Richard Chavez Volume 40.4

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When Richard Chavez polishes a stone, he walks into the bright New Mexico sun to check his work. The natural light allows him to see imperfections that would be invisible in the lights of his studio. Always a perfectionist, Chavez may take several steps in and out of the studio door until a stone is polished to his satisfaction. A fastidious lapidary artist, Chavez has been working with a selection of quality stones since the mid-1970s. Today he is recognized as one of the leading Southwestern lapidary artists.

      Chavez’s work is characterized by clean lines, fine polishing, attention to detail, and reflects his architectural background, which was his first career. While working for the architectural firm of Harvey S. Hoshour, Chavez became familiar with and began to apply the principles of “less is more” pioneered by Bauhaus modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. These same principles are apparent in the jewelry Chavez creates today.

BRACELET of fossilized walrus ivory, turquoise, coral, black jade, and silver, 3.2 centimeters wide, 2012. Private Collection.

      His jewelry is strikingly different from that of other Southwestern artists. The color palette he chooses relies strongly on either a predominant dark background of black jade or lapis lazuli or a light background of fossilized ivory; and generally, he incorporates turquoise and coral—both thought to be traditional Southwestern materials—only as accents.

Like many of his colleagues who began careers in the 1970s, Chavez was influenced by the groundbreaking work of jeweler Charles Loloma (Hopi, 1921-1991), who was also known for his use of atypical stones set in innovative designs. Like Loloma, Chavez distinguished his jewelry beginning in the 1970s by including stones that were thought to be nontraditional. The stones can include Siberian green jade, black jade, tiger’s eye, fossilized ivory, opal, lapis lazuli, sugilite, chrysoprase, and occasionally agates of particularly striking colors.

Chavez was born in 1949 and grew up in the conservative village of San Felipe Pueblo. Educational goals were important to his parents, which led Chavez to pursue a career in architecture. Initially, he trained as an architectural draftsman though a program at Draughon’s Business College in Dallas and later, while working for Hoshour, he took architecture classes at the University of New Mexico. He began making jewelry while working at Hoshour’s firm to supplement his income. Initially, Chavez made heishi beads from olivella shells or he hand-fashioned turquoise beads. But as the lower-priced heishi beads imported from Asia undersold his handmade work, Chavez began to look for other options. He noticed that some other Southwestern jewelers were creating intriguing designs in silver and he decided to try his hand at metalwork.

LAPIS LAZULI EARRINGS of coral, turquoise and fourteen karat gold, 4.1 centimeters long, 1992. Private Collection. BLACK JADE EARRINGS of coral, turquoise and eighteen karat gold, 3.2 centimeters long, 2003-2004. Collection of Joan Borinstein. SIBERIAN GREEN JADE EARRINGS of coral, turquoise and silver, 3.2 centimeters long, 2009. Collection of Carole Katz.

      Within a few short years after transitioning from heishi beads to metal jewelry with inset stones, Chavez began to receive recognition for his innovative designs. He won the Best of Show Award at Eight Northern Pueblos Show in 1976, the first year he participated in the event. That same year, he also sold at the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA) Market in Santa Fe. In 1977, the second year he entered the SWAIA Market, he was awarded a first place ribbon, and in 1981 received a SWAIA Fellowship during the second year it was offered to artists. Chavez used the fellowship funds to purchase gold, which was a more expensive metal than silver, and as funds allowed, he utilized it with more frequency as part of his jewelry. During this pivotal period and at the forefront of change in Southwestern wearable art, he and a few other artists were transforming Southwestern jewelry from classic silver and turquoise forms to those that featured gold, innovative shapes and a variety of stones. The materials as well as the designs they created blazed new trails in Native aesthetics.

BRACELET of Sea of Japan coral, turquoise and silver, 2012. Collection of Mike and Gene Waddell.

      SWAIA—the organization that produces the largest leading Native American art market in the U.S.—had another major impact on Chavez’s jewelry. In the 1970s-80s, SWAIA rules required that jewelers use all natural materials. Chavez preferred onyx rather than jet for a black stone because jet is a soft stone and he wanted a stone that was more scratch resistant. Realizing that onyx is dyed to achieve the black color, and as such was not a natural stone, Chavez began to look for alternatives. In 1988, he tried black jade for the first time and found the stone to be one that was suitably hard and took a polish well. Always fond of the deep blue of lapis lazuli, black jade offered Chavez an alternative dark stone choice.

Chavez also found that black jade, which in the U.S. often comes from Wyoming or Northern California, is readily available in an unpolished form. Stone selection is an important part of the work of a lapidarist and Chavez purchases many of his stones at the gem and mineral shows held in Tucson or Denver. Materials are sold by weight and, of course, the stones look much different in their raw, unpolished states. When lapidarists cut into one, they might find that only a portion is of suitable quality. Much of the raw material can be discarded while cutting, shaping and polishing. Artists are taking a chance each time they purchase raw materials. 

NECKLACE of lapis lazuli, coral, turquoise, and silver, 22.9 centimeters long, 1992. Private Collection. Adjacent are preparatory drawings of works; one containing the necklace shown here. Chavez sketches all of his pieces to scale and on the final drawing will add notes about materials and dimensions. He has kept many of the drawings to record the development of his career over time.

BOLO TIE of fossilized ivory, coral, black jade, turquoise, and fourteen karat gold, 8.3 x 5.4 centimeters, 1998. Private Collection.

      When he first began working with metals, Chavez thought about the designs he wanted to make and worked directly with the stones and metals to create each item. Within a few short years, he began to draw preparatory sketches of jewelry designs—initially on lined note paper but more often on graph paper—and has continued this process, drawing all of his works to scale. For some pieces, Chavez may draw a series of designs on different pages of paper until he is satisfied; and on the final drawing, he’ll typically add notes about materials and also include dimensions. He has retained many of these drawings, which as a body of work illustrates the progression of his career through time.

Chavez’s interest in architecture has continued to influence his jewelry designs and he often photographs architectural features when he travels. The rings in particular evince architectural motifs—a building’s cornice may be inspiration for the lines of a ring or the corner of a building reflected in an angle or influence its height. Some have flat planes that rise above the hand, much like a structure rising from the ground. Several examples contain a different design on each side. The circular forms of building ductwork might appear as a circular stone added to a ring’s flat plane.

Through his work at Hoshour’s firm, Chavez was also exposed to contemporary art by artists such as Mark Rothko, Joan Miro and Piet Mondrian. Their influence can be seen especially in Chavez’s color choices. The patterns in stonework are often reminiscent of Mondrian’s colorations. His bolo tie pendants could be compared to a painter’s palette since the ornaments serve as a platform for design and color balance. Generally, these designs are abstracted geometrics, but at times one can detect the shape of a face or the hint of an eye.

Some of Chavez’s creations directly reflect nature. The best examples are his butterfly brooches, which can also be worn as pendants. With great skill, Chavez creates complex stone mosaics in the butterfly wings, or simply carves stones to form the wings, adding incised lines to delineate patterns and creases on the wing’s surface. Often, he carefully carves contrasting stones for use as butterfly bodies and heads.

BRACELET of black jade, coral, dolomite, and silver, 3.0 centimeters wide, 2010. Private Collection.

      Chavez was also influenced by the economy of Scandinavian designs and he strives toward uninterrupted lines—A clasp might be designed to look like other sections in a necklace or bracelet; or alternately, pendants are attached to the fronts of necklaces and, in the process, also serve as the clasp. This meticulous geometry has influenced placements in exhibitions. When his jewelry was included in the Albuquerque Museum’s inaugural exhibition, “One Space, Three Visions” in 1979, the curator included his jewelry in the contemporary rather than the Native American section.

Chavez is perhaps best known for the complex inlay shown in his bracelets. Since he cuts and shapes each stone by hand, his application of the stones to bracelet bands best exemplifies his mastery of blending shape, color and design. The stones are perfectly cut, often in trapezoid forms that match seamlessly. Sometimes Chavez adds thin gold bars as accents to the inlay while at other times he may choose turquoise or coral for his accents.

One of Chavez’s first uses of Siberian green jade was for a bracelet made in 1996: the emerald-green jade stones, some of which have black inclusions, drew further attention to his capacity for detail and it has become a signature design.

Another significant bracelet design represents his great accomplishments in stone polishing. It consists of a highly polished black jade plane with inset cardinal points in red coral or white dolomite. The surfaces are so perfectly polished that it is almost impossible to see the seams of the stones without magnification.

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      Chavez undertakes every step of jewelrymaking without the aid of assistants. In 1997, when the Heard Museum was preparing a Southwestern jewelry exhibition, Chavez submitted a handwritten artist statement, which said, “From raw materials to finished product, I’m the sole maker of my jewelry. Each piece coming out of my studio has a part of me reflected in it. Any aspect of my jewelry making involves designing, fabricating, the grinding of metal and stones, the polishing and the finish applied to a piece. As difficult as it gets sometimes, I’ll never delegate any part of the work to an assistant.” Chavez has kept true to that statement. Because he is involved in every step, he may produce a small number of quality works annually.

COLLABORATIVE BELT BY RICHARD CHAVEZ AND JARED CHAVEZ of black jade, coral, turquoise, and silver, 88.9 centimeters long, buckle measures 7.0 x 7.0 centimeters, 2012. Private Collection.

      In recent years, Chavez has collaborated with his son Jared (born 1982). Jared showed an inclination for art at an early age and an interest in jewelry design and fabrication while still a teenager. His parents encouraged him to attend college and after completing his Bachelor of Arts in studio art, with a focus in digital art and printmaking at Georgetown University, Jared returned to San Felipe and began to make jewelry on his own. The two men share a studio in San Felipe adjacent to the family home. While Richard emphasizes lapidary work, Jared has focused on metalsmithing. In 2011 they collaborated for the first time on a necklace that featured Jared’s metalwork and Richard’s lapidary work. They have undertaken several collaborations since.

For more than forty years, Richard Chavez has created masterful jewelry with complex inlay and striking color patterns that reflect his architectural sensibilities. As his work has evolved, he has perfected his techniques while his designs have continued to delight and intrigue all who view them.

SUGGESTED READING
Chalker, Kari, ed. Totems to Turquoise: Native North American Jewelry Arts of the Northwest and Southwest. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2004.
Cirillo, Dexter. Southwestern Indian Jewelry. New York: Abbeville Press, 1992.
—. Southwestern Indian Jewelry: Crafting New Traditions. New York: Rizzoli, 2008.
Pardue, Diana F. The Cutting Edge: Contemporary Southwestern Jewelry and Metalwork. Phoenix: Heard Museum, 1997.
—. Contemporary Southwestern Jewelry. Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith, 2007.
—. Symmetry in Stone: The Jewelry of Richard I. Chavez. Phoenix: Heard Museum, 2017.

“Symmetry in Stone: The Jewelry of Richard I. Chavez” showed February 2 - August 5, 2018 at the Heard Museum, 2301 N. Central Ave., Phoenix, Arizona 85004. Visit their website at www.heard.org.

 

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Diana F. Pardue is Chief Curator at the Heard Museum in Phoenix. Her interest in jewelry has led her to curate several exhibitions as well as to write articles and books about the topic, which include Contemporary Southwestern Jewelry; Shared Images: The Innovative Jewelry of Yazzie Johnson and Gail Bird; Native American Bolo Ties: Vintage and Contemporary Artistry (with Norman Sandfield); Awa Tsireh: Pueblo Painter and Metalsmith (with Norman Sandfield); and Symmetry in Stone: The Jewelry of Richard I. Chavez. It is the fine lapidary skill of Chavez and start-to-finish process that Pardue investigates in her contribution to this issue.

Stepping Out Volume 40.3

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SQUARE TOE, SQUARE HEEL, TWINED CHILD’S SANDAL WITH BOLSTER TOE (Ancestral Pueblo) of yucca, leather, ochre, B.C. 500–A.D. 500. The wearer’s second and third toe slipped under the leather strap below the “fringe” that decorates the toe-end of the sandal. A doubled cord then went over the top of the foot and was tied to the ankle and heel straps on either side of the ankle. This sandal is decorated with a red stripe below the leather bolster. Others were more elaborately decorated with red and black geometric designs. Photographs by Chris Dorantes, courtesy of the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, except where noted.

BOY’S MOCCASINS (Northern Cheyenne) of buckskin, rawhide, glass beads, sinew, 1875-80. The small and somewhat irregular white beads on these moccasins help date them.

Most of us are acquainted with moccasins: think of kids’ Halloween costumes or old movies; “driving mocs” for the car; high-tech mocs for rock climbing. The eye-opening exhibit “Stepping Out: 10,000 Years of Walking the West,” at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe through December 31, 2018, tells a much bigger story, that dramatically shifts how to see and appreciate traditional handmade Native American footwear. Gorgeous examples, helped by the museum’s especially strong American Southwest and Plains holdings, look as bright and as prepossessing as the day they were made. Excellent wall texts, three full outfits and three videos that demonstrate construction and beading techniques and discuss heritage and innovation, combine to explain the depths of meanings and identity associated with moccasins. Displayed in four regional groups corresponding to historic tribal homelands, they represent millennia of artistry, design and complex cultural significance. “Stepping Out” offers a rich and satisfying understanding of their role in the lives of indigenous people, past and present.

BOY’S MOCCASINS by Santiago Romero (Jemez) of leather, sinew, vegetal dye, 1950s.

      A chronological arrangement begins with prehistoric sandals made of yucca leaves and fibers, and sweeps around the gallery to today. The dry climate of the American Southwest preserved the three-thousand-year-old sandals found in rock shelters far and wide. In a video, archaeologist Mary Weahkee (Comanche/Santa Clara) makes a Mogollon-style pair of yucca sandals, which are surprisingly tough and sturdy. Although simple at first glance, sandals served as exposés. Just like moccasins, they were intended to announce as much about the wearer as about their world. Made by myriad different finger-weave techniques of plaiting, twining or wrapping, some had tiny painted decorative details; in one unworn example, an impossibly intricate raised pattern covers the soles. They all testify to identity and belonging. If you saw a sandal’s imprint in the dust, you not only knew someone had passed by, but you also knew their culture. Whether friend or foe, they also told you whose territory you were in—virtually a GPS system for navigating.

Sandals disappeared in the Southwest around seven hundred years ago, and moccasins appeared. Then as now, moccasins are built of brain-tanned deer, buffalo, elk or moose hides, with thicker rawhide soles, depending on the tribe. Men’s moccasins are usually around ankle height, while women’s rise to the knee. Tall women’s moccasins from Taos Pueblo look almost demure: plain leather falls in soft folds, covered in matte white kaolin clay and fastened with a single concha-style button. In the old days moccasins were sewn by a relative or close friend, and given as a gift; everything anyone wore was acquired one piece at a time. A more recent trend toward designing and making everything as a set at once is seen in a magnificent full outfit made by Jerry Ingram (Blackfeet) around 1991-92, using brain-tanned, smoked elk and deerskin lavishly decorated with porcupine quills, glass beads, feathers, ermine skins, and sinew. 

MAN’S MOCCASINS (Mescalero Apache) of buckskin, rawhide, dye, glass beads, tin tinklers, early 1900s. The heel and vamp fringes on this pair of moccasins share a similar style to men’s moccasins from southern Great Plains tribes.

WOMAN’S MOCCASINS (Shoshone Bannock) of brain tanned elk hide, rawhide, glass beads, brass buttons, sinew, cotton thread, commercial ribbon, 1920–1940. The floral patterns on these Great Basin moccasins were inspired by designs on European and European-styled goods. The Shoshone became famous for their beautifully executed beaded flowers, especially roses.

WOMAN’S MOCCASINS (Comanche) of brain tanned buckskin, rawhide, pollen pigment, glass beads, nickel-plated brass buttons, early 1900s. These tall moccasins protected the wearer’s legs while riding horseback.

      Once European traders arrived with glass beads, the distinctiveness of many tribes’ moccasins grew even more pronounced. Moccasins can be dated by their beads, because the cut, size and colors available changed over time. A mounted board shows the range of bead sizes, starting with miniscule #15 seed beads seen in Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho moccasins. Northwest tribes fell for extravagant beaded florals, like the famous “Shoshone rose,” of which there are several different ones on view. Big, exuberant blossoms could not be sewn using the common lane or hump stitch, in which short lengths of beads are laid down side-by-side to create a solid surface. Instead, as renowned beadwork artist Teri Greeves (Kiowa/Comanche) shows in a nearby video, the two-needle stitch technique was invented to tack down beads in curves. One of the stellar accomplishments of the exhibit is how it helps distinguish between, say, Sioux and Blackfeet—in the designs, the materials and in how they were built. Others are more recognizable: White Mountain Apache moccasins feature a stubby, fuzzy “cactus-kicker” toe; the Shawnee, Kiowa and Comanche favored embellishments of rows of tin cones, or lush heel and side fringes, which happen to cascade gracefully riding on horseback (and made a nice status symbol, too, letting everyone know you owned horses).

MOCCASINS (Hidatsa and Cree) of buckskin, rawhide, quills, glass beads, sinew, brass beads, circa 1880. The quillwork technique on this pair of moccasins is indicative of Hidatsa origins, but the beadwork looks Cree. These may have been made by someone whose background included both tribal traditions or made for someone who descended from both tribes.

BOY’S MOCCASINS (Southern Cheyenne) of buckskin, rawhide, glass beads, sinew, paint, late 1800s. The narrow sole on these shoes is a hallmark of Cheyenne moccasins made for Cheyenne use. The heel and side fringes are often seen on men’s moccasins from the southern Plains.

BEADED CONVERSE ALL-STARS SNEAKERS by Teri Greeves (Kiowa/Comanche) of commercial shoes, glass beads, 1999.

      A properly made moccasin had the patterns and colors signifying the tribe. Bead workers carried over much older geometric, abstract designs that symbolized sacred landscape elements, or important animals, or reminded the wearer of the shared stories and beliefs of the tribe. Among the Plains tribes, beadwork was mixed with quillwork, made from flattened, dyed and sewn porcupine quills, which continued in use for a long time. In a pair of circa 1910 Sioux moccasins, branching, narrow-leaf shapes in quillwork meander across a red field on the vamps (tops). But the wearer, looking down, sees the ears and antlers of a deer’s head: the connotations were personal and spiritual. In the later nineteenth century, when tribes were forced together onto reservations, there was much swapping of designs and techniques, like in the circa 1870-1880s moccasins joining Hidatsa and Cree elements. At dance competitions today at inter-tribal pow-wows, hand-beaded regalia often looks like a mashup of designs from several tribes, prized for its showy elaborateness as much as for the fine quality of the work. 

MOCCASINS WITH BEADED SOLES (Sioux) of cowhide, glass beads, sinew, tin tinklers, cow tail hair, prior to 1890. Commonly thought to be for use in burials, moccasins with beaded soles were in actuality a way to honor living people. They were used in ceremonies, to recognize individual achievement and to show status. Some have wear on the soles, confirming that they were worn to walk on.

      Modesty was not an issue out on the Plains. Possibly the moccasins of the Sioux, Northern Cheyenne and Northern Arapaho are the most flamboyant in the exhibit. Certainly showstoppers, they are absolutely blazing with bold colors and exquisitely beaded designs. A side text happily blows up a popular myth about fully beaded soles, shown in a handsome pair of Sioux moccasins with two neat rows of yellow hoof prints crossing the bottoms. They were never intended only for burials, as is commonly thought: beaded-sole moccasins were conduits of honor and respect. Old photographs display them worn on horseback for ceremonials, and now they are essential for a celebration or special event.

Moccasins are vital to Native American life. In 2012, Jessica “Jaylyn” Atsye of Laguna Pueblo launched “Rock Your Mocs” day as a way of affirming Native identity. Held the week of November 15, it has grown into a movement across the country (see facebook.com/RockYourMocs). Following in the steps of all Native footwear, where you use whatever materials you have available, some contemporary Native artists have brilliantly integrated mainstream cultural artifacts with beadwork traditions. A pair of Steve Madden high-heel sneakers stands in mid-stride near a child’s high-tops, both fully beaded by Teri Greeves. She explains in an accompanying video that sneakers are “familiar across the planet,” and perfect for telling the story of the Kiowa. Christian Louboutin stiletto heels beaded by Emil Her Many Horses (Oglala Sioux) look ravishing and recognizably Native. Native Americans are finding more ways to say who they are. “Stepping Out” jubilantly declares, in the words of the Navajo prayer: “In beauty all day I walk.”

BEADED STEVE MADDEN SHOES by Teri Greeves (Kiowa/Comanche) of commercial shoes, glass beads, 2017. Among the Kiowa, the men were traditionally the pictorial artists. In contrast, Kiowa women created abstract patterns to encode their knowledge of the world. These shoes celebrate those female artists. Each pair of images shows an abstract pattern drawn from Kiowa parfleches (hide containers) or from the beadwork on moccasins, cradleboards, and other items, and pairs that design with the woman who may have created that pattern and its meaning. Photograph by Stephen Lang.

 

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Leslie Clark, a writer and editor with a mad affinity for textiles, is based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She was captivated by the exhibition of Native American moccasins at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, not least because of its presentation. “Curator Maxine McBrinn draws you in with stories and commentary that bring alive the personal meanings of moccasins. Tribal cultures and traditions are not trapped in the past; instead the lore and legacy of moccasins seem to make them walk beside us now. Showing through December 2018, it’s a do-not-miss exhibit.”

Beads: A Universe of Meaning Volume 40.2

MAN’S MOCCASINS by Iowa artist, 64.5 x 32.3 centimeters, circa 1875.  Private collection. Photographs   by Neebinnaukzhik Southall (Ojibway),   courtesy of the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian except where noted.  GAUNTLETS by Plateau artist, 35.6 x 22.9 centimeters, circa 1940.  Private collection.  MOENNITARRI WARRIOR IN THE COSTUME OF THE DOG DANSE   by Karl Bodmer (1809-1893), circa 1840.

MAN’S MOCCASINS by Iowa artist, 64.5 x 32.3 centimeters, circa 1875. Private collection. Photographs by Neebinnaukzhik Southall (Ojibway), courtesy of the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian except where noted. GAUNTLETS by Plateau artist, 35.6 x 22.9 centimeters, circa 1940. Private collection. MOENNITARRI WARRIOR IN THE COSTUME OF THE DOG DANSE by Karl Bodmer (1809-1893), circa 1840.

"Beads: A Universe of Meaning,” currently on exhibit at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, explores the diversity of Native American beadwork traditions practiced throughout the United States. Almost since their introduction to the New World at the end of the fifteenth century, glass beads have been used by Native artists to convey ideas about tribal, community and personal identity; wealth and status; beauty and spirituality; as well as about popular culture, resistance and relationships. Featuring more than seventy pieces dating from circa 1800 to the present, the exhibition presents beadwork as a fundamental medium of artistic, cultural and personal expression.

BAG DEPICTING A WHITE-TAILED DEER by Sandra Okuma (Luiseño/Shoshone-Bannock), 2011. Private collection. 

      The first piece encountered in the gallery is an early nineteenth-century man’s outfit, consisting of a painted  hide shirt and leggings embroidered with porcupine quills and beads. The leggings resemble those worn by Perishka-Ruhpa in Karl Bodmer’s portrait, Moennitarri Warrior, In the Costume of the Dog Danse, painted in about 1840. The quillwork strips that line the shoulders of the shirt and the outer edges of the leggings are trimmed with the type of large blue beads that early traders and explorers first brought into Native communities after about 1670, with the opening of the North American fur trade. In exchange for beaver pelts, which were highly valued in Europe as a material for felted fur hats, French entrepreneurs provided their Native American trading partners a variety of European-made items. Metal tools and cookware, cloth, ribbon, and thimbles were welcomed and readily incorporated into Native life. But glass trade beads, whose lustrous colors evoked natural materials—crystal, shell, copper, and stone—that already held profound cultural and spiritual meaning, resonated in a way that other goods did not. Beads fit easily into existing ideas about ornamentation and design, and they required no preparation. As they became available, women increasingly combined them with traditional embroidery materials, such as bird or porcupine quills, to decorate clothing, bags, cradleboards, and dwellings, thus enhancing their families’ material and spiritual standing within their communities. They also brought honor to themselves: a woman’s artistic contributions in the form of beadwork and quillwork demonstrated her virtue, and was valued to the degree that women’s craft societies were equal in status to men’s military societies. Women who showed artistic promise were subjected to rigorous tests of skill, accompanied by extensive ceremonial initiation, feasting and recognition that involved the entire community.

MÉTIS CREE COAT, 76.2 x 71.1 centimeters, circa 1900. Although the cut of this coat suggests that it was made during the late nineteenth century, it is possible that the beadwork is earlier and has been repurposed from another garment. Private collection. Photograph by Ornament.

      A significant portion of the exhibition is devoted to beadwork traditions of the Pacific Northwest. By the early nineteenth century, Native trade networks had carried European and Chinese glass beads to indigenous people living in the Columbia River Plateau—the area comprising interior Oregon, Washington and western Idaho. The first migrant trains carrying Euro-American settlers began to arrive during the 1830s, after a wagon trail had been cleared from Independence, Missouri, to Fort Hall, Idaho. By the 1850s newcomers flooded into the territory, converting open land into farms and towns and compromising sites where Plateau women customarily gathered basketry materials and edible plants. After 1855 Plateau people were increasingly confined to reservations, and the annual cycle of foraging and hunting became more difficult to maintain. As women spent less time gathering, processing and preparing basketry fibers and traditional foods, they turned their attention to beadwork, developing a unique tradition that, then as now, encouraged innovative and individualistic design. Floral patterns, inspired by imagery on commercially printed cotton cloth, transfer-ware ceramics and other products traded from or seen in the possession of white newcomers, began to appear by the 1870s. Horses were the subjects of the first pictorial designs, reflecting local equestrian traditions that date to the 1700s. These were followed by depictions of other animals, birds, fish, and people. During the twentieth century Plateau artists enthusiastically embraced images drawn from popular culture, ranging from glamorous “flappers” to Nipper, the RCA Victor dog. 

VEST by Plateau artist, 50.8 x 40.6 centimeters, circa 1900. The beads have been sewn onto commercial cotton fabric. Private collection. Photograph by Ornament.

 

 

In 1910 a group of Oregon businessmen organized the Pendleton Round-Up—a celebration of the town’s frontier heritage that featured horse racing and riding competitions. Modeled after popular entertainments such as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, the success of the event depended upon the participation of Native American performers and demonstrators, who attended annually. In 1916 at the age of fifty-three, Nez Perce rodeo rider Jackson Sundown won the “all around” bronc riding competition, beating men half his age and securing his place as a legend of the sport. His victory roused tremendous enthusiasm among Plateau people. 

As other rodeos and round-ups followed, they not only became opportunities for Native people to gather and compete for prizes, they also inspired lavish displays of beaded clothing, accessories and horse gear. A horse collar beaded with bright orange flowers, made by Irene Onepennee during the 1950s, and a circa 1930 flat bag with the image of a bronc rider emblazoned against a bright blue sky, attest to the importance of these events and to Sundown’s continued popularity.

The mounting of an exhibition such as this one, in which the qualities of the featured pieces include fragility, weight and a range of ages and techniques, presents challenges that require a high level of skill and craftsmanship on the part of museum technicians, as well as on that of the artists. This is especially true in an institution the size of the Wheelwright, where staffing is limited and budget is always a challenge. For most installations (including this one), we rely on the expertise of a team of contractors: exhibitions designer Louis Emmanuel Gauci of Knoxville, Tennessee; lighting designer Todd Elmer of Santa Fe, New Mexico; and preparator Jack Townes of Estacada, Oregon. For this exhibition, Jack was assisted by artist and volunteer Cathy Short (Citizen Potowatomi) of Santa Fe.

 

WOMAN’S BEADED YOKE by Plateau artist, 132.1 x 101.6 centimeters, circa 1950. Detail shows the lovely beaded flowers enhancing the yoke. Private Collection. Photographs by Ornament.

      Normally the Wheelwright’s fifteen-hundred-square-foot changing exhibitions gallery is gutted and redesigned for each new project. For “Beads,” time and budget prevented us from building new casework from scratch, and we were challenged to adapt both storyline and object placement to a pre-existing design. We decided to place the shirt and leggings in a tall, narrow case at the entrance to the exhibition because they represent the beginning of our story. Their age and condition meant that they could not be displayed on a mannequin; instead they required the full support of a padded slantboard.

Using cotton fabric and polyester batting, Jack and Cathy designed padded inserts for each part of the outfit. Powerful magnets encased in tyvek pouches hold the shirt and leggings, with their inserts, on to a slanted panel of medium-density fiberboard upholstered with batting and polyester fleece. The result is that the outfit is fully, but invisibly, supported. Magnets are similarly used to mount bags, pouches, beaded cuffs, and other pieces throughout the exhibition. They safely bear the weight of fragile objects, and spare the expense of creating individual armatures for each piece.

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During the twentieth century Plateau artists enthusiastically embraced images drawn from popular culture, ranging from glamorous “flappers” to Nipper, the RCA Victor dog.

      In an effort to emphasize that beadwork is a living (and thriving) tradition, the exhibition avoids a strict chronology, and frequently juxtaposes nineteenth-century pieces with contemporary work. A Sandra Okuma bag depicting a white-tailed deer shares a case with a nineteenth-century pouch bearing an image of a Federal eagle. Jaime Okuma’s beaded and ribbon-appliquéd coat is placed opposite a heavily beaded Plateau dress of blue wool trade cloth. A large case at the back of the gallery, devoted to beadwork made especially for children, holds a pair of circa 1870 Columbia River Plateau cradleboards with lavish floral designs, Jamie Okuma’s contemporary Baby on Board cradleboard, and Teri Greeves’s and Dennis Esquibel’s collaborative Ahday Chair. Modeled on the design of a Kiowa cradle, the chair is designed as a small throne for an ahday child. In Kiowa tradition, this favored child receives all of the best that a family can give—insurance that should the worst happen, one family member might survive. Greeves writes, “Though this practice may seem unfair to the other children within the family, I believe it has a very serious function in relationship to the fragility of life both in the past and the present. The ahday is the child that might have a greater chance of living, of surviving the brutality of genocide. The ahday becomes the beauty of life, a being to make beautiful things for, a being of hope in all that is beautiful in Kiowa life.”

KEN WILLIAMS POWWOW REGALIA, consisting of headdress, choker, vest, collar, tie, belt, shirt, breechcloth, leggings, beaded mirror bag, and Eagle tail fan that were provided by Williams’s many friends. Williams is Northern Arapaho and Seneca. Photograph by Ornament.

      To illustrate the importance of beadwork as a signifier of contemporary Native identity, the exhibition includes clothing and accessories currently in use by Wheelwright staff and associates. Arapaho/Seneca artist Ken Williams is a renowned beadworker, and also the manager of the Wheelwright’s museum store, the Case Trading Post. Ken’s knowledge of beadwork traditions and his expertise as a collector informed much of the exhibition, but museum protocol prevented us from including his work in the show. However Ken’s personal regalia—the outfit he wears for powwows and other events—is an assemblage of work by many other artists, acquired mostly as gifts from family members and friends. Ken generously agreed to lend it for the exhibition. 

While it is possible for museums to acquire specially designed mannequins made of archival materials, the cost of these is prohibitive. Instead, the Wheelwright has assembled a collection of female forms, purchased primarily at local “going-out-of-business” and garage sales. We customize these for museum use by padding them with polyester batting and Ethafoam, an inert polyethylene foam used extensively in exhibitions and to store museum objects safely.  To support Ken’s outfit we purchased an inexpensive, commercial male mannequin made of shiny white plastic. We expected to cover the mannequin with a neutral-colored knit material. But with limited choices at our local chain fabric store, and in consultation with Ken, we decided instead on a gold lamé jersey—a reference to Ken’s outgoing personality and his love of sparkling gold jewelry. Cathy Short set about creating a handstitched hood and gloves to cover plastic parts that would not be hidden by regalia.

The creation of the “Kennequin” (as it was dubbed by museum staff) was enjoyable for the exhibitions crew, but it also helped us to address ideas related to contemporary Native identity, and the continued importance of beadwork in Native American life and culture. One of the most striking components of Ken’s outfit is a feathered headdress that he received as a gift from Kiowa-Comanche elder, the late Jeri Ah-Be-Hill, Teri Greeves’s mother. When Ken received the antique Arapaho headdress it was in poor condition: the only salvageable parts were the feathers and a strip of beadwork. Ken removed these, cleaned them up, attached them to a new cap, and added decorative elements of his own—a treatment that both Greeves and Williams agree is an appropriate use of treasured antique materials. The spirit of the artist inhabits regalia, making it a living creation. Through renewal and reuse, it lives on.

REFERENCES
Berlo, Janet Catherine and Ruth Bliss Phillips. Native North American Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Grafe, Steven L. The Origins of Floral-Design Beadwork in the Southern Columbia River Plateau. PhD Dissertation. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1999.
. Beaded Brilliance: Wearable Art from the Columbia River Plateau. Oklahoma City: National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, 2006.
Penny, David W. Art of the American Indian Frontier: The Chandler-Pohrt Collection. Detroit: Detroit Institute of Arts, 1992.
 

“Beads: A Universe of Meaning” is on view at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian,
Santa Fe, New Mexico, through April 15, 2018.

 

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Cheri Falkenstien-Doyle is the Marcia Docter Curator of Native American Jewelry at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, Santa Fe, New Mexico. As the curator of a small museum that originates all of the exhibitions it presents, she works with an exceptional team of designers, preparators, museum staff, and volunteers. Her current projects include exhibitions with printmaker Melanie Yazzie, and silversmith Norbert Peshlakai; as well as a catalog of the Jim and Lauris Phillips Collection of Native American Jewelry.

Keri Ataumbi Volume 40.1

 

KERI ATAUMBI, 2017. Photograph by Raechel Running. BUMBLE BEE RING of oxidized sterling silver, twenty-two karat yellow gold, brilliant-cut white diamonds, yellow sapphires, black pearl, 5.1 x 4.4 x 5.1 centimeters, 2011. Photographs by Keri Ataumbi except where noted.

 

It is late May in New Mexico. Santa Fe has recently been hit by twelve inches of snow—here today, gone tomorrow. The desert has appreciated the moisture; wild flowers pop up and some of the cacti blossom. An accompanying frost, however, has decimated the Concord grape vines Keri Ataumbi has been cultivating at her home in Cerrillos Hills just south of Santa Fe. She shrugs her shoulders as she beckons a visitor into her studio.

      Ataumbi is preparing for the annual Native Treasures Indian Arts Festival at the Santa Fe Convention Center. It is the kick-off to the busiest season in the city when various arts and cultural festivals draw people from around the world. The Native Treasures show benefits the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture (MIAC) in Santa Fe. Ataumbi and her sister, master bead artist Teri Greeves, have donated works. In 2015 they were designated “Living Treasures” at the festival.

On this May afternoon Ataumbi is also looking ahead to future shows. Earlier in the day, Elizabeth Evans from Four Winds Gallery in Pittsburgh had come by to look at new work, which Ataumbi’s apprentice, jeweler Tania Larsson, is busy photographing. The mood in the studio is bittersweet: after two years with Ataumbi, Larsson is returning to her home in Yellowknife, in Canada’s Northwest Territories. Her story is remarkable: Of Gwich’in and Swedish descent, Larsson was born and raised in France and moved to Canada at age fifteen. Her mother, Shirley Firth Larsson (1954-2013), was an Olympic cross-country skier. 

The two women met when Ataumbi filled in for a friend to teach a jewelry class at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe where Larsson was pursuing a fine arts degree. The only native college with a focus on fine art, IAIA enrolls students from tribes across North America. Ataumbi found it refreshing to be around young minds, and she was impressed by Larsson’s go-getter attitude and took her on. 

Ataumbi herself came to jewelry in her late twenties; she has been a full-time craft artist for going on eighteen years. She started her artistic life as a painter, but switched to jewelry after taking a basics course at the Santa Fe Community College. Today, she boasts a thriving jewelry business and a special stature among the makers of wearable art in America.   

Her approach to art and life is the same: Ataumbi gets inspired by an idea and sets out to make it happen. Sometimes it will take her a couple of years to figure it out, designing and drawing, reworking and rethinking. When she has finally settled on the concept, she may have to turn to friends to pull it off. For example, a piece with a prominent pavé setting required that she learn the technique. She sought assistance and acquired a new skill in order to fulfill her vision. It is one reason why she loves being in her field: there is always something new to learn. 

Ataumbi works in series, developing a theme then exploring different ways to represent it. For example, her insect collection featured damsel flies, beetles, water bugs, yellow jackets, and her “girls,” the honey bees she cares for (she calls herself a “lackadaisical beekeeper”). The water bugs appear in a set of earrings, their small eighteen karat gold bodies hugging black Tahitian pearls. A brooch inspired by a Datura flower features twenty-two karat gold honey bees exploring its crocheted silver folds.

THAW-YAW KOOIE EARRINGS of eighteen karat yellow gold, white diamonds, coyote fur, 8.3 x 5.7 x 1.3 centimeters, 2016. Model: Amber Morning Star Byers. Photograph by Bri Crimino.

      Rarely will Ataumbi return to a series even if it has been popular; she likes the idea of having a finite body of work. “Even though I could make bugs forever,” she explains, “I’m not going to go back because those pieces were made in a specific time period.” She also wants to be able to explore other imagery—and honor the collectors who have invested in her work. She does do commissions, with a special passion for wedding rings. “You get to make something so highly personalized,” she says. She often works closely with the couple, to channel their vision. Making these rings is, to her, an “act of prayer.”

Ataumbi’s pieces have tended to move between structural and surface-oriented—and abstract—on the one hand and pictorial/figurative on the other. The oxidized silver arrow cuff from her Archery series, for example, has a hard-edge dynamism, even with its various accents: eighteen karat gold, six rose-cut diamonds, and twenty-eight brilliant-cut diamonds. The series arose after Ataumbi took up archery as a way to deal with carpal tunnel syndrome. 

In the pictorial category, Ataumbi often draws on animals, including the “critters” that frequent the desert around her home and studio: snakes, tarantulas, birds, and spring peepers. She can be quite literal in her representations of these creatures, but more often she stylizes their shapes. A snake brooch features a sleek gold serpent with diamond eyes sliding along a sterling silver twig. 

Asked about her favorite materials, Ataumbi is quick to declare her love for high karat gold. “It’s a color thing,” she explains, but she has also developed an understanding of its properties that allows her to work with it in complete comfort. She has a similar passion for diamonds—low cut, colored, natural gray. She likes combining the rose-cut with the brilliant: “I like the fact that they’re the same stone but look so different, but they just love each other—one big happy family.” 

Silver, platinum and gemstones, as well as such natural materials as buffalo horn and brain-tanned buckskin, are also on Ataumbi’s list. She tends, she says, to use materials in an untraditional manner. She points to platinum: Instead of a high shine, she likes to leave it in a rough state with a kind of buffered texture. “I think of the material as an artist, not as a trained jeweler who has a degree in stone setting,” she says. She sets out to make an art object rather than a piece of fine jewelry. 

Ataumbi and her husband enjoy sailing—on lakes in New Mexico, in Turkey, the Caribbean, and Maine, among other places. This connection to the water led to the Ocean collection. Here again, the pieces range from abstract to more literal. Sometimes it is the material, such as coral, that ties the work to the theme; at other times, it is the image: a squid ring, a sea turtle cuff. The latter piece was inspired by snorkeling and watching turtles graze in sea grass. The turtle is carved from a mabé pearl; the grass, made of twenty-two karat gold, is sprinkled with sapphires and diamonds. 

THAN TDAY KX’OLE-PAHN NECKLACE of sterling silver, eighteen karat yellow gold, twenty-two karat gold, rose-cut colored diamond, brilliant-cut white diamonds, sapphires, mother of pearl, watercolor on velllum, hand-painted, 5.1 x 2.5 x 81.3 centimeters, 2016. Photograph by UnderexposedStudios.com.

      Ataumbi’s mussel shell necklace is among her boldest creations. Thirty or so of the bivalves were formed using a hydraulic press and then were etched, soldered and connected by rivets. One gold shell stands out from the silvery gray array of its oxidized silver neighbors. A hook allows the wearer to wrap it twice around the neck or leave it long. The piece was featured in “Native Fashion Now”, which originated at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, in 2014, and finished up at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City this past September. 

Among her most remarkable series is one Ataumbi started two years ago after her mother died. From her twenties on, Jeri Ah-be-hill (1935-2015), a Kiowa-Comanche, had worn native clothing everywhere she went as a way of graciously educating people she met about who she was while honoring the people she came from. She also oversaw the Native American Clothing Contest at the Santa Fe Indian Market for seventeen years. When she died, Indian Country News titled its obituary “Kiowa-Comanche fashion icon Jeri Ah-be-hill walks on.”

MOMMY’S SERIES: TDAHN KHAW CUFF of oxidized sterling silver, twenty-two karat yellow gold,  brilliant-cut white diamonds, 5.1 x 4.4 x 5.1 centimeters, 2015.

      In addition to fine moccasins, belts and tea dresses, Ah-be-hill wore jewelry from her extensive collection. In her Mommy’s Series Ataumbi set out to recreate some of the pieces she had inherited. Developing the work was a way to both honor her mother and work through her grief, which had left her in a kind of creative limbo (her mother’s death had been unexpected—she suffered a heart attack in her yard). 

Among the pieces was a vintage Harvey ring her mother used to wear on her little finger. Fred Harvey (1835-1901) was a British-born entrepreneur who is generally credited with helping to build a market for Native American jewelry in the American west. The original ring, in silver, was falling apart so Ataumbi remade it in her own style, using eighteen karat gold and adding her signature accent: a small diamond set in the underside. The actress Melaw Nakehk’o wore this dazzling vertical ring, along with a set of Ataumbi’s gold orb earrings, on the red carpet at the premiere of the 2015 film The Revenant in which she starred. 

In another piece, Ataumbi combined painting and jewelry, a first for her. She was inspired by the Native American tradition of placing umbilical cords into fetishes that represent one’s clan. Ataumbi’s, made by her grandmother, is in the shape of a turtle. “The fetishes are hung on a cradleboard when we’re babies,” she explains, “and then as we grow older we wear them on a belt. When we die, they’re buried with us.” Which is why, she adds, “it’s so offensive to go into stores, trading posts, galleries and find them lined up, old ones, taken from graves.”  

The multipart piece, which won best in show at the 2016 Indian Market in Santa Fe, features a miniature portrait of Ataumbi’s grandmother, Carrie Susie Ataumbi, for whom she was named. Certain elements of the piece conjure her mother, such as the white buffalo symbol, which is made from mother of pearl. “It’s hard to put something like this up for sale,” she notes. She hopes a museum might acquire it.  

Recreating her mother’s jewelry led Ataumbi to reconsider her attitude toward Native American jewelry. She had generally steered clear of “native aesthetic” in favor of her own creative vision. When she was younger, she had made a conscious decision to avoid being pigeonholed as a native artist (“a lot of our young native artists go through this,” she explains).  

Since her mother died, Ataumbi has begun to rethink this stance. “At forty-five, total mid-career,” she states, “I’m owning it finally.” While she has always drawn on traditional Kiowa imagery and materials, in some of her new pieces she has been mixing in the things that “are valuable to us as native people” with things that are valuable in the jewelry world. One example is a pair of earrings that incorporates porcupine hair. Some of these pieces appeared in “From My Studio: Feathers to Diamonds” at the Shiprock Gallery in Santa Fe in July. 

      Ataumbi has collaborated on pieces with several artists, including jeweler Robin Waynee and beader Jamie Okuma. Waynee, who lives in Santa Fe, is of German and Saginaw Chippewa descent and “likes very clean lines,” according to her collaborator. A multiple Saul Bell Award winner, she and Ataumbi partnered on an earrings-ring-necklace set related to the insect series. They donated the necklace to the Indian Market’s gala auction in 2011, in support of the Southwest Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA). 

Ataumbi’s collaborative pieces with Jaime Okuma have drawn on the latter’s award-winning beadwork. Of Shoshone-Bannock and Luiseño heritage, Okuma, who lives on the La Jolla Indian Reservation in Pauma Valley, California, is known for her customized designer footwear as well as exquisite beaded ornaments. 

Okuma and Ataumbi chose Pocahontas as the subject of their first piece, a jewelry set comprised of a ring, pendant and a pair of earrings. “[Pocahontas] changed history, a single individual acting as a bridge,” Ataumbi has stated, “and Jamie and I are bridge people, too, moving between two worlds, esthetics, and perspectives.” 

The artists used three well-known images of the renowned Native American cultural figure as sources: Simon van de Passe’s 1616 engraving, the Sedgeford Hall portrait from the 1750s and Thomas Sully’s 1852 rendering. The complex piece, which incorporates a wide range of materials, including antique glass, buckskin, twenty-four karat electroplated beads, eighteen-karat yellow gold, fresh water pearls, indigenous wampum, and diamonds, was purchased by the Minneapolis Institute of Art for its permanent collection in 2014. The two have teamed up since to co-create a Marilyn Monroe ring and a bracelet with a human skull, For the Love of Art, inspired by German artist Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull and For the Love of God (2007).

FOR THE LOVE OF ART BRACELET, collaboration with Jamie Okuma of oxidized sterling silver, eighteen karat yellow gold, rose-cut colored diamonds, black diamonds, antique seed beads, black diamond beads, brain-tanned buckskin, 5.1 x 4.4 x 5.1 centimeters, 2014.
POCAHONTAS RING, collaboration with Jamie Okuma of eighteen karat yellow gold, rose-cut colored diamonds, brilliant-cut white diamonds, antique seed beads, brain-tanned buckskin, 5.1 x 5.1 x 5.7 centimeters, 2014. Collection of Minneapolis Institute of Art.

      Keri Sue Ataumbi was born in Lander, Wyoming, on the Wind River Indian Reservation, home of the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes. She grew up on the Eastern Shoshone side of the reservation. Her mother, Jeri Ah-be-hill, had met her husband, Italian-American sculptor Richard Greeves, in St. Louis. They eventually moved to Wyoming where she opened the Fort Washakie Trading Company in the mid-1960s. She ran it for nearly thirty years. 

Both parents had a major influence on Ataumbi’s growth as an artist. She remembers her father welding horseshoes to create a garden gate and pouring bronze to create one of his romanticized western figures for which he is well known. As she told Southwest Art Magazine in 2004, she came to love spending time in the foundry. She and her sister learned to think for themselves, to tackle the challenges of creating objects.

YELLOW MUSSEL SHELL TAB EARRINGS AND STACKING RINGS of twenty-two karat yellow gold and yellow mussel shell; rose-cut colored diamonds, turquoise and twenty-two karat gold, 5.1 x 3.2 x 0.6 centimeters; 1.9 x 1.9 x 0.6 centimeters, 2016. Model: Shayla Blatchford. Photograph by UnderexposedStudios.com

      Her mother’s grassroots commitment to Native American artists inspired her from early on. In her teens, while working at the Anadarko Southern Plains Museum, Ah-be-hill encountered a native artist who was trying to place her moccasins, an exquisite pair with extraordinary beadwork, in the museum’s shop. Outlets were few, and after coming upon the moccasins on a gas station counter alongside the Wrigley’s gum and cigarettes, Ah-be-hill felt compelled to bring this work to a broader audience.

Ataumbi describes this moment as a turning point in her mother’s life. She was among a group of pioneers who said, “This is art.” When she opened the trading post at Fort Washokie, she made sure Native American art from across the country was front and center. Among Ataumbi’s memories is the bottom shelf of a long counter in the trading post filled with moccasins of all sizes, from baby to adult. “Anyone who walked through those doors could walk out with a pair of brain-tanned handmade authentic Native American moccasins,” she recounts, adding, “and that fit you.”  

BISBEE TURQUOISE RING of eighteen karat yellow gold, Bisbee turquoise, white diamonds, 2.5 x 2.5 x 1.9 centimeters, 2015.

      Ataumbi also remembers the native traders coming by her mother’s store in their RVs to sell their wares: Navaho rugs, sterling silver, pottery. Her mother would buy “bread and butter” stuff—earrings, rings, beadwork items, and the like—as well as the materials for making them: hides, beads, needles, etc. Then she would usher in her daughters, who helped in the store, to look at the “good stuff” and let them pick out something. Ataumbi still remembers seeing her first Charles Loloma piece, in the back of a Winnebago. Loloma (1921-1991) played a major liberating role in the development of the contemporary Native American jewelry movement.

Ataumbi claims she came out of the womb knowing she wanted to be an artist. “I didn’t have a choice,” she says with a smile. While sorting through her late mother’s belongings, she discovered all her childhood drawings (“the woman did not throw anything away”), including a self-portrait made when she was six or so years old that showed her sitting at a work table. Beneath her mother’s heading, “What I’m good at,” it says “Making stuff.” 

At age eight or nine Ataumbi considered becoming a mortician because she had read that da Vinci used to go to the morgue to study cadavers. “That was really silly,” she admits, yet it foreshadowed her determination to pursue a life in art.

Ataumbi attended the Cambridge School of Weston outside Boston. It was the “ultimate culture shock,” she recalls, moving from remote Wyoming where she had been home-schooled to this predominantly white upper class school. At a “hugely formative moment” in her life, she loved it. It strengthened her independent spirit and helped fuel her artistic inclinations. She remembers in particular a drawing class taught by painter Todd Bartel. Bartel encouraged his students to freely explore what drawing might be. “As a teenager, that blew my mind.”   

      Bartel had attended the Rhode Island School of Design and recommended it to Ataumbi. Looking back, she might have chosen a different route: RISD proved to be a “wrong fit,” plus a lot of unpleasant things happened while she was there, from having her car and house broken into to having a friend thrown in jail. After less than a year, she fled west to Santa Fe where her mother was living.

Following a short stint in retail, Ataumbi established a landscaping business with a friend—“two women who didn’t have a clue but who were determined to figure it out,” she recalls with a smile. And figure it out they did, building a successful business. When her partner decided to go to medical school, Ataumbi found herself at a crossroads: would she carry on without her or embrace art full-time? 

Ataumbi is quick to point out that the whole time she was landscaping she was painting and showing her work at LewAllen Contemporary in Santa Fe. She would take time off to paint, working furiously for several weeks to produce work for shows. Her paintings at the time were “very surface-oriented, very abstract, very textured,” influenced by the contemporary Italian artist Francesco Clemente. She produced several series, riffing on Native American subjects, such as Séndé, the Kiowa trickster, and Stony Road, one of the survivors of the great flood. 

While her paintings sold, Ataumbi felt the need to return to school. She earned an Associate of Fine Arts degree at the IAIA, then transferred to the College of Santa Fe (now the Santa Fe University of Art and Design). While not especially strong in the arts, the small Catholic school had a terrific art history department. One of her teachers there, artist and clothing designer Linda Swanson, had a profound impact on her thinking. “She taught me how not to fear intellectualism and criticism,” Ataumbi recalls, and to communicate in her own voice. 

Following graduation, Ataumbi felt she needed to get her masters, but changed her mind after a half of a year at the University of New Mexico. “I’m going to end up being a teacher,” she thought to herself, “and not have any time to do my own work.” She took a jewelry class at the local community college, a beginner’s course—“how to saw, how to use fire, this is what a mullion is.” She was hooked: “This is it. This is it. This is it.”

Over time Ataumbi built up her business while doing random jobs to help make ends meet. She recalls with a smile her first showing at the Heard Fair in Phoenix: dreaming of selling out and being the next big thing, she managed two “pity sales”: purchases by her mother and a cousin. The steps forward were slower than she wished, but she was dogged. 

Her studio is located in what was once a small barn space renovated by her husband, Joel Muller, a contractor (her office is in the former chicken coop). The walls are decorated with a wonderfully eclectic assortment of art and objects, many from her mother’s collection. Here and there are her own paintings. Although painting was her first love, Ataumbi has found it to be anxiety-provoking, and yet she returns to it when time allows.

ARROW CUFF of oxidized sterling silver, eighteen karat yellow gold, rose-cut colored diamonds, brilliant-cut white diamonds, 5.1 x 4.4 x 5.1 centimeters, 2015. 

      Showing off her laser welder, Ataumbi admits to feeling love for an inanimate object. “I can make a weld that is half the width of a hair,” she says with awe. She keeps some of her tools in a handsome Japanese tea cabinet from the 1920s. She spends a lot of time in the Los Cerillos hills near her home, running with her dogs (“my studio assistants”), hiking and exploring. 

Ataumbi has lived in and around Santa Fe for going on thirty years now. She loves the mix of cultures and communities. The artists support one another. “I’ve run out of acetylene—got a tank?” She markets her work through several galleries, museum shops and fairs, including the annual Indian Fair and Market at the Heard Museum in Phoenix where she has won a number of prizes in several categories. She is considering entering some non-native fairs, but recognizes the challenge of putting together a cohesive body of work. “I tend to be all over the place,” she says. She also uses social media, including Facebook, to promote her work. 

Part of her mission as an artist is to educate people. When non-natives tell her that her work “doesn’t look native,” Ataumbi explains that she grew up on the rez, in a native home. “You can see the lightbulbs go on,” she says. She firmly believes, and has proven by her own example, that contemporary native jewelry does not have to fit a certain mold.

Like Keri Ataumbi's work? Here's a few beautiful pieces that we weren't able to show in print:

 

      Get Inspired!

 
 

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After a week in Santa Fe this past May, Carl Little was ready to move there. “Santa Fe boasts the third largest art market in the U.S.,” he notes, “and it was the National Geographic Traveler World Legacy Award winner for Sense of Place in 2017.” In addition to a memorable visit with Keri Ataumbi, Little spent time on Museum Hill (where the Wheelwright Museum was featuring an extraordinary beadwork exhibition), took in the galleries on Canyon Road, and enjoyed the city’s high desert vibe. Little’s most recent book is Philip Barter: Forever Maine, published by Marshall Wilkes.

Native Fashion Now Volume 40.1

DRESS, HEADPIECE AND CAPE by Orlando Dugi (Diné) of paint, silk, organza, feathers, beads, and twenty-four karat gold; porcupine quills and feathers; feathers, beads and silver, Desert Heat Collection, 2012. Model: Louisa Belian. Photograph by Thosh Collins.

Inset:
THE MESSENGER (THE OWL) CAPE AND HEADPIECE by Margaret Roach Wheeler of silk/wool yarn, metal, silver, glass beads, and peacock feathers, Mohatan Collection, 2014. Photograph by Greg Hall.
 

Fashion exists along an interesting spectrum—that of building personal and public identity. It is the overarching narrative, the sizzling, morphing cinematic of the mind’s eye that is constantly reinventing itself. While fashion as a concept exists universally, the institution’s birthplace, and the subsequent structure that was created from those beginnings, could fairly be ascribed to Paris. As such, fashion has been a European-dominated organism for most of its modern existence.

      As a sculptor of identity, then, it is perhaps most apropos that a people who have struggled with retaining and defining their identity have become the most recent insurgents within what has for the last century been a Western cultural enterprise. Represented in the exhibition “Native Fashion Now”, originating at the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts, and ending this September at New York’s National Museum of the American Indian, the work of sixty-seven Native American artists and designers reassesses the topic of fashion, and introduces exciting possibilities towards where it is traveling.

The exhibition is better viewed through the lens of perspective and context to achieve maximum impact. Fashion is ravenous, devouring and subsuming participants in a high stakes competition for fame, recognition and income. But the greatest fashion designers have always been subversives—Elsa Schiaparelli, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Yves St. Laurent, Christian Dior, Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood, Rei Kawakubo, and Issey Miyake shared a mindset that flouted rules and sensibility to change how the game was played. In doing so, they shifted the boundaries of the masculine and feminine.

What modern Native fashion designers are doing, then, is more clear within this setting. Seen not as minor titillations in a leviathan oeuvre, but as poking holes and proffering jests that subtly undermine the status quo, these designers are introducing a radical concept, bringing the legitimacy of non-European aesthetics into the world of fashion. The exhibit, in covering a diverse range of work, examined the many directions from which this change can emanate. Take, for example, the striking ensemble Desert Heat by Orlando Dugi (Diné).

In this dress, Dugi has carefully aligned the shock value of most contemporary fashion with a cultural aesthetic grounded in his own tradition. Desert Heat’s long, shimmering dress, dyed shibori-style with ardent crimsons, blotches of black and coronas of orange, is topped with a mantle of feathers, draped over the wearer’s shoulders and locked around the throat with a beadwork collar. A headdress of porcupine quills and feathers surmounts the whole like a wild woman’s crown. All of these elements contain traces of Dugi’s native world, and to those in the know it is hard not to see his outfit for what it is—a ferociously graceful costume that transforms its wearer into a bird of prey. Paying homage to the dancer’s ensembles of Native American tribal rituals, it also respects the animals of the earth. Indeed, although not indigenous to North America, Dugi’s piece resembles the snake-slaying secretary bird of Africa.

POSTMODERN BOA of stainless steel, sterling silver, enamel paint, and feathers, by David and Wayne Nez Gaussoin (Picuris Pueblo/Diné), 2009. Model: Tazbah Gaussoin. Photograph by David Gaussoin; courtesy of Museum of Indian Arts and Culture.

      While Western contemporary fashion appears to be a monolithic construct of fashion labels and major design firms, contributors to it have differing ideas of what fashion actually is. From those who consider themselves artists rather than fashion designers, to those who see no distinction between the two, and finally people who firmly see themselves as couturiers, the term, like art itself, is subject to interpretation. Native artists Wayne Nez and David Gaussoin (Picuris Pueblo/Diné) work in a variety of media, and their contribution to the exhibition is Postmodern Boa, a serpentine rising spiral of enameled steel festooned with feathers.

As an item of adornment both sleek and slinky, coquettishly hiding its wearer yet revealing glimpses through dark crimson, Postmodern Boa evokes an aura of pomp and mystique. Yet despite its allure, the origins of this crafted object are deeper. The community-focused nature of Native culture was what brought about its creation. The Gaussoin brothers had been collaborating for a series of fashion show fundraisers, with the aim of raising money for a nonprofit that enabled Native American youth to attend the Santa Fe Opera. “These early fashion shows took place in a night club. I think that idea of opera and night club together kind of explains that piece,” Wayne Nez recalls.

These hidden roots, which despite being unknown to the outside observer exist regardless, are an integral aspect of Native fashion. The undercurrents of family, tradition and community are present in many of the works displayed in the exhibition. Niio Perkins’s (Akwesasne Mohawk) pièce-de-résistance, a blue cotton and velvet dress with cuffs, collar and belt decorated with intricate beadwork, in the traditional Woodlands Indian style, is demure, understated and attractive. Its modest demeanor, in comparison to more contemporary styles, belies the lush embellishment of vines, flowers and leaves, vivid against a stark black background. Two white birds resembling doves, accented with small pearls, meet in the middle of her waistband, their green beaks almost touching. It is a symbol of both beauty and peace.

EMMA ENSEMBLE by Niio Perkins (Akwesasne Mohawk) of cotton, velvet, glass beads, and metal pins, 2010. Photograph by Ornament.

      All made by hand, Perkins’s ensemble could not have manifested without the influence and inspiration of her mother, Elizabeth. Perkins’s development as an artisan is strongly connected to the artistic environment of both family and tribal culture. “I learned to bead as a child in the lap of my mother,” she recollects. “She is a phenomenal seamstress and designer of traditional clothing in her own right. I was a needy baby; she had to hold me as she used the sewing machine. When I started to get in the way, she gave me a bowl of beads and taught me a few techniques to occupy my little hands. I grew up among families who beaded to supplement their income. It has always felt like a natural thing to do.”

A jacket embellished by Thomas Haukass (Sicangu Lakota) for his friend Kenneth Williams Jr. (Northern Arapaho/Seneca) is a statement on the importance of connections and relationships for Native Americans. While the cream-colored linen blazer is European in design and origin, it has been transformed into a canvas for ledger designs, an open book, as it were, that takes a quintessential Native expression of preserving identity in the face of assimilation and oppression. Each warrior on the jacket is a hero, a doer of mighty deeds and a collector of titles. The term “counting coup”, after the Native warrior tradition of striking an opponent with a coupstick, speaks to the recognition, and recollection, of courage. For Haukass, this garment was his way of honoring the accomplishments of his fellow artist.

Sometimes the roots of something mighty come from a single seed. Louis Gong is of the Nooksack tribe, who share the Northwest Coast of Washington with other Coast Salish peoples. He is also French, Scot and Chinese, and this unique mix has led to exploring his own identity through art.

The prelude to this story came from junior high. Sometimes what we lack can give rise to passionate desire later in life, and so it was with Gong. “I grew up poor, so in seventh and eighth grade, when everyone was wearing Vans, I wanted to own some but couldn’t afford them,” he explains. “Fast forward twenty years, I saw a coworker wearing a pair of Vans, and it brought back that sense of wanting to buy one.” Gong went to the store to search through rows of shoes, but nothing he found seemed to represent him, and who he was. He bought a blank, white pair, brought them home, and took a sharpie to the sneakers with gusto. As his hand put ink to canvas, formline designs grew and flourished until Gong was left with an elaborately decorated piece of footwear that spoke to his unusual and complex heritage.

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      These sneakers would be the seed for Gong’s business, Eighth Generation, a vehicle for empowering Native artists. A farseeing philosophy guides his vision for the company. Seven generations is an intertribal concept for making decisions, a framework of sorts that says every action should be considered for its impact on the next seven generations. The name Eighth Generation imparts Gong’s personal touch, relating both to his Cantonese background, where the number ‘8’ phonetically sounds like the word prosperity, and his gesture of respect to the preceding generations that laid the foundation for where he stands today. 

Giving back to the community, both national and local, is natural for him. “I’ve heard it referred to as a culture tax,” he says. This understanding, that we are part of the fabric of a creative world, is shared by most Native artists, and is perhaps the greatest disjunct from the world of contemporary fashion, where famous names and big labels, with commercialized products that have unknown makers, stands today. The real scoop is not only how Native artists will change the outward aesthetics of the fashion industry but its processes as well. In that, “Native Fashion Now” is a portent of things to come.

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      Get Inspired!

 
 

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Patrick R. Benesh-Liu is Associate Editor of Ornament and continues to find time to enjoy craft in between writing, travel and tech support. Earlier in the year he made the trip to New York, where he visited the National Museum of the American Indian, a peaceful space for insightful exhibitions on Native art. There he had the chance to see “Native Fashion Now”, an enterprising and innovative show organized by the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. That viewing laid the foundation for an exploration into Native art as it relates to contemporary fashion. Speaking with Native artists, he was amazed at the stories that lay underneath the surface of each piece. As Ornament’s reporter, he also provides a zesty compilation of the latest news in craft.

The Tsosie-Gaussoin Family Volume 39.5

 
The idea of creativity as a shared resource rather than the jealously guarded capital of individual genius comes naturally to the Gaussoins through Native American heritage and family tradition, but it has also been cultivated by an emphasis on the responsibility to community. ‘That’s something that my mom has always taught us,’ David asserts. ‘It’s not right to just be taking. You have to give back. We teach, we volunteer, we give back to our community.’
 

CORN MAIDEN NECKLACE by Connie Tsosie-Gaussoin of sterling silver, bezel set Royston turquoise, tufa cast, dragonfly design on necklace, corn maiden pendant with feather design, and partial patina, collar 2009, pendant 2015. Photograph by Carolyn Wright.

Descended from Navajo silversmiths and weavers and Picuris Pueblo potters, Connie Tsosie-Gaussoin and her sons Jerry Jr., David and Wayne Nez, and daughter Tazbah share a creative heritage that has profoundly shaped their experiences and perspectives. Like the progeny of the early American painter Charles Wilson Peale or the Duchamp-Villon siblings who played a prominent role in modernism, Connie’s sons and daughter took to art collectively as a consequence of their upbringing but as adults have demonstrated that the creative spirit can be both a unifier, connecting them in communal understanding, and a means toward individualization and personal expression. There is no doubt that their careers as artists have been mutually sustained through familial bonds, but each can be distinguished by a unique personality that gives direction to the style and content of his or her work.

      Connie Tsosie-Gaussoin, the current matriarch in the artistic lineage, was raised on stories about jewelry related by her father, who worked on a line stamping, doming and soldering with other Native American artists at the famous Maisel Store in Albuquerque. Another key influence was her uncle, Tom Tsosie. “He used to make jewelry the old way,” she recalls. “He would sit on sheepskins on the floor of a large, round hogan. We’d watch him every summer when my parents took us on the Navajo reservation. There was a tufa mine out behind the hogan, and he would go and gather huge stones off the cliff. It was a very hard process. He would cut the tufa into molds and use a bellows to melt down Mexican coin silver to make a cast. So, I saw the very old process.”

In the late 1960s, after traveling extensively, Connie returned to her native New Mexico and married Jerry Gaussoin Sr., who encouraged her studies of metalsmithing with jeweler Nino Padilla at the College of Santa Fe. From Padilla she learned stamping skills, making her own dies from nails and other found objects, then decided to teach herself the traditional tufa-casting techniques she had observed as a child. Honing her abilities through trial and error, she learned to cut the stone, smooth two slabs by abrading them against one another, carve the tufa, and pour molten silver into the resulting mold. She explored traditional forms like the bow guards worn by men for dances on the Navajo reservation, making rapid progress in both technique and aesthetics despite working conditions that were less than ideal. “When I started out, we were living in a trailer,” she recalls. “I used to work on a little table in the kitchen. I’d take everything off to make dinner and then put my tools back and start working again in the evening. It was back and forth every day. My buffing machine was under the trailer, and I’d be out there both summer and winter.”

 
THE TSOSIE-GAUSSOIN FAMILY.  (left to right)  Wayne Nez Gaussoin, Connie Tsosie-Gaussoin, Jerry E. Gaussoin Jr., David Gaussoin, Tazbah Gaussoin, showing at the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair and Market, March 2017.  Photograph by Margie Zebell-Parrish.

THE TSOSIE-GAUSSOIN FAMILY. (left to right) Wayne Nez Gaussoin, Connie Tsosie-Gaussoin, Jerry E. Gaussoin Jr., David Gaussoin, Tazbah Gaussoin, showing at the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair and Market, March 2017. Photograph by Margie Zebell-Parrish.

 

      While her makeshift workshop left much to be desired, Connie’s greatest challenge in establishing a career in the tradition of Navajo silversmithing arose from the conventions of that tradition itself. Like most Native American peoples, the Navajo historically observed gender division in the arts, with women weaving and men, after the introduction of silversmithing techniques in the 1860s, working in metal. In the 1970s, when Connie began winning awards for her jewelry at the Santa Fe Indian Market show, few Native American women had ventured into metalsmithing. As a consequence, some male jewelers expressed skepticism that she was producing her own work. To quell the rumors, she took a metals course at the Institute of American Indian Arts with Millard “Skip” Holbrook III, who, recognizing her skills and appreciating her talent, assigned her a position monitoring the lab. This was a vindication of sorts, but breaking longstanding gender barriers remained a struggle for years. “She had to force the door open,” her son David asserts. “She took criticism but she persevered, and now women have her generation to thank for it.”

CASINO LOOT BAG by Connie Tsosie-Gaussoin of sterling silver, bezel set Royston turquoise, Italian coral in gold bezel, tufa cast feather design with fabricated silver sheet, 2012.  Photograph by Carolyn Wright.

CASINO LOOT BAG by Connie Tsosie-Gaussoin of sterling silver, bezel set Royston turquoise, Italian coral in gold bezel, tufa cast feather design with fabricated silver sheet, 2012. Photograph by Carolyn Wright.

      The ostensible paradox of deeply respecting a tradition while simultaneously subverting it has been common enough in modern crafts practice to rarely breed controversy, but Navajo metalsmithing embraces more than aesthetic conventions and historical symbolism. It is deeply ensconced in a cultural identity. While Connie has embraced that identity and has cultivated it in her children, she is at the same time driven in her work by a conception of creativity in which exploration of new possibilities of form, materials and expression is a matter of course. “She’s always encouraged us to learn the traditional ways, because our cultural heritage is important,” David relates. “We know how to make concho belts and squash blossoms, but she didn’t ask us to do that for the rest of our lives. She said, ‘I’m passing this on to you so that you know how to make things in the old way, but then go do what you want.’ ”

Following this advice, Connie’s sons and daughter have felt free to explore diverse artistic avenues without fear of how the resulting work might be received and to show their work in mainstream exhibitions of Native American jewelry despite occasional criticism from traditionalists (whom they facetiously dismiss as the “art police”). As David points out, the idea that Native American identity is a fixed quality that can be adequately represented through a finite number of materials and forms discounts one of the most valuable facets of that identity: its innovative spirit. “Whenever we talk with museum curators and collectors,” he says, “we remind them that traditional Southwest jewelry was once new and progressive. Native jewelers were using materials that they had never used before. That’s the tradition that we’re carrying on. We have to celebrate it and use the abundant materials that are available to us today to create the best things that we can. That’s our tradition as native people.”

For the Gaussoins, the inclination to venture individually beyond the confines of formal and aesthetic conventions in art was no doubt encouraged by a structure of mutual support that existed from the beginning. As children, each had a place in Connie’s workshop, where they naturally developed the ability to work together without conflict and to serve as each other’s sounding boards in the frank and honest manner of their mother. The confidence that reliable critique has imparted to each has been an undeniable boon, and the habit of conversing about one another’s work has bolstered the ties that came naturally through familial connection. As a result, even as they have oriented their lives in different directions and developed unique perspectives as artists, the Gaussoins prefer to present their jewelry collectively at shows. “We all go,” David says. “It’s a family thing. Sometimes it’s so crowded in the booth that you can’t even move, but that’s OK. Our Pueblo and Navajo heritage instilled in us the importance of family, the importance of unity.”

JEWELRY BY JERRY E. GAUSSOIN JR.  (left to right, top to bottom) : Navajo Mother Earth bracelet, 2017; Navajo Four Cardinal Directions concho style buckle, 2017; Ranger belt buckle, 2015; Simplicity cuff, 2017; Navajo Spider brooch, 2014; Pueblo Protector ring, 2017; Pueblo Maiden pendant, 2017; Byzantine Chain bracelet, 2017; and Half Persian chain bracelet, 2017. All jewelry is fabricated, some hand-stamped, formed and/or textured, set with turquoise or lapis.  Photograph by Jerry E. Gaussoin Jr.

JEWELRY BY JERRY E. GAUSSOIN JR. (left to right, top to bottom): Navajo Mother Earth bracelet, 2017; Navajo Four Cardinal Directions concho style buckle, 2017; Ranger belt buckle, 2015; Simplicity cuff, 2017; Navajo Spider brooch, 2014; Pueblo Protector ring, 2017; Pueblo Maiden pendant, 2017; Byzantine Chain bracelet, 2017; and Half Persian chain bracelet, 2017. All jewelry is fabricated, some hand-stamped, formed and/or textured, set with turquoise or lapis. Photograph by Jerry E. Gaussoin Jr.

      As one might expect, occasional collaboration has been a natural offshoot of the many conversations, mutual critiques and communal exhibitions. Sometimes collaborative work has united the creativity of two siblings, as in the case of the looping, head-encircling Postmodern Boa of enameled stainless-steel tubing, silver and feathers that David and Wayne Nez created for the “Native Fashion Now” exhibition organized by the Peabody Essex Museum and on display at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York until September 4, 2017. In other instances, to support institutions such as the Heard Museum in Phoenix and the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe, collaboration has produced donated works to which the entire family has contributed. The procedure for collaboration is generally fluid. “Someone will start it off,” Connie explains, “and others will add to it. If we do a seed bowl someone might add dragonflies to it, and someone else might add a pin. Each piece is different. It’s like neighbors meeting at the fence. We don’t know how it will turn out, but we all bring our own ideas.”

505 SERIES CUFF by Wayne Nez Gaussoin of found object, dyed handcut leather, 8.9 x 8.9 centimeters, 2015. Photograph by Robert K. Liu.

      Jerry Jr., the eldest of the siblings, sold his first bead-wrapped necklace at a Fayetteville, Arkansas, art show while still in the sixth grade. Now a Lt. Colonel in the United States Army, he remains closely influenced by traditional Navajo and Pueblo silversmithing designs, though his experiences in Germany and during tours of duty in Kosovo and Iraq, have worked their way subtly into his art. After a hiatus during his years abroad, he has returned to jewelrymaking in part as a means of mulling over his life. “What I’ve seen and experienced,” he says, “is definitely reflected in my thought process.” An affinity for the patriotic color combination of coral, pearls and lapis lazuli occasionally reveals itself, but the more profound content of his work is less literal, manifesting itself in the formal choices of an artist given to personal reflection and expression through making.

GET BACK IN YOUR BOX BRACELET by David Gaussoin of found object, sterling silver, copper, chalk (low grade) turquoise, 10.5 x 8.0 x 11.0 centimeters, 2015. “This is a statement piece about not submitting to standards placed upon us to use certain materials just because they are considered ‘traditional’.” Photograph by Mark Herndon.

 

Wayne Nez, whom middle brother David describes as “the iconic artist in the family,” earned an MFA at the University of New Mexico. Working in a variety of media, including monumental sculpture, he approaches jewelry and fashion design with a penchant for non-conventional materials. “I’ve been playing a lot with non-precious metals like aluminum and found objects,” he relates, “particularly steel mechanical parts with an interesting character to them. I play around with them until I find something that speaks to me, that reveals what it wants to be, whether that’s a ring or a wearable collar.” Currently some of his most distinctive work incorporates vibrant, leather-backed fragments of license plates in flared cuff bracelets and drop earrings.

David is clearly an artist from sheer love of the creative process. “Even though I went to college and pursued other interests,” he says, “it’s always been my life. When I make a piece I don’t think about selling it—just the art, the beauty and the expression of it. As a child I used to watch my mom and ask if I could play too. To me it’s still play. It’s a way of going into my own world and designing what I want.” While he enjoys stretching the boundaries of jewelry through innovative materials and techniques, he has come to favor more extensive expression through fashion encompassing the entire body. Among his latest designs is a “head-to-toe statement of sustainability” for an exhibition at the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA) that consists of an elaborate collar of aluminum and clothesline, a halter-top created from a repurposed leather purse and a skirt fashioned from old prom dresses.

Tazbah, who earned a degree in museum studies and plans to pursue a career “preserving the arts for the long term,” is a weaver and has also collaborated with David on some fashion designs, frequently modeling the resulting apparel for publicity photographs. Fashion first caught her attention when she was still in high school. “I was modeling quite a lot for designers,” she recalls, “and thinking that the clothes were beautiful and that I’d like to know how to make them. I took a course in pattern, but it was David who taught me how to sew.” Despite never having caught the jewelry bug, she made a point of taking courses in metalsmithing, not only because of her conviction that “to preserve things you should know how they were made” but also, no doubt, because of a deep sense of the place of jewelrymaking in family tradition.

SMALL COTTONWOOD CHIEF’S BLANKET, shown in progress on loom, by Tazbah Gaussoin of natural dyes, Navajo Churro Sheep wool, 2017. Photograph by Tazbah Gaussoin.

      The idea of creativity as a shared resource rather than the jealously guarded capital of individual genius comes naturally to the Gaussoins through Native American heritage and family tradition, but it has also been cultivated by an emphasis on the responsibility to community. “That’s something that my mom has always taught us,” David asserts. “It’s not right to just be taking. You have to give back. We teach, we volunteer, we give back to our community.” This commitment is not simply altruistic. It concerns the nature of creativity itself as a kind of vital energy. “People think I’m crazy because I talk to my pieces and they start coming alive,” Connie explains. “They say, ‘OK, I’ll work with you,’ then they start playing and dancing on their own. Artists are the ones in the world who keep the whole universe alive. Things are moving well because of us, not just this family, but all creative people. To be an artist is to create but also to share.”

 

POSTMODERN BOA, collaboration by David Gaussoin and Wayne Nez Gaussoin of stainless steel, sterling silver, enamel, paint, and feathers, 2009. TEARDROP EARRINGS by David Gaussoin of sterling silver, 8.0 centimeters long, 2009. EFFUSION BRACELET by Wayne Nez Gaussoin of sterling silver, 30.5 centimeters long, 2009. GLISSADE BRACELET by Wayne Nez Gaussoin of sterling silver, stainless steel, 15.2 centimeters diameter, 2009. DRESS by David Gaussoin and Tazbah Gaussoin of metallic blended material and silk, 2009. Photograph by Museum of Indian Arts and Culture. Model: Tazbah Gaussoin.

 
 

      Get Inspired!


Glen R. Brown, Professor of Art History at Kansas State University, was struck by conceptual similarities between some designs in the Denver Art Museum’s “Shock Wave: Japanese Fashion Design, 1980s-1990s” exhibition and a recent piece by David and Wayne Nez Gaussoin, who freely explore possibilities beyond mainstream Native American art. “Innovations are by definition always different,” he observes, “but innovation in the abstract is a consistent force. Why wouldn’t free experimentation beyond mainstream Native American jewelry and fashion and Japanese designers’ radical rethinking of haute couture in the 1980s and 1990s feel kindred in a general creative sense?” Brown is currently working on another article for Ornament, a feature on jeweler Robin Waynee.

Glittering World Volume 38.4

Glittering World
Navajo Jewelry of the Yazzie Family

 

BRACELET by Raymond C. Yazzie of silver, coral, turquoise, lapis lazuli, fourteen karat gold, 6.03 x 2.54 centimeters, 2005. Collection of Mark and Martha Alexander. Photograph by Michael S. Waddell. Photographs courtesy of the National Museum of the American Indian.

Entering into the exhibition hall of “Glittering World: Navajo Jewelry of the Yazzie Family” was a carefully cultivated experience. Guest curated by Lois Sherr Dubin, author of North American Indian Jewelry and Adornment, assisted by associate curator Kathleen Ash-Milby (Navajo) and put together by assistant director of exhibitions and programs Peter Brill, “Glittering World” was an example of elements considerately placed to both educate and lead the viewer through a tightly woven visual narrative. The exhibition, not only a repository for some of the best contemporary Native American jewelry, was also a work of art in its own right.

      The Yazzie family is composed of sixth-generation silversmiths from Gallup, New Mexico. Born to Chee and Elsie Yazzie, both of whom worked with silver, nine of the twelve Yazzie children became jewelers. The recent exhibit featured jewelry from the whole family, with most of the focus on the work of two brothers, Raymond and Lee Yazzie. Raymond and Lee have created superb jewelry from their earliest years, some examples of which were on display. But most of all, their recent body of work was gloriously present for the public.

Taking place at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City, in the noble facade of the Alexander Hamilton Customs House, the exhibition was a sensorial journey. From the entrance, one was guided through two rooms—the first put into perspective Navajo and Indian symbolism, motifs and culture, while the second introduced the background of the artists and the environment in which they grew up. These portions of the exhibition set the tone for the rest, while subtly informing the viewer as to the visual alphabet behind what they were about to see.

BELT BUCKLE by Lee A. Yazzie of Lone Mountain turquoise, sterling silver, 6.03 centimeters long, 2000. Collection of Gene and Ann Waddell. Photograph by Kiyoshi Togashi.

Native American art is founded on an aesthetic and spiritual tradition where nearly everything represents some element of the world, of the spirits, and of nature. The exhibit explored several of these motifs, such as the Yei, or Holy People, and the vital essence of corn, the food crop which nourishes the Navajo. The Yei are divine beings that live within the mountain mists, and like many entities in the Native pantheon bear similarity to other spirits, such as the Hopi Katsinas. Some might call them different faces of the same thing, aspects of nature and life who play instrumental roles in how the world is governed and blessed. Panels were devoted to giving a brief and instructive summary of each symbol and paired with a piece of Navajo art that depicted it.

A side-room presented a taxonomy on the various types of turquoise. A piece of jewelry made by a member of the Yazzie family was partnered with a raw nugget of a specific type: Lone Mountain, Blue Gem, Lander Blue, New Lander Royal Web, Bisbee, Kingman. This overview of the different specimens of turquoise continued to weave the threads of the exhibition into one pattern, a larger picture which would transform the work in the final room from simply being pieces of jewelry into treasures.

In the last gallery, the exhibit seemed to open up into a world of awe. Jewelry laden with semiprecious stones dwelled in brightly lit display cases set into the floor and walls of the chamber, and each work a masterpiece. Festooned with colors that contrast and complement each other in coordination, layered and augmented to form graceful shapes and beautiful configurations, these bracelets, necklaces, rings and belt buckles are a living reflection of nature’s myriad incarnations.

BLUE CORN BRACELET by Lee A. Yazzie of Bisbee and Royal Web turquoise, lapis lazuli, coral, opal, fourteen karat gold, 9.53 centimeters long, 1980. Collection of Joe and Cindy Tanner. Photograph by Kiyoshi Togashi.

      It is the intention behind every piece which distinguishes them from other contemporary American art jewelers. One can see that a narrative is being strongly woven, from start to finish, encapsulated neatly and entirely in materials that titillate the senses. A bracelet by Lee Yazzie entitled Blue Corn uses Bisbee and Royal Web turquoise, opal and coral with gold to subtly emulate one of the staples of the Navajo diet. It is an homage to Mother Nature and the blessing she bestows upon the people of the earth. The bracelet is at once reminiscent of an ear of corn, and yet also transcends it, like a physical manifestation of a perfect essence. The jeweled form seems somehow to loom larger than the sacred plant itself.

Other pieces are like paintings in miniature, stories rendered in abstract by carved stone and hand-wrought metal. Raymond Yazzie’s Blessings bracelet is a riotous panoply of colors and shapes, as if a great spirit’s pouch of wonders was upended and strewn across a crystal blue sky. However, upon closer inspection one saw figures adorned with jewelry, faces, stars interpreted by gold crosses, and other imagery, many from a vocabulary of symbols that are part of the tradition of Navajo art and spirituality. Others are inspired by the work of Hopi artist Dan Namingha’s abstract paintings of katsinas. Raymond has taken Namingha’s two-dimensional art and interpreted it his way, with a palette of stones. All of this is accomplished with impeccable technique which winds the whole ensemble into one tightly wrapped package, a gift for the wearer.

Lee’s specialty is silverwork, while Raymond’s preferred route of artistic expression is inlay. However, both jewelers are well-practiced in a broad range of techniques. Lee is known for having pioneered the Mosaic Turquoise technique where he takes multiple pieces of turquoise, and cuts them just so, such that one magnificent, unbroken expanse of stone is made from several separate parts. The method requires a careful eye, to see the pattern within the turquoise and to cut portions so that the veins that run within match up approximately. It also needs a steady hand to set each stone into the metal framework so that no seam can be seen.

BLESSINGS BRACELET by Raymond C. Yazzie of Water Web Kingman and other turquoise, black onyx, Australian opal, lapis lazuli, sugilite, coral, gaspeite, and fourteen karat gold, 2002-2003. This piece is made from four hundred eighty-five stones. Collection of Daniel Hidding. Photograph by Gregory R. Lucier, Windsong Studio, L.L.C.

Raymond’s use of color and tightly compacted stone inlay is his strong suite. A ring he crafted in 2012 presents all these elements in a richly detailed package. Drawing again from the wellspring of Navajo symbolism that forms the underpinnings of the Yazzies’ work, deep bluish slabs of turquoise are married to bold pieces of coral. Gold elements are interspersed throughout the rim of the ring, speckled with opal and sugilite. It is in the study of contrasts—the judicious arrangement of bright and dark, primary and secondary, with complex motifs arising from the miniature protrusions of semiprecious stones from the matrix—that such a satisfying and attractive ensemble is realized.

Both Lee and Raymond began silversmithing at a young age, and gained many accolades as they began their path through life as jewelry artists. Sometimes the early work is just as fascinating as their more recent pieces. A squash blossom necklace fabricated by Lee in 1975 takes a traditional Navajo form and tweaks it slightly, making something graceful, simple, elegant, and utterly modern. Native work has to adhere to certain rules and guidelines for it to resonate, for the path back to the old ways to be clear, for the form to be recognizable and for the symbolism to be true, but finding the middle way, where that traditional imagery is properly represented yet something new, fresh and alive is imbued within it, is magic. As Lee says of the piece, “I just wanted something a little more streamlined, a little bit more select. So I just combined my experience as a lapidarist with my traditional upbringing. That’s the way we progress. We’re taught something and then we learn new things and incorporate them.” The result is something both new and old.

The rest of the nine siblings who make jewelry were also given their due. Mary Marie Yazzie takes delicious, large chunks of turquoise and rings them with silver; one particularly unusual piece is a squash blossom necklace where raw, veined Lone Mountain turquoise ovalettes are overlaid on twin strands of silver beads, with an upended U or horseshoe shape of the ovalettes forming the flower-like pendant. Silver squash blossom buds peek out laterally from each ovalette. Cindy, Lillie, Lola, Marie, and Shirley Yazzie are all gifted in the art of making traditional silver beads, also known as “Navajo pearls” for how they resemble that gem from the ocean depths, and their work was shown as well.

The exhibition was accompanied by a fifteen minute video whose prelude is a repeating segment filming a train on the tracks, passing through Gallup. Once the video itself began, viewers were treated to an interview of Lee and Raymond, shepherded by the commentary of curator Lois Sherr Dubin and Vivian Arviso, a Navajo educator and former Chair of the Southwest Association for Indian Arts. In this cinematic complement, the artists are humanized and made real, rather than bodiless entities existing behind the curtain of their jewelry. Imperfect, striving to better themselves with each piece they create, and ultimately modest about their capabilities, the two brothers reveal the immense human effort required to create these seemingly flawless works of art.

Dubin herself sums up this family of craftspeople with her own characteristically insightful observation. “I do not see a difference between the way they live, the way they think and what they create. So, it’s all of a piece,” she explains. In this way, then, the jewelry of the Yazzies is a beautiful metaphor for the path of life tread by those who are makers.

“Glittering World: Navajo Jewelry of the Yazzie Family” showed from November 13, 2014 through January 10, 2016, and was accompanied by a catalogue, written by Lois Sherr Dubin. The Glittering World video can be seen on Youtube, at www.youtube.com/watch?v=myfjje5ej1s.

 

Patrick R. Benesh-Liu is Associate Editor of Ornament and continues to find time to enjoy craft in between writing, travel and tech support. Last year he attended “Glittering World: Navajo Jewelry of the Yazzie Family” at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York, and found it an enchanting and thoughtfully produced experience. His coverage of the exhibition explores the work of the Yazzies, as well as expressing his appreciation for its presentation. In addition, he contributes his own perspective on the Tucson Gem & Mineral show. As Ornament’s resident reporter, he provides a zesty compilation of the latest craft News, where you can find out what is happening with art-to-wear in your local corner of the world.

Joan Tenenbaum Volume 37.5

Joan Tenenbaum’s cuff bracelet called Salmon in the Trees is a striking piece of jewelry. It is also an artful reminder that the ecology of our natural world hangs in easily disrupted balance. The sterling silver cuff is cut and engraved to show a dense Northwest forest inhabited, delightfully, by glistening copper-colored salmon that seem to be swimming through the trees. In the notes she wrote to accompany this 2011 piece, Tenenbaum explained that in the rainforests of Southwest Alaska salmon return to the streams where they were born and along the way many become food for eagles, bears and other predators. The predators digest the salmon and their droppings fertilize the lush streamside foliage and the forest trees. Salmon, the kings of the sea, and old-growth forests may seem worlds apart, but they are in fact dependent on each other for survival.

“Perhaps more than any other species salmon connect the oceans with the land,” Tenenbaum says. Salmon need the cool, shaded nesting spots to breed, and the bears, for instance, need to fatten up on the salmon in the late summer to survive winter hibernation. “The tightness of this web of interconnections is so vital and so fragile—paralleling the fragility of our indigenous languages and cultures—this kind of poignancy moves me to make pieces with these deep layers of meaning.”

Jewelry infused with environmental and cultural content is Tenenbaum’s signature as an artist. Virtually every brooch, neckpiece, bracelet, or ring she has made in the last thirty-five years is grounded not only in precise craftsmanship but also in her deep love of Alaska, its native cultures and its awe-inspiring natural beauty. Tenenbaum has created brooches that are abstracted aerial views of Alaska deltas, tidelands and mountain peaks. She has taken inspiration from traditional Yup’ik ceremonial masks. And she has made a series of “ulu knife” brooches that incisively symbolize the traditionally close relationship between Native cultures and the environment. An ulu knife is an all-purpose cutting knife shaped like a wide slice of pie that, in traditional culture, is an Eskimo woman’s tool for preparing food, cleaning meat and all manner of other domestic tasks necessary for survival. Tenenbaum also made real ulu knives, uses one in her kitchen and has given them as wedding gifts.

“I saw early on that ulu knives in the tourist shops in Alaska were worthless as useful knives, and I had seen how people in the villages made their ulus which they use every day. So I decided to learn how to make them. Considering that the development of the design of the ulu over the centuries was based on the work that needed to be done with it, it really does connect the culture to the land.”

WOLF IN BLACK SPRUCE IV: OUR LAND, OUR ANCESTORS brooch/pendant of sterling silver, copper, eighteen karat gold, 5.87 x 6.19 x 1.27 centimeters, 2011.

WOLF IN BLACK SPRUCE IV: OUR LAND, OUR ANCESTORS brooch/pendant of sterling silver, copper, eighteen karat gold, 5.87 x 6.19 x 1.27 centimeters, 2011.

Trained as a linguist and an anthropologist, Tenenbaum did field work in Alaska in her late twenties while working on her doctoral thesis. She lived in a remote village and wrote a grammar and a dictionary for the Dena’ina language, which was the language then still spoken by the villagers. After her first years of field research she lived in other native villages and worked to help young native Alaskan adults become teachers. Tenenbaum earned her Ph.D. from Columbia University in anthropology and linguistics in 1978, but it is fair to say that since she first set foot in Alaska as a young researcher, she has never really left. Physically and spiritually, Alaska has been Tenenbaum’s touchstone for nearly forty years.

Tenenbaum’s life as a jewelrymaker, however, started well before her introduction to Alaska. The arc of her career is an unusual dual path of art and academia that, some decades ago, serendipitously merged into an art career fueled by her academic experiences. As an adolescent growing up in the suburbs of Detroit her parents stressed academics. Yet despite a full schedule of college preparatory classes, in the ninth grade Tenenbaum found a class period open for an elective. “So I signed up for something called craft. I liked to do things with my hands and it sounded interesting. For a year we did block printing, some silversmithing, enameling. I loved it.” She was particularly fascinated by jewelry, and for the next four years she took classes from a well-trained teacher who taught her the fundamentals. Before she left high school in 1963 Tenenbaum had won awards for her work.

RAVEN AND CARIBOU: A DENA’INA STORY pendant of sterling silver, fourteen karat gold and garnets, 6.03 x 8.26 x 0.64 centimeters, 2007.

RAVEN AND CARIBOU: A DENA’INA STORY pendant of sterling silver, fourteen karat gold and garnets, 6.03 x 8.26 x 0.64 centimeters, 2007.

Looking back on her early love of jewelry, Tenenbaum says it was odd that no one suggested she attend an art school after high school graduation. Then again, her father was a chemical engineer, a metallurgist to be exact, and her mother was a teacher. They expected her to be a teacher, or perhaps a translator at the United Nations. Scholarship and academics were very important to her parents. She laughs when she notes that the only artist in the family when she was young was a relative called “crazy Esther.” A life in art was obviously not something to aspire to. “So my plan was to be a Spanish teacher. I was good with languages and was always friends with the foreign exchange students.” As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan Tenenbaum studied romance languages and literature before switching to anthropology. After class and during summer breaks she continued to make jewelry and take workshops to learn new skills. Art was strictly extracurricular.

Later there were occasions when the road ahead forked into very different directions. That happened in the late 1960s in New York, where she was employed as a caseworker for the city welfare department and taking classes in silversmithing at the Craft Students League.

Her teacher was William Seitz, a master silversmith who wrote one of the definitive books on silversmithing. She had applied to graduate school at Columbia University, but was also making jewelry. “I had been accepted to graduate school, and had decided to put my tools away for a while when I got a call from a gallery on Fifth Avenue that wanted to show my jewelry. Someone there had seen it at the Craft Students League. I said no. I was determined to get my Ph.D. But it wasn’t an easy decision.”

FEASTS OF TRADITION brooch/pendant of sterling silver, fourteen karat yellow, pink and palladium white gold, eighteen karat green gold, keum-boo, champagne diamond, red, blue, orange, and green sapphires, 6.99 x 6.03 x 1.27 centimeters, 2011.

FEASTS OF TRADITION brooch/pendant of sterling silver, fourteen karat yellow, pink and palladium white gold, eighteen karat green gold, keum-boo, champagne diamond, red, blue, orange, and green sapphires, 6.99 x 6.03 x 1.27 centimeters, 2011.

Within a few years she was living in Alaska with Athabaskan Indians and researching the Dena’ina language. She worked in a village for two years and it was the only time when she did not have her jewelry tools with her. When she moved to Fairbanks to finish her dissertation she asked her dad to send her tools from Detroit and she enrolled in jewelry courses at the University of Alaska. “In Fairbanks I was tortured by my burning desire to make jewelry. I felt I was in a cage and the door was the dissertation. Once I got the dissertation done, I could make jewelry.” Tenenbaum finished her dissertation, which she knew would be helpful in preserving the Dena’ina language, or at least in preserving its grammar and vocabulary. She also recorded, translated and edited twenty-four traditional native stories translated into an English language volume. Tenenbaum says it was a way “to give back to the people in the village.” The book was published by the Alaskan Native Language Center at the University of Alaska, and it is now in its third printing. All royalties go to the Language Center.

RAVEN IN FLIGHT: THE SEEN AND UNSEEN necklace of sterling silver, 19.69 x 16.51 x 0.64 x 45.72 centimeters, 2009.

RAVEN IN FLIGHT: THE SEEN AND UNSEEN necklace of sterling silver, 19.69 x 16.51 x 0.64 x 45.72 centimeters, 2009.

After a trip to New York to defend her thesis, Tenenbaum was back in Alaska. She got a job distance teaching for the University of Alaska, which meant living in Eskimo villages. She needed the money from teaching and she wanted to help train native teachers, but the work was challenging. “Many of my students lived in villages with no electricity or running water. They were working as teachers’ aides, but it was difficult for them to keep studying. Not everyone made it through.” Despite her own demanding teaching schedule, Tenenbaum continued to make jewelry. “And all of a sudden mountains started appearing in my work. It was exciting. I decided to resign at the end of the year. I had to be a jeweler.”

In the early 1980s she married a lawyer and moved to Anchorage with him to pursue jewelry full time. Because his family was from Portland, Oregon, she often visited Portland, where she met a skilled jeweler named Stewart Jones. He agreed to give her private tutorials on a periodic basis and Tenenbaum describes Jones “as my mentor since 1985. He’s one of the reasons I can do the things I do in my jewelry.” One of the hallmarks of Tenenbaum’s career has been her relentless study of techniques and her desire to continually learn and grow as a maker. To this day she continues to take courses from master jewelers including many of the Northwest’s most acclaimed craftspeople.

Her techniques include cloisonné enameling, engraving, chasing, repoussé, forging, roller texturing, foldforming, mokume gane, stone-setting, silver and goldsmithing. Although Tenenbaum never had the opportunity to study art or jewelry as a college student, it is obvious she loves learning. “I’ve always wanted to expand my techniques, because then I can tell more stories.”

When her marriage broke up in 1990 Tenenbaum moved to Washington State, where she owned property. Today she lives in Gig Harbor, a picturesque town about an hour southwest of Seattle that, with its harbor surrounded by towering evergreens and mountain peaks, could easily be a small city in Alaska. In her house on a quiet cul-de-sac she has turned her yard into a lush vegetable garden and her dining room into a large, sunfilled work studio. It is here that she keeps the extraordinary archives of her work, including hardbound notebooks detailing the creation of every piece of jewelry she has ever made, complete with the amount of metal needed for each piece and preparatory sketches. As a linguist she learned to keep excellent records and cross references, and as artist she has applied the same systematic cataloguing and note-taking to her work archives.

Tenenbaum dates her professional career from 1985, when she was in a group show at Stonington Gallery in Anchorage. At about the same time she used her engraving skills to start adding images of animals to her jewelry. “So then I started to bring my Alaskan anthropology experience and my jewelry together. I could add caribou, migrating birds, fish. It brought more environmentalism to my work.”

Her first solo exhibition was also at Stonington, in 1990. Since then she has had ten solo exhibitions at Stonington’s Seattle gallery, which specializes in indigenous art. Given the themes of her work, it is perhaps no surprise that several pieces of her jewelry have been added to the permanent collection of the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center.

The names of her solo exhibits are telling. In 2004 she called her Stonington exhibition “The Yup’ik Family: Spirit and Connection.” In 2008 the show theme was “Connecting Culture with Landscape.” In 2001 it was “A Sense of Place—The Ways we Connect to Our Earth.” In 2013 after she took a workshop in cloisonné, she added color to her work. A bracelet called Tundra Patterns I is a Google Earth view of the patch of Southwestern Alaskan tundra, reimagined in shimmering green and red enamel.

HERON IN WETLANDS brooch of sterling silver, eighteen karat gold, mokume gane, Australian greenstone, green sapphire, 6.35 x 4.45 x 0.79 centimeters, 2009.

HERON IN WETLANDS brooch of sterling silver, eighteen karat gold, mokume gane, Australian greenstone, green sapphire, 6.35 x 4.45 x 0.79 centimeters, 2009.

Her Bunchberry Necklace has an almost Victorian look. It is a medallion of vibrant green, white and red cloisonné bunchberries surrounded by smaller, colorful beads. Bunchberries, which are part of the cornus family, are low growing, common shrubs in parts of southern Alaska and their berries are important food for deer and other animals. This year Tenenbaum’s Stonington exhibition, “Fifty Playful Things,” was about challenges in creating line through folding, hammering, annealing, and other metal techniques.

Her connection to Alaska, its people and environment is so plainly interpreted in her work, that it is hard to imagine what Tenenbaum’s jewelry might have looked like if, nearly fifty years ago, she had entered a university art program instead of anthropology. “I may have felt extremely frustrated for many years, but in no way do I regret either my education or the amazing experience of living in Native Alaskan communities and being accepted and loved by them. It has enriched my life beyond words. I can’t imagine what my work might look like had I not gone to Alaska, or what my life might look like either.”

OWL MASK SPIRIT HELPER bracelet of sterling silver, fourteen and eighteen karat gold, mokume gane, 4.13 x 6.99 x 6.67 centimeters, 2008.

OWL MASK SPIRIT HELPER bracelet of sterling silver, fourteen and eighteen karat gold, mokume gane, 4.13 x 6.99 x 6.67 centimeters, 2008.