Navajo/Hopi sculptor Dennis Ross told us that he discovered the perfect piece of cottonwood root washed up on the banks of the San Juan River just south of Bluff. It took him three months to dry it out and another month to carve away the excess wood and reveal the Hopi Maiden hidden within. The smooth, graceful lines and detailed etching are perfectly executed and the minimalistic application of paint is just right. As soon as Dennis left the trading post, he headed right back to the familiar banks of the San Juan in hopes of finding another piece of root so that he can release its inner beauty.
Dennis Ross - Kachina Carver Asked how he first started carving, Dennis Ross answers with a laugh, "My brother - he gave me a knife, and a stone, and a piece of carving wood, and said, 'Here you go'."
Dennis was twenty-six years old. His brother, Harry Bert, also gave him a little constructive criticism on that first experiment into the creative world of carving, but Dennis took it from there. Now he is a well known carver of Kachina dolls, and his constructive criticism comes from his wife, Harriet Yazzie, who helps him make the dolls. Dennis has entered his Eagle Dancer dolls in the Gallup Ceremonials and the Totah Festival the past two years, and has the honor of garnering three first place prizes, an honorable mention, and the coveted Best of Show.
For Dennis Ross, making Kachina dolls is a family business. Seven years ago he was working in Phoenix, as a steel worker. In his spare time he made a Kachina doll and then took it to an art gallery to see if they would be interested in buying it. He was surprised to find that they not only bought it, they paid him double what he usually got on his paycheck from work! Over the next six months, Dennis carved dolls in the evening, and on weekends, keeping his day job, and then, with his wife's approval, he quit working on construction. Together they began making dolls full time.
"I don't have a hard time selling my work," Dennis says, and he only remembers one time when he felt he was underpaid for a piece.
The reason for Dennis's success is the high quality of work he produces. His dolls are outstanding for several reasons. First of all, Dennis loves what he is doing. It allows him to be home with his wife and young son and daughter, and he enjoys that. He also enjoys being financially independent and free to set his own schedule.
Dennis loves to ride his motorcycle down to the San Juan River, about 3 miles from his home, and spend time along the river's banks. He may take his gun and go rabbit hunting, or he takes his binoculars so he can just sit and watch the wild life. He especially loves to watch the eagles. It is not uncommon to see bald eagles soaring along the river, and he has also sighted a golden eagle. This time of meditation and renewal is inspiring for him, as he later carves his Eagle Dancers.
Dennis also gets the cotton wood roots he carves from along the San Juan, in the bends of the river. He says that the wood is clean, and soft, with no rocks, easy to carve. It's a pretty wood, bleached out from the river and the sun to an almost iridescent white. Dennis sometimes sketches the facial features onto the top of the wood piece, or he may just begin carving. He has done it so many times now, it is almost second nature to him. He says after he has the face finished, he does the hair, and then the rest of the body just "falls into place". He burns small details into the figure, and sands it two different times before he oils the wood and then paints it.
Dennis generally makes dolls that stand about 10" tall - the collectors choice - and works on as many as a dozen at a time. However, he has made larger figures. He does Redtails as well as Eagles, but has found the Eagle figures to be in greater demand.
The Hopi Kachina dolls are part of Dennis's heritage, his father being Hopi. Dennis's mother is Navajo, and Dennis thinks about making Navajo figures, especially since his wife, Harriet, is Navajo. Dennis says Harriet gives him his greatest encouragement, as well as doing most of the sanding and paint work. "She's good with her hands", he praises her, "We help each other out."
Wherever Dennis goes, whatever he does, his mind is not far from his art. He is constantly trying to improve on his technique. He observes people, their posture and body language, thinking about how he can make his still life figures look more animated.
Dennis usually rises about 6 a.m. and does his chores, then begins to work on the dolls. He says that sometimes, after the children are in bed, he gets so caught up in his work that he forgets time and is surprised to find he has worked into the early morning hours.
An insight to his personality comes when he is asked if he would be willing to teach others how to carve, and he answers that he already has. "It's better to share it. You'll get something back in return." Dennis isn't afraid of possible competition, even though it has become obvious that others have begun copying his unique bases. "I can share," he says, "they'll develop their own style."
Dennis was raised in a traditional Navajo setting. He speaks fluent Navajo, and understands Hopi. He has felt some criticism for daring to carve figures out of wood, a Navajo taboo, but defends himself, "I know a lot of people don't agree with that - carving eagles - but I disagree because I don't put religion into it."
Dennis says his Kachina figure's bodies are not painted white, as the real life ceremonial figures are, because of his respect for the sacred part of the Hopi ceremony. "It's an art," he insists. "No religion, just wood."
At some point he thinks he'll begin carving Navajo figures. "Wood carving is what I do. I feel good when I finish a piece. I look at it and think 'I made that. That's my piece'."
He comments with a bit of pride, "My carving will never end- it will just keep getting better and better." And then, he adds with a laugh, "But you can't predict art. I could be eating jack rabbits next week."
Religion plays a big part in Dennis's life. He was approached four different times by a Medicine Man about becoming an apprentice. The fourth time Dennis accepted the calling, and is training to become a crystal gazer. "I do a lot of prayers and blessings for myself," Dennis admits. "I think that's what keeps me going."
Then it was that they moved upward, leaving the dark world behind. They climbed on top of the Four Mountains, which grew upward with them, and they all moved up onto a lighter world. The Wind People brought seeds into the new world, and they planted them:
To the east, at White Mountain
To the south, at Blue Mountain
To the west, at Yellow Mountain
To the north, at Black Mountain
It was known about then that First Man was the spirit of White Corn. First Woman was the spirit of Yellow Corn. Their children also had spirit life within them and their names were Boy Blue Corn and Girl Many-Colored Corn. Together, these four decided how the earth should be divided. Pg. 73