Dorothy Eugenie Brett’s oil on board painting titled Jemez Corn Dance was created in 1967. She creates a depiction of the ceremonial corn dance— a prayer for rain and growth needed to ensure a successful harvest—through the use of oil paints in a two-dimensional format. The piece embodies the rhythmic motions of the dancers and evokes feelings of both liveliness and serenity. The vibrant color scheme, use of lines, and arrangement of details all serve to create its purpose.
Dancers caught in motion flow down the center of the piece, covered in white body paint with thick black horizontal lines running across their bodies. Most of these lines are diagonal due to their curved body movements. These dancers, also called Koshares or clowns, look similar to zebras and are believed to represent ancestral spirits to promote growth and fertility. They are bare-chested, dressed in nothing but red cloths that resemble a type of skirt wrapped around their waists with string. Black designs are drawn onto their whitewashed faces, including rings around their eyes and v-shaped marking on both their foreheads and chins. Behind them are two banners, one white and one red, crossing one another to make an X. This banner separates them from another group of Koshares dancing off in the distance, this time dressed in blue cloths. On both the left and right sides of the painting, crowds of dancing people are gathered around the Koshares, facing forward with somber faces, never making eye contact with them. They appear to be holding green leaves wrapped in blue ribbon and rattles for making sound. Those on the left are dressed in blue clothing while those on the right are dressed in yellow. Located on both the bottom left and right corners of the painting are drum players who appear to be leading the way of the ceremony. From the traditional style of dress— such as the moccasins and headdresses —as well as the numerous props used throughout the piece—such as the rattles— one can assume that the people are Indians.
The painting includes a mixture of both warm and cool tones. The color scheme represents nature, which is essential for the production of crops. The blues represent the desire of water and the sky from which it falls, which is necessary for the growth of corn. The greens represent products of nature such as plants, and the yellows represent the sun and its warmth, also necessary for a successful harvest.
The vibrancy of the oil paints serves to represent the liveliness of the corn dance ceremony, yet the cooler tones and the expressionless faces both give a feeling of calmness as well. The paint blends smoothly on the canvas without creating a harsh transition from one color to the next. Brett has used quick, short strokes to create the leaves within the surrounding crowds as well as the fox tails peeking out from behind the Koshares.
There is a repetition of implied lines used throughout the artwork. Diagonal lines can be found in the surrounding crowds of dancers on each side of the Koshares, as well as within the Koshares’ own movements. These lines imply movement and direction, helping to give the feeling that the crowd is moving along to beating of the drums. Brett also incorporates curved lines into the artwork which represent the natural curvature of the human body and depict the motions of the dance. Depending upon the moves, the arms are either straight or curved, extending up to the sky as well as to the ground.
Brett creates an element of symmetry helping to keep the painting balanced. She achieves this by keeping the direction and placement of the surrounding crowds similar. The crowds move forward in orderly rows of twos, threes, or singles. If the row of people on one side is heavily slanted, Brett balances the opposite side by making that row heavily slanted as well. There is also a similarity in facial expressions. Depending upon the row, the faces are painted with eyes open looking off in the direction that they appear to be going, or painted with their eyes closed. She paints this in repetition with the first row having their eyes open, the second row with their eyes closed, the third row with eyes open, and so on. This helps to set rhythm within the piece.
The Koshares are a major element of the piece, as they appear to jump out in front of the surrounding dancers. Their white bodies contrast heavily with the red hues of their garments, helping to bring them into focus against the rest of the painting.
When looking at the painting, our eyes naturally focus on the Koshare leading the rest of the group. Brett appears to make this the focal point by placing him/her in the middle of the painting, body facing completely forward. He/she appears larger in stature than the rest of the crowd, and when compared to the color of the garments on the other Koshares his/her color red is the brightest and most vibrant. The horizontal lines painted on his/her body give a sense of stagnancy versus the feeling of movement given from the surrounding diagonal lines.
Dorothy Brett brings the ceremonial Jemez corn dance to life, carefully capturing both the movements involved and the underlying motives for the performance. Its intense burst of color and composition reflects the energetic atmosphere of the ceremony as well as its rhythm.
- Fergusson, Erna. Dancing Gods: Indian Ceremonials of New Mexico and Arizona. New York, NY: A.A. Knopf, 1931.