Maxx Laate comes from a family of famous Zunis. Less well known is that many of the other top carvers are his brothers and nephews because they go by other surnames. They have mostly lived near each other and Maxx’s brother Pernell has been an inspiration and teacher for many of them, though Zunis don’t teach in the way schools do. So, the family has been influential to other carvers.
Pernell’s carving was amazing. He mostly did animals and figures of cowboys and Indians that are incredibly intricate. Pernell was the oldest of the Laate brothers and he inspired Maxx to do fetishes. Then they in turn inspired Lewis Malie (Mertz), Esteban Najera, and his brother Ruben, Florentine Martinez (Tino), and in-law Garrick Weeka, all of them master carvers today.
Maxx, like most Zuni artists, has tried many art forms: painting, pottery, wood whittling, katsinas and then silverwork. He learned casting from his father and he remembers casting arrowheads in the round.
He and his brothers carved wood when they had to herd sheep, a really boring job. Their grandfather Gus Laate did only the traditional style fetishes, but he was the motivation to begin fetish carving, picking a soft rock and using a knife and file.
His father Bennie Laate taught him to cast silver and he remembers casting a three-dimensional arrowhead piece. But mostly they were self taught, as most Zunis are. They took their creativity from the material and inventiveness they had from their own imagination.
Maxx soon added a Dremel to his tool box when the files he was using were too restrictive, both in the stone he could use, and the detail he wanted. A Dremel is a hand-held variable speed rotary tool that takes all sorts of grinding and cutting bits, and that that allowed him to do the super fine carving.
Maxx thinks he was the first to be inspired to carve the six directional animals together from a single stone. Today he mostly carves antler, both elk and deer. His brother Willard used to spend a lot of time in the woods, hunting. He would find shed antlers regularly but they are much scarcer these days. At one time he was able to get caribou antler and he carved an Eskimo sled with a string of dogs. He found that deer antlers were easier to use, because elk grows in layers like an onion but many carvers, including him, still use it.
He says the material dictates what he carves and how fast he works. Many sculptors say they carve what they see in the rock (and some Zuni pieces can’t be called any thing else). The delightful thing about really good carver is their ability to keep their work tribal but create new variations. Maxx has done some really original pieces like a man fighting a bear, a ring tailed cat and a plains chief holding and eagle. At one time he did canoes with people, goods and dogs in them.
Recently I visited his workshop and he was finishing up a piece carved from an antler that stood by itself, covered with spiders. Both tines of the antler had dozens of spiders running down the sides. The spider legs didn’t look any bigger than small twine, smaller than a toothpick, as small as or a cactus needle, which made the carving stunning. Maxx is most famous for his intricate eagles and fine deer, but he does lizards and anything he can think of, even alligators.A mark of his amazing skill is his fine detailing and his miniatures are amazing. But he has a sense of humor and originality as he carves buffalos with exaggerated humps, or an eagle with a rattlesnake in its mouth. The work of his pupils, Lewis Malie and Ruben Najera also do excellent and finely detailed work.