Claudia Peina comes from an illustrious family; both jewelry and especially fetishes. The earlier generation concentrated mainly on stringing fetishes. Kempsy Kushana, George Haloo, and Miguel and Rami Haloo who carved standing bears. Early on she learned to carve frogs from her aunt Rosalia Quam.
The late Colvin Peina, her older brother, was the inspiration for Claudia and her brother Troy. Troy was first to carve the dancing bears, but the two of them refined the idea together to create the art they are famous for. Claudia was about seventeen when she took up carving. It was hard not to carve when most of the family members were doing it.
As good artists will do, she kept experimenting; Smiling bears, Laughing bears, Singing bears; but always bears expressing joy. Claudia has tried stone carving, but is most comfortable and creative with elk antler which she buys at Joe Milo’s. Today she carves a number of different figures, like the ones she calls Care-takers.
As she grows she has become more bold with materials and designs. Lately she has been “dressing” her pieces. She has them holding spears and shields, ornamentation in coral and turquoise set into the figures. There is always something new out there. Her latest idea is to take the butts of elk antler, called rosettes or burrs, and turn them into relief carvings; a carved concho belt. She has accumulated a box of these rosettes discarded in favor of the antler itself. She has some large ones that would make fine conchos.
She is constantly refining her angels and butterfly maidens. At first she created wings out of shell, then she tried silver plate, and today she dresses them in marvelous filigree. For a time her husband Kall Kalestewa did her silver work, but when they separated she had to teach herself the skill. One of her filigree-winged butterflies fills the eye-catching cover of Mark Bahti’s book Spirit in the Stone.
We talked a lot about the various outlets for Native art today, much better than for her grandfather and his brother. She has a pile of ribbons, but that doesn’t dull the thrill of doing it over again. She has been successful in, and prominent at shows like the Heard Museum, Flagstaff Museum, Ceremonial and Indian Market, with new venues appearing all the time.
Like most true artists she doesn’t like doing the same piece over and over again, the only thing lesser talents are forced to do. All the same, one of her fetishes was included in the Southwest Indian Foundation’s catalog. The strangest request came through one of her buyers who asked her to make bears for some “Bear Club.” It has become an annual thing for her, carving around fifty new bears every year.
In recent years she has been a buyer for Harold Finkelstein who wrote the pamphlet Zuni Fetish Carvings. By doing that she is becoming familiar with the whole spectrum of Zuni art. It doesn’t hurt that so many great artists are her close relatives. Her only expense is time and money and she loves the search. These days she’s contemplating a Zuni store of her own in the near future.