In early-2014, while studying film at Syracuse University, filmmaker Terry Jones sat down to talk with Seneca-Cayuga stone carver Tom Huff. Over a bowl of corn soup and hot dogs, the following transcript details the conversation between the two Haudenosaunee artsits.
Equipped with a homemade batch of traditional Iroquois corn soup, my parents and I ventured to the Onondaga territory and paid a visit to stone sculptor, Tom Huff. Mr. Huff is from the Seneca-Cayuga Nation and he is known for his works in different stones and various styles in both traditional and contemporary themes. He also creates sculpting pieces out of mixed media and found objects. Over a bowl a corn soup, hot dogs and a dish of bacon and green bean salad, I sat down with Tom. My interview was more conversational than a typical question and answer session. As an emerging filmmaker, I am learning to wear the “artist” label as comfortably as Tom. Although our visit on this particular day ended, our conversation did not. I know that we will pick up our conversation right where we left off the next time we see each other. The text that follows is a transcript from the artist talk between Cornsoupman and Stoneman.
Tom Huff: My name is Tom Huff. I am Seneca-Cayuga but I also started to say that I’m Seneca, Cayuga, Cherokee, Catawba, Scottish and Irish. That is what is in my blood. My grandmother and mother were Seneca-Cayuga. Actually, Seneca because Seneca-Cayuga was more or less a government designation from Oklahoma when they removed us from down there. During the removal, most of the Senecas were from the deer clan. It was a big family. It must have been a group of Senecas and Cayugas that came from down there together. I am an artist. That is how I make my living. I am a stone sculptor primarily. I make and sell that and I teach because that is what we are supposed to do. The gift that we returned. I also write. I like to write and I do mixed media/found object stone sculpture. Primarily, I’m assessed by stone.
Terry Jones: Do you have any formal training in art?
Tom: I have been to two art schools but you don’t really…you can’t be taught. I was taught down in Santa Fe in the same way that I teach. I studied with Allan Houser. We call him the godfather of Native American sculpture. He influences everybody. Always has. I teach the way that I was taught. I show materials, tools, techniques and process. I show how it’s done and then the class, they do the techniques. They use the tools. They more or less teach themselves by doing it. That’s the best way to learn is by doing it. So that’s how I teach too. I think every artist is basically self-taught. You can be shown things and learn the techniques. You teach yourself just like how you’re doing.
Terry: One thing that I like in art school at Syracuse University is that I’m learning all the philosophies, like art, European art. One time they came into class and they were like, “We are going to look at art today. Let’s look at typical art.” And it was all western. I was like, “Where was the rest of the world? The rest of the world must have been making art at that time.” It really got me to thinking and I wanted to ask you: if you thought of it that way as well? A lot of our objects, people would deem to be art pieces. Even a wooden lacrosse stick. People would be like, “Wow. What craftsmanship. It’s a piece of art. I would like to be able to have it under glass.” For me, there’s a lot of things with indigenous cultures where those are functional objects. I was wondering at which point, when we lived in our longhouses…we’ve always been influenced by the outside world…at which point did we actually start to create objects specifically for exhibition. They have an exhibition value and not necessarily a function value. Do you think, in your own work…that’s what I’ trying to do with my self with my work. I’m like, “It’s exhibition. You can watch it. You can experience it but at the same time, you’re hopefully learning something.” It goes beyond just, “Is it beautiful or how much work did go into it.” I was wondering if you ever thought of art in that way?
Tom: One of the ways that we learn our culture is by doing art. That’s how I learned a lot…by doing it. A lot of anthropologists and museum people, they seem to have to…a lot of our art started out functional and a lot of anthropologists, they have to assign a purpose for the art. Every other thing is a futility object or ceremonial thing when a lot of times you just wanted to make something…something we enjoy making…bring the beauty out that way. You look at the modern art from the last one hundred years, especially in the twentieth century, that movement of modern art coming up in the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s. A lot of those modern artists were influenced by the indigenous arts of the world. All over the world. Even our art. American artists, that were big names then, were inspired by indigenous people.
Terry: I had to watch a required film for one of my classes last night. It was from 1961 and it was a French film. In it, they were talking about art for something. And she goes, “I’m studying pre-Columbian art.” I thought, “Wow, That’s interesting.” Somebody asked her later in the film, “What do you mean by pre-Columbian art?” She goes, “Oh, I study the art made by the Indians before Columbus came.” And then I thought, “Wow. That still plays into my whole thing. When Columbus came here, were we creating art objects for beauty?” I can see on their end where that’s where they would see it as art and take it and add exhibition value to it.
Tom: I talked about influence and growing up. How I got into art. It was several things. One is family. My grandparents used to collect art. So we grew up with that art collection. They used to travel all over the United States. They’d do work out there with other nations. When they would come back, they would always bring back art so we grew up with Navajo rugs, Pueblo pottery, pipestone pipes, Seminole clothing, Cherokee carvings. Then there were the people at home. My grandfather used to take me around when I was a kid. He’d visit friends. One of his friends was Francis Kettle. Francis was the first one that I noticed that made things. He made all these woodworks. He was the first artist…and Calvin…then later on I become influenced by the contemporary artists: Pete Jones, Pete Jemison, Carson Waterman, Jolene Rickard. Then there was the environment: woods, creek, country. We lived next to the Cattaraugus Creek. I used to walk up the creek. Just pick up stones. See stones. Good shapes. Good colors. I didn’t know what they were but I’d take them home. I had a whole cellar full. Then eventually we returned everything…except one. I still got that one. It looks like a turtle…turtle rock. It caused me to be an artist. It influenced me. I like music a lot…and the contemporary culture. Really the world. Watching TV, when I was a kid…all my life more or less. TV has brought us a world too big to ignore. We can’t ignore it so we become a part of it…but still keeping identity. We know who we are.
Terry: I remember…this is something that came into my mind as well…because we, indigenous people tend to be oral histories…oral language. Even growing up with media. I’m studying to be a filmmaker or video artist or whatever. I don’t feel like in our community that it’s looked at as art…more or less. I’ve always been told by the elders, “Don’t record our language. It’s a live language.” I didn’t understand why but there was a certain point…when you think about it…recorded sound and image are only two of the five senses. As indigenous people, what we do best, is when we visit with one another…it’s sight, sound, touch…it’s all the five senses. When you think of books or the movies or you think of any other kind of art. It’s an artist representation of how they see the world but it’s never truly a five senses sort of thing. I was wondering if you ever thought of it that way?
Tom: To artists: eyes, observation, seeing things. But for sculpture, it’s very tactile. Everything has different textures. Different textures. Different stones. Some stones have a type of smell…and a taste. Some stone is actually good for the stomach…alabaster. That’s my main thing is to see and then to feel and then to think. All art becomes a product of hands, heart, and mind. That’s how art comes along. Traditionally, our basic philosophy…our creativity, we consider to be a gift from the Creator. It is our responsibility to return that gift…sharing and teaching. I teach anybody who wants to learn. How they say stone out here (Onondaga) is o:ni:a. Out Seneca…three hours away, it’s gus:gwa’. Two totally different words and yet there is a common language too…between Nations here. Everybody has their own…Seneca culture is different than Onondaga culture. It’s about the same too.
Terry: I was thinking in terms of art. It could be food. For me…corn soup. I’m like Cornsoupman. I learned how to make it since I was fifteen. I just know how to do it. It comes natural. But then when I think about it as a art…then why don’t I…people ask, “Do you ever make it different?” I’m like, “No! I’m a purist when it comes to soup. That’s how we’ve been doing it. That’s how my grandmother made it. It’s probably how her grandmother made it.” So when I think of art…what you’re doing in stone and maybe what I’m doing in video…I don’t have anybody to emulate or somebody to be like them.
Tom: You’re groundbreaking new territory. We got people out west who are filmmakers. We both like to cook. I was raised up to cook. My grandfather was also….he was a corn man…but he mainly made roast corn: o:gon:seh’. My parents picked up on that and every August…harvest time…we’d get white corn. We’d prepare it in different ways. A lot of people here don’t do it here. They don’t make the roast corn. So, I’ve been away (from Seneca territory) since both my parents had passed away…I’ve been away from that corn. But I want to start it up again. There is a guy here on the rez who will let me help him grow it. Then I’ll get some. This will be the first year in a long time that I’ll be doing corn again. You get that stage where it’s milky. You make o:gon:seh’. Then when it’s harder, you roast it. We’d do about seventy-five dozen in a day. It was a family thing. We were the only ones. More people are doing it now.
Terry: It seems that way back home. We have been doing it for a number of years…ten…I don’t know how many years. On FaceBook you’d see a lot of people, “Oh , we’re roasting corn” or “Is the corn ready to be roasted?” It’s good to see that people are picking up on it. It’s a lot of work but we are taught. For me, its something… like when I process corn with the wood ash…we live in a fast food nation…more or less. They want everything instantaneous and right away. For me, once I get in…everything slows down. I don’t feel like, “Argh, I have to clean this corn.” It’s work.
Tom: It’s ritual too. It’s got meaning. So you want to do it. Usually, I used fresh beans rather than canned beans. The biggest influence on me was my grandfather. He was a minister. He wasn’t the fire and brimstone. He mainly told stories. He was a good storyteller. He never made us go to church. So me and my brother, we’d go to church…Easter and Christmas…because they gave out candy. Communion because you’d get that grape juice. That was his thing. I used to ask him. In the mountains of North Carolina, he was Cherokee. He grew up and had a revelation. Something happened to him up in the mountains. Like something spoke to him. One time I asked him…we were talking about God…maybe it was the Creator that talked to you…same thing. He never made us go to church but if there was doings at the Longhouse…after church…he’d come and get us…take us up there. He was respected by everybody…and the Longhouse people because he knew his language. He tried to teach me when I was a teenager. But I was too out there. I know the basics of culture and I can teach intro but to really get into it. I never really got into it. I like being free like that. Through art is how I learned culture.
Terry: In some ways, I feel like its…for what I’m doing in video and film…it’s a different language…like your stone work…it’s a different language as well. We are Native. We are indigenous. We think indigenous but unfortunately, a lot of us speak English.
Tom: It’s all English here. Barely here. Just in the Longhouse.
Terry: When it comes into my work or even my writing. Even though it’s English, I still have to be careful about how I…certain words. Like when I say our women…indigenous women had power…in an English term, it’s a loaded word. It means they are walking around flexing their muscles saying, “We are owners.” That’s not it. Its like we understand the concepts of our upbringing and traditional values but when you say it in English we always have to be careful how it’s…I have to give it the right context. When I say “power”, I mean everyone had his or her roles. It’s not hierarchy. There’s no hierarchy when I say that our women had power.
Tom: I say that too. Even when I talk about art…when I go to schools…middle school…high school…and give workshops. I say there are no rules in art and you can do anything…but I can see those art teachers (think), “There are rules.” They have the curriculum they have to follow.
Terry: Maybe at some point I’d like to come to your studio and maybe we could do something on video and it wouldn’t be a question and answer. I’m looking at this more like a conversation than an interview.
Tom: That’s good. I like that. I’d like to be in one of your videos some time.
Information about Tom Huff and his works can be found at the Native Roots Artist Guild.