Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Ms. Cowboy's Jewel

I was listing various little treasures to sell through the Ebay store last night when I pulled this piece out of the bag. I bought it about three weeks ago at a wholesaler outfit with decades long connections here, a hearty little business that specializes in the low to middle end of the Native American Jewelry spectrum. The pendant really impressed me at all levels on careful inspection. The silversmithing is excellent with appealing design cuts and a twisted wire boundary below the plain bezel. The semiprecious stones with perfectly rounded outer edges are well selected and inlaid in an appealing mosaic pattern with great precision between very slender slivers of sterling silver. The slider bale is plain but perfectly cut and shaped. Then last of all I noted the tidy double E hallmark imprint stamped to a desirable uniform depth on the plain silver back. Not perfect, but this pendant was, I thought, without doubt the work of a thrifty master jewelry maker. My guess was that he or she had been employed at one of the many jewelry manufacturing outfits here in Gallup because this work is an evolutionary looking creation bridging the gap between the old traditional and new style jewelry created by specialist teams. I started to call this blog entry, "Jewel of an Unknown Artist," but then I decided to make some inquires today so I carried the piece back to my buying source and learned that its creator was Kristen Ella Cowboy (Navajo), an experienced jewelry maker of many years who does have a background in the jewelry manufacturing business but also works for herself. I asked my good dealer friend to relay to Ms. Cowboy* my admiration of her fine work and to order in some more products for me to pickup.

*Cowboy is a very common Navajo name

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Covered Wagons of Virgil Dishta

The Dishta artisan legacy goes back at least as far as Frank Dishta who was born in 1902 in Zuni. He is best known for his channel inlay, ground flush, and often composed of tiny circles, diamond shapes, and tear drops. His artistry anticipated the modern micro specialists like Ervin Tsosie, Clayton Tom, and Sammy Smith. Frank's son Virgil Dishta, Sr. distinguished himself with a prestigious award in 1950 from the Inter-tribal Ceremonial in Gallup, NM and subsequent recognition that year in Arizona Highways. Covered Wagons were his favorite design subject. Theda and Michael Bassman in their very well illustrated book Zuni Jewelry show an example one of his covered wagons pins made in the 1940's with wheels that turn and a brake that moves. The family jewelry traditions and skill live on through Virgil M. Dishta who also produces covered wagon pieces as illustrated above. Note the intricacy of the design and the small flush pieces of turquoise and red coral that bring bright color to the piece and reflect the work of his Grandfather. There are no brakes on the wagons, but on the bolo tie end pieces the wheels turn freely. The beauty and bountiful linear family heritage embodied in this jewelry pair makes them real Western classics.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Homage to the Hopi Corn Maiden

The days of the Hopi corn farmers running 10 miles from their high mesa top pueblo homes to tend their cornfields are long gone, but they still utilize centuries-old techniques for nurturing corn seed into a treasured and often bountiful crop on their bitterly dry and harsh reservation homeland. Their horticulture technique starts with finding areas of the valley floor prone to flooding, planting multiple seeds in widely spaced holes at a depth of about one foot so the roots (that may grow down as much as 20 feet) can absorb moisture from the sandy subsoil. The green plants then come up in communal clumps that have a better chance of resisting the harsh dry, high desert winds. Chances for a successful harvest is further enhanced by seed planting at differing times in a variety of locations. A successful Hopi cornfield is a triumphant sight and looks so different than the nearly impenetrable cornfields that dominate so much of the landscape in America's Midwest. I found the beautiful barrette shown above on my recent buying trip to Hopiland. I was hesitant to make the purchase when I saw it was marked $295, but given what it represented and that it was a product of Hopi master silversmith Berra Tawahongva, I could not pass. The barrette shows a corn maiden tending to a single corn stock. The hand on the right represents the medicine she is giving to the corn and the two crescents facing each other within the hand represent friendship. It is a beautiful piece showing a heritage of survival that should never be forgotten.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

From the Indian Jewelry Hall of Fame

The August 1974 edition of ARIZONA HIGHWAYS featured an article representing a special collection of Indian jewelry called The Arizona Highways Hall of Fame Classics. Three masterworks of Dennis Edaakie were shown and he was hailed as a Grand Master of his medium. In 1975 in Vol I of ZUNI, The Art and The People, Ed and Barbara Bell wrote "Dennis and Nancy (Edaakie), without a doubt, two of the best known silversmiths in Zuni, are all the more remarkable because they have been practicing their art for the relatively short time of 10 years. Their beautiful inlay work may be seen in most of the finer collections of Indian jewelry. When found in the finer collections of Indian jewelry, it is usually marked 'Not for Sale.' " Sadly, Nancy Edaakie was not given even a footnote's worth of credit in the ARIZONA HIGHWAYS article. I featured the Edaakie's in a brief blog entry a couple of months ago, see Birdman and Ladybird of Zuni.

What impresses me about the "Hall of Fame Jewelry" masters is that their work is so reasonably priced. Once a noted jewelry artist stops producing, their work tends to skyrocket in value, but even long lived artists often find their early works very highly valued as vintage pieces. Regardless of how much longer Dennis and Nancy remain productive, their work will live on through their well trained children.
A few weeks ago, I placed a special order with the Edakkies for a Trout Bolo tie. I'm still patiently waiting.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Humor of Clarence & Russell Lee

The Navajo psyche characteristically resonates with good humor, but it is rare for it to be expressed in their jewelry. I was most impressed and amused this past summer when I ran across the Lee's distinctive booth at the annual Santa Fe Indian Market. Unfortunately, I was out of inventory money that day, but I left determined to follow-up in the months ahead. Clarence and Russell are a father-son team who travel the country selling their work throughout the nation, mostly at art shows. They are widely represented in museums and their award list now numbers 8 full pages. Last week I sat with Russell and his Lady at my kitchen table and poured over their wide selection of jewelry. Russell said to me, "Jewelry making is all we do. During the day we make jewelry. At night we dream jewelry." Note the goat which is modeled after a pet that once roamed their reservation property eating indiscriminately, everything from a stuffed teddy bear to a can of beans. The Russell's great smithing skill is evident in all their work. Even though the Lee's live within an hour's drive of Gallup, they don't sell to the dealers here. Ah, but now Wilford's is the exception. I am honored to promote the Lee's unique brand of story and humor laced in phenomenally well crafted silver.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Crotalus viridis nuntius

This spectacular sterling silver overlay Hopi rattlesnake ring was made by Berra Tawahongva from the Coyote Clan village of Mishongnovi. It held me fixed in fascination when I first saw it on one of my winter Hopi buying trips. My first thought was that it was a perfect fit for a HOG who freely boasts of his affiliation with an outlaw bikers group. You know the kind of husky, beer-bellied man who sports his leather clad trophy woman around on a fierce looking hard-tail chopper; the kind of biker who likes little better than to conclude his riding day by strutting in loud, proud, and pushy to the nearest beer joint for a triple-meat green chili cheeseburger and never less than 16 ounces of Coors on tap. So much for my imagination, I've discovered that this fine serpent creation has almost universal appeal even to those of delicate sensibilities. Several women have expressed disappointment that this ring was forged in a man's size (11.5). It would be interesting to know it's history many generation from now. There is no question that it should eventually find a home in museum display.

note: the skeleton Kachina symbol in the upper left hand corner is Berra's distinctive hallmark.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Parrot by Little Known Artist

I regularly receive email communications from folks telling me how much they enjoy going through my Ebay store and this blog. A few go on to tell me they would love to buy but cannot afford pieces from what has been my showcase tilted toward the higher end, brand named items like those of the late great Navajo silversmith Harry Morgan and the Zuni master Don Dewa. So in recent weeks I've been concentrating on finding works of excellence that fall within a more affordable range and that means leaving the famous names behind for awhile. The parrot pin/pendant represented here is by a little known Zuni artist. I had never heard or seen his name prior to picking up his excellent creation and reading his name inscribed on the back. My search for information on him yielded nothing. The wholesaler who I originally bought the parrot from him told me his first name was "Kordell." Many buyers on lower end items don't even bother with asking an artisan's name or checking to see if the piece is signed. Kendell Shebola is obviously an accomplished artist. One of the first things I note (which is common to all good Zuni work) is the tightness of fit of the stones. Zuni jewelry is made with sterling silver which is very much of secondary importance unlike that seen in Hopi work where the artistry comes alive in the exquisite pure sterling silver creations. The beauty of Zuni art emerges through the use of stones and shells complimented or merely held in place by a sterling silver base. In some pieces the silver is even invisible in the dominant front view in which case the final product with its meticulously cut, almost invisible stone boundaries may look like a champleve' product (jewelry finished by a smooth enameling surface process. Zuni artisan Harlan Coonsis often produces champleve' looking stone jewelry. The parrot above has tiny silver strips separating the stone which include mother of pearl, jet, pink mussel, abalone, and turquoise. At this point I know Master Kendell only through this one piece of art, but his name has gone into my little book and I'll be inquiring about him and his work as I merily go about my jewelry study, exploration, and acquisiton.

Hummingbirds by Ella Gia

I am committed to promoting our local Native American artists, big names and small, so I was very happy when I ran across the pictured hummingbird bracelet by Ella Gia a few days ago at one of my favorite wholesale dealers who works the middle to the lower end of the market. I was impressed that her very worthy work was marked at such a low price especially given that her inlay, in my judgement is equivalent in quality to that of the big names such as the Edaakie and Lanconsellos of Zuni. Sadly enough, the dealer even gave me the wrong name of the artist when he sold me the work. Fortunately, I could read her engraved signature without difficulty so I began my usual research. She is in none of the most commonly cited reference works which I keep at hand. A Google search led me to one web reference only which also included her jewelry making daughter, Lenora. The two lines on Ms. Gia read, "Ella is an excellent maker of inlaid jewelry! She like many Zuni crafts people, has another job. She works at the Zuni Head Start during the day, while following the making of jewelry at night." Her story is so familiar; nearly all of the independent Native American jewelry artists need to have a primary job as their mainstay of making a living. Now that the cost of silver is again skyrocketing, the cost of buying supplies and selling in a very competitive market which includes cheap "Native American Style" jewelry from foreign sources is constantly eroding incentives to continue the good work.

Now that Ella Gia has entered my blog and I've put her bracelet on EBay, she will have at least 3 Google hits by tomorrow. I love her work, and I'll certainly be on the search for more.