Fifteen years ago, people in Santa Fe didn’t know if Presley LaFountain would live through the summer, much less bring his stone carvings to another Indian Market. In the recent past, we’ve lost good friends and great artists along the way, Earl Biss, Parker Boyiddle, Gibson Nez, Steve Deo, Kathleen Nez, Beau Mirabal, Sherman Chaddlesone, Elwood Reynolds, Dan Lomahaftewa and Wild Bill Soza among them. But this is a story of life, survival, new parts and new expectations. As Presley said, “A whole genre of artists is gone…many of my friends… it makes you realize your own humanity, your mortality, your actual physicality, that you only have so much time to do all the work, to get to all your ideas and images.”
In 2002, Presley was severely injured in an incident in Santa Fe that made headline news. His whole right side was injured when he was dragged from a vehicle and had he not been found and air-lifted to Albuquerque right away, it would be a different story. He’s said numerous times that he just wants to put it all behind him. Presley’s recovery has taken this long and now he’s had his hip and knee replaced and has also survived his 30th Indian Market.
Older son Saige LaFountain keeps up the family tradition of stone carving, going to Indian Market, winning awards along the way; younger son Samuel LaFountain is part of the new generation melding and blending jewelry styles he has learned from some of the best jewelers in Santa Fe to create his own unique NDN Bling. The LaFountain clan has been going to Indian Market for 30 some years, just like other Santa Fe families, growing up at Market, in studios, polishing like apprentices until they now need their own apprentices. Daughter Aurah takes care of the family home a few blocks north of downtown and also creates jewelry part-time. Bruce LaFountain, his younger brother, has won numerous awards for his stone and bronze work, travelling the country moving and installing monumental pieces. Bruce’s daughter, Eve LaFountain, is a recent California Institute of the Arts graduate, also winning awards for her photography and video.
Presley still has limited use of his right arm and hand, although he considered amputating it early on, and has had difficulty walking and getting around. So he had to change quite a few things, like making smaller pieces that he can handle, but still creating big pieces by directing workers. He has said there is now a limited number of pieces he will start and finish and the countdown is on.
“Yeah, it’s been a physical tune-up,” he told me, “adding and deleting parts, it’s like taking off rock and adding paint, now I’m feeling like a sculpture. But I can’t help myself, I have to have my lines and my forms, I’m a perfectionist on that. I have to have my hands on it, even with help from workers. [The new hip and knee] is all worth it, to be able to feel again. To feel good working, to be able to still work with my hands. You know, hands can’t take time off, you have to build up to it, because it’s hard to get back to work if you’ve been off. It’s true what they say, use it or lose it. I usually bring 8-10 stone pieces to Market, this year I brought a life-size marble piece and some smaller pieces. This period in North Dakota is the longest I’ve ever gone without carving or doing much art at all. It was a year off to heal and being with family helped.”
It’s also the first time he’s been able to stand up and carve, to get up and down and around the piece in 3 years without a cane or wheelchair. He also has to pace himself, stop early, conserve energy, no more crazy all-nighters in the studio.
Presley now resides on the Turtle Mountain Chippewa reservation in North Dakota where he went to rejuvenate and spend time with his mother who was ailing. She passed away in 2014 and he was glad to be able to be with her and family. “My mom was a big part of the decision to move back to the Rez,” he said. “It’s been good for me. I enjoy my time on the Rez, getting back in touch with everybody. I’m getting more influences from the Rez, more imagery, feeling stronger. Living on the Rez has rejuvenated me, it’s a different attitude, a better attitude, because you have to make these decisions, down to earth decisions, be deliberate.”
He’s been back in Santa Fe, visiting and doing Market and the Santa Fe Wine & Chile Festival. He was supposed to be in the Allan Houser Tribute show, but missed the application deadline in 2014. “Allan was a mentor,” he said. “I miss him visiting my booth every year. I’d see him at restaurants around town and more regularly at Market time. His tribute show is overdue. I get visitors like Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Wes Studi, and Michael Horse every year at Market, we talk art and everything.”
Presley has learned printmaking from one of the best in Santa Fe, Navajo printer Michael McCabe. The prints have filled in a void of creativity and given him a secondary market. “I’m painting and drawing, it helps my imagery, it relates to my sculptures to make these ideas happen in 2D and 3D,” he said. “I can create when I need to, be spontaneous. Carving is time-consuming, it’s noisy and hard to keep the energy levels up. I can relive the past in paint and print, like when I was an apprentice for my friend Earl Biss, at shows all over the west back in the day. Some clients can’t afford the hours of work I put into my carving so prints are affordable. It helps with my sculptural forms and just to be able to paint again, it’s great. I’m thankful to Michael for that.”
“It’s a gift to do this, to be alive to do this, to keep the mind and body together, at a high level. It’s been life-changing. I realized that my art is top priority, everything I do now, it’s all about the work. All these images I need to get out, that means I need a schedule to finish my life’s work… in a timely manner.”
He has since started fielding offers from back home to create monumental sculptures and get involved in community art projects. Back in the day, he was called the Mayor of Santa Fe because he was always in the middle of things, holding court at Club West, El Farol, at different art shows and at his studio during Market. He met John Huston and Ken Kesey, his friend (Crow Artist) Earl Biss was next door neighbor to Hunter Thompson in Aspen which led to adventures. Santa Fe resident artist Lisa Law documented much of this era and her photos are included in a new book by Jacob Muymudes, Another Side of Bob Dylan: A Personal History on the Road and Off the Tracks. Jacob’s book is from his father’s audio archives, who died in 2001. Victor Muymudes was Bob Dylan’s road manager and a good friend of Presley. All that was years ago and Presley’s motorcycle riding days are gone with it. But the way he has survived and gotten a fresh start with new parts you might wonder if he’ll ride again. “It’s still on my list, riding again, and saving and restoring Rez vehicles.” And still bringing stone carvings to Market.
This story was originally published September 20, 2014.