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 Tony Briones  (1966 - )

About: Tony Briones


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Lived/Active: Arizona      Known for: kachina doll carver

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following information is from The Arizona Republic, March 12, 2011:  "Phoenix Man Recognized for Kachina-Doll Carving" by Sonja Haller.

Like Michelangelo and his famous statue of David, Tony Briones can see the kachina dolls* in a block of cottonwood-tree root before he begins carving.

Yet in recent years, bringing the one-of-a-kind doll into form has become a lesson in patience, healing and his evolution as an artist.

The Hopi Tribal member has carved the kachinas given to recipients of the annual Hon Kachina Volunteer Awards for almost 15 years.

In 2007, Briones suffered a life-threatening illness and lost vision in one eye.  The 45-year-old Phoenix man, modest and introverted, doesn't want to share more details except to say that the illness upset his equilibrium and depth perception. He carves now by a sense of touch but often must use shadows to perform the delicate job of painting the dolls.

"It was hard, and it still is," he said.

This year, the Hon Kachina Council will recognize Briones for his years of artistry during its annual award ceremony on Oct. 1.  Briones has never been to the ceremony that honors seven Valley volunteers for serving the community.

Kachinas were traditionally a teaching tool for children.  Kachina refers to the spirit beings believed to visit Hopi villagers and function as messengers between the spiritual world and physical domain.

A hon, or healing, kachina was first given out to people in the medical arena when the ceremony began honoring volunteers in 1977.

"But it was soon realized that all volunteers were helping to heal the community," said Pam Betz, Hon Kachina Council executive director.

The early kachinas were made of gold. When gold became too expensive, the Hon Kachina Council went looking for another, more accurate representation and contacted the Heard Museum in Phoenix to find a carver.

Briones has brought a new dimension to the award, Betz said.

"He has really captured the spirit and the essence of the early awards," she said. "They are just so special, and each one unique. And the detail . . . "

For a year after his illness, Briones didn't carve. But he missed it, and the carving eased his awkward, new orientation like a balm. "I'll work on something until I'm done with it. I can't put it down until I'm finished," said the single father of 11-year-old Maliah.

He learned to carve from a cousin while living on the Hopi Reservation in northeastern Arizona. When he began, his technique resembled his cousin's.

Traces remain of his cousin's style, but now, too, there is more of him in the work.  It may take him a bit longer to complete the dolls these days, but his eyesight issues have helped him create kachinas that reflect more of his internal vision.

"I'm still learning," he said. "I like to say I want to be a carver when I grow up."

Bruce McGee, the Heard's director of retail sales, recommended Briones for the Hon Kachina Awards' job. He was dependable and created the dolls in the '60s style, meaning they were hand-carved, painted and adorned with feathers and leather.

"I remember his perception definitely being off. We were worried he might not finish the dolls in time. But he came through like a trouper," McGee said. "And now they are looking better than they ever had.

"I've seen a lot of growth in him as an artist."

Briones said he couldn't say no when the Heard Museum asked him to carve the dolls.
He works at a much-reduced artist rate.

"They depended on me to do it, and they've helped me through some times," he said.
He watched one year when the Hon Kachina Volunteer Awards were televised. He saw his kachinas lined up on a stage. "I was pretty proud of that."

Briones said he's looking forward to seeing his work handed out at this year's ceremony.
"I've always thought it was a great thing, people helping other people."

* For more in-depth information about these terms and others, see Glossary

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