The first thing one observes when viewing the work of Delbert Upshaw is the detail of his wood carvings. While another artist may perhaps opt for a shortcut, an easier way to express line and movement, Delbert’s work is both expressive and exuberant. This young man, equal parts Apache and Navajo, has been creating art since the age of eight. He was born in Keam’s Canyon, Arizona and grew up on the San Carlos reservation, just outside of Globe.
Mr. Upshaw now lives in Teesto, Arizona, just north of Winslow. Seven days a week he works in construction as, not surprisingly, a carpenter. Feeding his family and paying the bills are his top priorities. His evenings and any available free time are spent working with authority on mesquite, juniper, cedar and cottonwood root projects. This is doubly impressive because he is only thirty-three, a fact which surprises many people. His work has the appearance of having been created by someone much older, with much more experience. Pictures of him carving show a furrowed brow, a determined focus and a marked amount of diligence. Delbert is modest when he confides that the tribal Elders are pleased and impressed with his work.
On fishing trips with his father, young Delbert watched his Dad carve small boats from pieces of driftwood as they sat on the water. His Hopi half brother also provided inspiration, but because Delbert isn’t Hopi, he feels he cannot carve Hopi Kachinas. Instead, he has chosen to create the likeness of the G’aan.
“Why I attempt to replicate the Crown Dancer (G’aan, or Mountain Spirit) is to give the right understanding and the true nature of a dance that reflects our people and culture. To preserve the essence of whom we are as people of the G’aan,” Mr. Upshaw noted a few years ago in an artist bio. He went on to say, “The Crown Dancers are an interpretation of the messengers from our four directions, sent to teach us and show us the right way to live as Apaches, and to guide our people with blessings from Yul’sin, our Creator.”
The G’aan are the mountain dwelling spirits who protect and assist the Apaches. They were sent by the Giver of Life to teach the people to plant corn and to hunt, and to live each life in harmony with nature. The Anglo term ‘Crown Dancer’ refers to the elaborate wooden slat headdresses worn by the G’aan Dancers. The Black dancer represents the East, the Green one, South; the Yellow is of the West, and the White dancer represents the North. The fifth dancer is the ‘clown’, the revered leader who ensures that everything is in order. When the time arrives for a sacred ceremonial dance, the dancers prepare at a secret place and the Medicine Man then calls them down from the mountain. Dances are performed to heal the sick, drive away evil and to bring good fortune. Because of this secrecy, the men chosen as Crown Dancers are unknown to many in their tribe, most importantly the children.
The G’aan dancers, as carved by Mr. Upshaw from cottonwood root, are both graceful and vigorous. Sometimes he’ll create an individual dancer poised on a wooden slab; other carvings are of the group, en masse, in line on a long single platform. The group pieces have an obvious energy, and the detail is dramatic.
The raw material is very important to him. Delbert enjoys the “natural beauty of the wood- the color, the texture and the grain. I match the subject with the wood.” He also wants “a feel for the wood, to feel a connection- a spiritual one, to continue.” He feels blessed with this natural talent and prays for guidance daily.
When asked about the work of Native American artists, he says he admires other tribal carvings and sculptures, particularly work by Zuni fetish carvers, and thinks Native American art is “very important- we ourselves, what we’re doing is making an impression on the younger generation- this will open a bigger door, paving the way for future artists.”
Of all the pieces Mr. Upshaw has created- and there have been many, including special orders for an Aztec warrior, eagles, a pair of monkeys in a tree, wood roses and even a dragon- his most satisfaction was derived from an acrylic painting on canvas he did for his Grandmother before she passed away. “I felt appreciated,” he said, because it was her favorite painting. The artwork now hangs in the Farmington (NM) Hospital.
Besides pacing himself, Delbert strives for “balance in my art. Keeping it authentic is important to me- [also] not disturbing anyone” by stepping outside of the traditional circle. Always evolving, his next wish is to work in stone, probably sandstone. Delbert hopes to begin after the Holidays, assuming he can make the time.
Delbert Upshaw is a patient man.