Sunday, July 6, 2008

Clayton's Cosmic Bear

Last week I was asked to write up a promotional piece on Clayton Tom. Even though some of the information has been previously presented in this blog, I thought I'd include it anyway. I chose the cosmic bear as the best example of his work. The bear shown here is actually signed inside the bale as a Calvin Begay piece, but the inlay and front design are what really bring it to life so it's credited more Clayton than Calvin. Last night I asked Sandy to string it on turquoise and wear it to the Santa Fe Opera. As we knew it would, it proved to a be an irresistible eye catcher. Once the silver is cast, it takes Clayton about 3 days to do the full inlay and deliver the finished product. This piece retails for around $1400.

The name Clayton Tom is well woven into the fabric of celebrated Native American artists of the new century. His brilliant jewelry has consistently earned him top awards at major jewelry art shows and led to his recognition as one of the great masters of micro-inlay design and technique. His name is always a contender as tops in his speciality, but most often seen now as a credit to his jewelry when displayed in books or periodicals that feature Native American Art. Frequently in short supply and hard to find, his jewelry is always in high demand as showcase inventory among Southwestern jewelry dealers. It is similarly prized among Native American jewelry collectors, and readily coveted by those who just see his masterful creations. Clayton’s award winning work includes concho belts, necklaces, and ranger belt buckle sets, but his personal favorite and most beloved is the cosmic bear pendant which celebrates the Yei-bi-Chai, supernatural beings in the Navajo culture who are sometimes referred to as the "Medicine People", the "Holy People", or "Winter Gods". The "Winter Gods" reference arises from the Yei Bi 'Chai ceremony held in the late fall or early winter. In Navajo culture, they are believed to be the source of healing powers and blesser of the corn.

Even though Clayton’s jewel creations are hailed as the crème del crème of the microinlay world, the artist himself avoids the limelight and there is little published on the man himself. I caught up with Clayton in his workspace. It’s impressive to see him grind away at tiny pieces of stones to precisely fit tiny allocated slivers and dots into channels of sterling silver. When I asked about the particular pendant design he was working on the day I interviewed him, he looked up and pulled down a piece of ratty corrugated cardboard to show me his inception drawing. His reverence for traditional Navajo ways was apparent as he went on to explain that he was not supposed to be doing Yei-be-Chai image work in the winter. He elaborated by describing the physical consequences of violating this taboo. I was glad to hear that said consequences weighed in on the minor ailment scale. He told me much more, but between the grinding wheel and his loud rock music, I did not hear much of what he had to say.

Clayton Tom was born in Denver, Colorado in 1970 while his parents were away on job-site. He was raised on the Navajo reservation in Tse-Yah-Toh, New Mexico. He graduated from Gallup High School and now lives with his family a few miles South of Gallup in Vanderwagon, New Mexico. His hobby is building car and truck engines.