. Laborers who assisted in the archeological excavation of the pueblo of Hawikuh (including Leo Poblano and Teddie Weahkee) are thought to have revived shell mosaic work by 1930 and possibly as early as 1920. Mosaic figures depicting Shalako dancers, Knifewing and Rainbow Gods, and Zuni men and women became common by the late 1930′s. As the post-Depression era and World War II affected the availability of silver and turquoise, nontraditional materials such as petrified wood and fossil ivory on aluminum or phonograph record backings began to appear in their mosaic work. The stonework was often finished by lapidaries, who set their stones into silverwork fashioned by Navajo silversmiths. As a group, Zuni mosaic work offers us a fresh look at the variety of designs, materials, and techniques. Leo Poblano was one of the first among several Zuni artists to create inlay and mosaic artwork.