Between Worlds and Time
Jewelry in the American Southwest evolved through a series of unlikely collaborations that resulted in a distinct regional style, combining Native American, European and North African elements. When colonists from Spain arrived in the Americas in the sixteenth century, they brought with them metalworking traditions grounded in seven centuries of Muslim occupation. These remain visible today in familiar forms of Navajo and Pueblo Indian silverwork. In 1969 North Africa returned to the Southwest in the person of a talented young artist named Evelyn Sabatie. Known today as Eveli—the Hopi pronunciation of her given name—she is one of only two jewelers acknowledged as protégés by the great Charles Loloma (the other is his niece Verma Nequatewa). Between about 1970 and 1996, Eveli created a body of work of marked originality, and one that fits well into the collaborative history of jewelrymaking in the Southwest.
Eveli Sabatie was born in eastern Algeria in 1940, to parents of French, Spanish and “who-knows-what” ancestry.1 Her childhood was characterized by turmoil and instability. The North African campaigns of the Second World War were just beginning, and her father was among those assisting Allied forces fighting in Libya. With no other options, Eveli and her mother followed him from post to post, living in everything “from tents to huts to cardboard boxes, moving by foot, donkey, camel, or military trucks.” In about 1946, the war at an end, the family settled in Oujda, a Moroccan town near the Algerian border. However as Morocco and then Algeria struggled for independence from France, violence once again became a common occurrence. “The breach between European and Arab populations increased,” she recalls. “I was in my early teens, but very aware of what was taking place. We lived very close to the border and shooting was a daily affair.”2
Unhappy at home and refusing to buy into the notion that “if you were French and Christian you had to be superior,” she found solace in drawing and in playing the violin, giving performances for patients at a local hospital. Teachers at the French schools she attended singled her out for her artistic abilities, assigning special projects and at one point awarding her a prize. When a beloved high-school teacher made preparations to return to France, she convinced Sabatie to accompany her and to pursue University studies. “I was always attracted to languages,” she says. “They represented communication and understanding.” Once again she excelled, earning scholarships at the Sorbonne in Paris and the Freie Universität in Berlin. She studied German language, literature and philosophy, her choice motivated by the idea that “sharing a language was like sharing food. I thought that if we could understand the ‘enemy’s’ language and appreciate the ‘enemy’s’ food, we would not so easily go to war.”3
Eveli’s early experiences gave her an abiding respect and admiration for teachers, and a sense of gratitude for those who took her “under their wings.” She describes herself as being “of the old school—the old traditional societies where the teacher is really so important. It says something sacred about a teacher, that I always felt.”4 But after her graduation she discovered that teaching students was not her calling. When her life was disrupted once again—first by the sudden deaths of her mother and of a lover, and then by a serious illness—she returned to art.5
She explored various media, including watercolors and fiber arts, and made a large tapestry as a gesture of thanks for the teacher who had brought her to Europe. Eveli recalls “she had it in her apartment covering a wall for many, many years until she died.” She traveled to Toulouse where she learned puppetry, “making those great big huge puppets that take three or four people to manipulate.” When the director of the puppet theater wanted to retire, he asked her to take over—“But you know, I was in my twenties and I was not about to take on that responsibility, so I let it go.” She studied enameling, and remembers “I was wearing a lot of jewelry at the time. So I was thinking of probably making jewelry, but that never happened. It was just an idea. So you never know how all of these ideas and desires work or where they lead you.”6
After her illness, and with the increasing political unrest of late-1960s Paris, Sabatie began to think about leaving Europe. She was focused on the possibility of traveling to Tibet, but one morning experienced what she describes as “an audible vision—if that makes any sense,” compelling her to go instead to the United States and to connect with Native Americans. She does not remember having been aware of Native American issues prior to that time, nevertheless she felt as though “a mighty foot had lodged itself into my lower back, pushing me toward a very frightening journey. I had no choice.”7
When she arrived in San Francisco in October 1968, she spoke little English and knew only that Native people lived on reservations. When she asked where those reservations were, she was met with suspicion and skepticism: “Of course people were kind of surprised at my questions, and were asking me, ‘Well, do you work for the government? Why do you have to find out about reservations?’ ”8 Then at a Grateful Dead concert at the Fillmore West, Eveli was drawn into a group of people discussing the upcoming trial of Donald Bitsie, a young Navajo man charged with refusing to be inducted into the United States army.9 The trial was scheduled to take place at the Federal Building later that week, and Eveli, like many others, decided to attend. When she pressed the button for an elevator to take her to the courtroom, “two huge doors opened to reveal a space packed with Native people in their full regalia.”10 She joined them, and learned they were representatives of southwestern tribes.
Among the tribal representatives on the elevator was Thomas Banyacya, a Hopi traditional leader whose mission included communicating Hopi prophecies about the consequences of environmental degradation. During World War II, Banyacya served seven years in jail for refusing to register for the draft, and later helped to secure the right of Hopis to declare conscientious objector status on religious grounds.11 Eveli spent the day with the group, later attending an event at the Intertribal Friendship House in Oakland. Banyacya invited her to attend the Powamuya (Bean Dance) ceremony in the coming spring.
She arrived at Hopi two weeks early for the ceremony. “At the very instant I touched Hopi soil and got a glimpse into its ceremonial life,” she wrote, “my searching stopped: this was the authenticity of the human heart which I had been looking for. I longed for that way of life.”12 Her words echo the tenor of the times. Sabatie was in some regards like many young people of the late 1960s who, in the words of historian Sherry L. Smith, “believed that in Indians they had found an important, American based, alternative way of living. . . True, their reflections did not represent years of careful study or deep knowledge. These were, after all, young people just getting to know the world, seeking answers about how to live a life of substance and meaning.”13 It is also likely that she felt she had discovered a desert home that offered the peace and security she had been denied as a child.
Shortly after the Powamuya ceremony, Eveli met Charles Loloma at the local laundromat. He later recalled that “I was happy someone was speaking French,”14 and she describes their conversation: “He said ‘what are you doing here’ and ‘what have you done,’ and I was telling him and he said ‘well, do you want to learn how to make jewelry?’ and I said ‘Sure, I’d never say no!’ ” She began visiting his studio, each day walking the seven miles from her place in Kykotsmovi to his in Hotevilla.15
Eveli joined Charles Loloma’s studio as his focus was moving away from cast jewelry and he was becoming interested in mosaic inlay. From 1947-1949 Loloma attended the School for American Craftsmen at Alfred University, where first Philip Morton and then John Prip ran the jewelry program.16 Charles and his wife Otellie were studying ceramics, but Charles was also interested in jewelry. In an interview published in 1976 he maintained that at Alfred he “was working in pottery and silver,” and that after opening their ceramics studio at Scottdale’s Kiva Craft Center he began “doing more jewelry than pottery.”17 Loloma’s friend and mentor Lloyd Kiva New, owner of the Kiva Craft Center, characterized his switch from pottery to jewelry as “abrupt,” and wrote that he first worked “in sand-stone cast silver, and then in centrifugally cast gold works.”18 In a conversation with Sabatie recorded in the early 1990s New said, “I was there the day he did the cast piece,” and New and Sabatie discussed the fact that Loloma sought instruction from Bob Winston.19
However by 1969 Loloma had become interested in the idea that at Hopi, jewelry traditions had more to do with stone and shell than with silversmithing, which was introduced late in the nineteenth century and had not matured into a characteristic Hopi style. He began to draw inspiration from an ancient type of mosaic earring that was still important in Pueblo Indian ceremonial dress, from a photograph of an abalone-encrusted Northwest Coast mask, and from an illustrated book about ancient Egyptian jewelry.20
Eveli brought to the mix a familiarity with Moroccan mosaic—“the turquoise blues, the blue-greens, the lapis blues of tiles laid into the walls of mosques and fountains”— as well as an insatiable curiosity that made her a willing pupil.21 Loloma did not teach as much as encourage her to look on and experiment. “Charles was busy doing his thing,” she says, “and he was not about to sit down and teach me, so I just watched around and tried to do things.”22
She returned to the Bay Area to learn soldering and basic jewelrymaking. Her first piece was a carved, silver-mounted box made from fossil ivory and a steak bone that “I wrestled away from dogs I was walking in Mill Valley.”23 Friends there presented her with an intact deer skeleton that they had discovered on a hike, and in 1971 they hosted her first exhibition in their home.24 The work consisted largely of carved deer bone, silver and leather.
When Sabatie returned to Hopi she brought with her a number of pieces she had made, including a ring for Charles. She assisted in the studio, cutting stone and making turquoise and coral inlay. “It was not great quality turquoise,” she says, “but it was fun and I just loved being there.” After a few months Verma Nequatewa joined the studio as well. “And so the two of us started training together. We got so close to each other, the three of us working together, that twelve years later you couldn’t tell who had made what. It was a really beautiful experience.”25
Eveli left the Loloma studio in 1972 and moved to Santa Fe. She had one thousand dollars (her share of the proceeds from bracelets she had helped produce), and the bench that had been hers at the studio. Loloma gave her a handful of turquoise stones and a torch. She rented an apartment in Santa Fe’s Acequia Madre neighborhood at the back of a house near what was then the property of Forrest Fenn’s gallery. She purchased silver and went to work, continuing to use bone until she could afford other materials. In order to introduce herself to people in the neighborhood, she distributed baskets of homemade bread, and carried the jewelry she hoped to sell in a paper sack. In 1976, after a series of tiny live-work spaces had proved impractical, she moved to a small house in Tucson and built a well-equipped studio in the large backyard.26
Although she learned casting in Loloma’s studio, and used it with great artistry in works like The Significance, Eveli preferred to fabricate jewelry that accentuates stone and ivory in combination with exotic woods, coral and other materials. Her love of carving and of stone is evident in works that highlight lavish, organic shapes and crystal cabochons in open back settings. She made imaginative use of a technique most often associated with Loloma, placing inlay on the interior of a bracelet or ring. However while Loloma’s inlay consists primarily of blocks of color, Eveli uses it to expand complex themes: the inside of a bracelet titled Blue Reeds and Purple Nights depicts a meandering turquoise stream bordered by a path of textured and overlaid gold. Although stones predominate, the metal surrounding them is heavily textured and stamped, rarely left plain. As she developed her own style, her work became known for its opulence and wit, and for the fact that she does not repeat herself: “Every moment of every day is different!” she says, “So how can you repeat? The moment you repeat you kill something. You’re not really in what’s happening right now. Every material is different, every hour is different, my mood is different every day.”27
Eveli Sabatie stopped making jewelry in 1998 when her hands and her eyesight would no longer support her work. Almost immediately she returned to her roots in French puppet-theater, making enormous sculptures of paper and fabric.28 Today at age seventy-five, she makes her living teaching yoga and Sanskrit, her former jewelry studio now converted to that purpose. She maintains the vitality and drive that have sustained her throughout her life, and she makes a mean green chile stew.
Cheri Falkenstien-Doyle is the Marcia Docter Curator of Native American Jewelry at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her most recent project involved collaborating with an exceptional team of designers, preparators, interns, and museum staff on the Wheelwright’s new Jim and Lauris Phillips Center for the Study of Southwestern Jewelry, which opened to the public in June 2015. She is currently conducting research for a book whose working title is Plateros: The Shared History of Southwestern Silversmithing.