The Sonoran Desert is an ancient place where all natural elements — from plants and mountains, to seeds and stones — are imbued with sacred symbolism. These instruments of nature and culture also express layers of everyday practical meaning, as the arts of Domingo and Josepha “Chepa” Franco suggest.
The following information is culled from:
- Recollections by Domingo and Chepa Franco’s son, Patrick, 94, who lives nearby the San Xavier Mission with his son, Ignacio Nacho;
- Documents residing in the archives of Himdag Ki:, in Topawa, including a Documentary History by Nicholas Spark, for a 1990 UA Southwestern Literature class; information from the paper is used with permission of Mr. Spark and Himdag Ki:;
- Exhibit Notes, Tohono Chul Park, for 2005-2006 Franco Family exhibit curated by Vicki Donkersley;
- Jim Griffith, Southern Arizona Folk Arts, University of Arizona Press (1988).
Domingo and Chepa France were Tohono O’odham farmers and folk carvers who understood the land, “and from it they learned to shape their lives and their unique and lasting traditions.” Domingo (born 1892, died 1966) served in World War I, and was based in Fort Huachuca. Afterwards, he established his family farm at Franco Village, alongside Martinez Mountain, near the San Xavier Mission and the Santa Cruz. The saguaro and cholla around his home remained a sustainable economic resource. To supplement his farming, Domingo hauled saguaro and cholla skeletons to a local curio dealer, Mr. Hall, who used the wood to make covered wagon lamps out of the cholla.
The nature around Domingo also was a source of key tangible cultural materials. Franco’s son, Patrick, remembers how Domingo taught him to make drums and carve miniature bows and arrows sets from the reeds growing near the Santa Cruz. These also were sold to local souvenir shops for the tourist trade, to support the family.
A turning point came when the craftsman who usually purchased Domingo’s wood refused a load, because the wood did not have the correct texture. Domingo took the wood home, experimenting himself with making cholla wood lamps, painting desert scenes on the lamp shades. Over time, Domingo continued his lamp-making, and also created realistic oil paintings of Papago desert life. (In 1986, the Nation changed its name from “Papago” to “Tohono O’odham.”)
Dioramas Depict O’odham Culture
Research is not clear, but family members indicated that Domingo began to carve small figures to place on the base of the cholla lamps in the 1940s. Domingo carved the “dolls” from seasoned saguaro ribs, while Chepa (born 1901, died 1980) dressed the figures with swatches from her own clothing, also adding snips of her own hair for realism. The figures were of O’odham men and women, in miniature scenes of everyday lifeways and culture. Domingo’s first figure displayed a woman carrying a burden basket.
Domingo was a self-taught artist and wood carver. He used an axe, saw, file and small knife in his wood work, and oils for his painting (which was not a Papago tradition, according to Dr. Bernard Fontana, whose notes were reflected in the Himdag Ki: archive papers. Dr. Fontana’s notes also indicated that inspiration for the wood figures may have come from cloth dolls and clay figures fashioned by traditional artists of the Tribe.)
Domingo continued his lamp-making and his painting into the late 1940s and 1950s, when his carving technique matured. His lamp scenes evolved into stand-alone small replicas of everyday O’odham life, with woody saguaro cactus whittled into miniature figures that were dressed by Chepa, and attached to a base of cholla instead of on lamp bases. The Franco technique of depicting narratives of everyday life in folk art form was unique, as was the use of human hair and swatches of clothing in the sculptures. According to Tohono Chul Park exhibit notes, Tucson artist Ted DeGrazia encouraged Domingo to continue his painting and woodcarving commercially. Domingo won an Arizona State Fair prize for his oil paintings in 1955. In 1963, Domingo and Chepa were asked to craft a crèche Nativity scene out of saguaro ribs for the mission church in Pisinemo village.
Sharing Stories Globally
Before Domingo’s death in 1966, the Franco family had gained some recognition for their arts, with carved dolls and Domingo’s oil paintings selected for private collections, as well as collections of the Arizona State Museum and the New Mexico State Museum. Australia, Canada, England, Denmark, Egypt and Japan also displayed Franco dolls, and son Patrick, who served in World War II, the Korean War and was part of the first wave at Omaha Beach on D-Day, recalls visiting a museum in Germany, and showing his fellow GIs a sample of his father’s work.
After Domingo’s death, Chepa, who also had been a basketmaker, decided to try carving figures, to both carry on Domingo’s work and retain some of the income the doll-making had produced. Her style was distinguished from Domingo’s intricate carving, with her saguaro figures more simply whittled. For example, the fingers of her dolls did not illustrate digits, as Domingo’s dolls had. Yet her dolls often related rich storytelling, sometimes linked to legends, including the O’odham witch, Ho’ok Oks, her specialty.
Chepa’s family would collect and bring the saguaro ribs to her for doll-making, in her later years. Patrick noted that his other brother, Thomas, also took up the carving art, and carried forth on the tradition after Chepa’s death in 1980. His work, until his death several years ago, was distinguished in part by the plywood bases of his scenes: Figurines would be placed on the base, which was painted in glue and sprinkled with sand, to create diorama displays. Several of his scenes depicted multiple figures under a ramada, and many had incredible detail (he would often include miniature desert plants made from cactus wood and wooden stoves on the displays.) Thomas also created humorous scenes, including a contemporary frybread stand. Chepa and Thomas produced hundreds of new figures, with many of their sculptures now residing in private collections.
Recently, Patrick sat in his kitchen, surrounded by a few pieces of his parents’ work. He recalled how he and his father would search for the saguaro and cholla wood around the village. He spoke about how the carving might take weeks, and about how his parents told stories as they worked. Patrick pointed to one Domingo doll, and recalled the story about how the figure was using a long wooden spoon to stir the beans, just as Chepa had done with the beans grown on the family farm. Patrick was pleased when asked questions about his parents’ work, and gestured often as his son Nacho brought to the table more photos of family, of Patrick’s own war days, and of Patrick’s appearances in movies made in Old Tucson studios. Patrick touched each photo as he viewed and commented.
It was obvious that the remaining artifacts of his parents’ distinctive works still held great meaning for Patrick. They seemed to carry the voices of his family. He believes his parents had unique ability to shape extraordinary beauty from the desert’s natural resources, and he is deeply proud to share this beauty with the world.
- Additional storytelling by artist and researcher Reuben Naranjo, Jr.: Josefa (Chepa)’s father was Sevariano Garcia Antonio, who worked with the ethnomusicologist Frances Densmore. He was also one of Frances’ singers, for her wax recordings currently in the Smithsonian, if memory serves. Photograph by Frances Densmore is located here. This photo was published in 1929, in the book titled “Papago Music” by France’s Densmore. I believe that the book was published by the Bureau of American Ethnology. Internet image is of Cipriano Garcia playing a flute of the Tohono O’odham culture. Also referenced: https://www.questia.com/library/91363314/papago-music.
- Explanation of the 1963 request by Father Camillus Cavagnaro to make the Nativity for the San Jose Mission Church in the village of Pisinemo, is here.
- Tohono O’odham Nation and Papago references in these links.