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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.