Edison Cummings, teapot, silver and ironwood, 7 x 123⁄4 x 7.
By Diana Pardur
Twentieth-century Native American jewelry-making has been marked by transition. Having learned metalworking techniques in the late 1800s, Native artists were selling lightweight silver jewelry to non-native travelers to the Southwest by the turn of the century. During the Depression of the 1930s and following in the 1940s, when more costly materials were difficult to obtain, southwestern jewelers creatively used battery parts and record albums along with plastics and inexpensive turquoise. By the second half of this century, a metamorphosis was evident, as artists challenged the boundaries of traditional metalwork by creating groundbreaking works characterized by nontraditional materials, unique designs and new techniques.
Charles Loloma, bracelet, silver, coral, ivory and turquoise, 7⁄8 x 31⁄8.
The evolution of Native jewelry making that has occurred in the past five decades began with the efforts of a few jewelers. Around 1946, Kenneth Begay (see page 8), a silversmith trained in traditional techniques, began to create innovative jewelry as well as a variety of objects such as teapots, flatware and perfume bottles. Not only did Begay diverge from traditional designs, he also used new materials. As early as 1951, Begay was incorporating ironwood, an exceptionally hard wood, into jewelry and other metalwork forms that he made. Although it was a newly introduced material, ironwood was easily accepted by purveyors of Native arts, perhaps because it was from the Southwest and also because Begay had the ability to make it a cohesive part of any object he created.
Charles Loloma was also instrumental in introducing new materials and forms to contemporary jewelry. Beginning in the late 1950s and continuing throughout his lifetime, Loloma challenged the boundaries of jewelry-making and, in so doing, had a phenomenal impact on southwestern jewelry. His selection of materials not only included ironwood and turquoise but also extended to materials new to the Southwest, such as lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, fossilized ivory from Alaska and charoite from Siberia. Loloma was also among the first Native artists to use gold rather than silver. In addition, he introduced dramatic new shapes and concepts such as hidden designs on the interior of jewelry.
Michael Kabotie (Lomawywesa), bracelet, silver, 17⁄8 x 25⁄8.
Begay, Loloma and others helped move Native jewelry away from the confines of being defined by “Indian-ness.” But because it did not look Indian, the jewelry produced by these two men was excluded from many southwestern markets and competitions. As their work gained acceptance, however, Begay and Loloma influenced generations of jewelers who followed them.
Edison Cummings is a contemporary Native American silversmith who has followed the example of innovation and is not satisfied with making regular jewelry. “To be recognized, you must be different, and this sometimes means breaking the rules of traditional jewelry,” he says. Cummings breaks the rules by creating unusually shaped teapots and coffeepots, which involves the laborious and difficult task of stretching silver.
Richard Chavez, pin, gold, onyx, prystine, coral and turquoise, 3 x 2.
He first heats the silver, then cools it slowly in cold water, pounding it while it is still soft to manipulate it into complex forms such as the round body of a teapot and the narrow neck of a spout. The technique is challenging because the silver will crack if stretched too thin.
When getting ideas for his work, Cummings notices equally the sharp lines of a well-designed building and the curvilinear lines of a metal guardrail on the side of the highway. Both serve as inspiration for his three-dimensional silver forms.
Michael Kabotie (Lomawywesa) attributes his design inspiration to his mentors—the prehistoric kiva mural painters of Awatovi—and to the rich graphics from the Sikyatki ruins near the present community of Polacca on First Mesa, AZ. Kabotie uses the overlay silversmithing technique developed by the Hopi people in the 1940s. His creations, however, are distinctively his own, with abstract designs like those in his paintings [SWA SEP 94].
Carl and Irene Clark, bracelet, turquoise, jet, mother of pearl and silver, 11⁄8 x 3.
Richard Chavez focuses on clean lines and a minimal use of semi-precious and precious stones. Chavez fabricates the jewelry rather than casting the metal. He also does his own lapidary work, cutting and polishing the stones by hand.
Chavez studied architecture at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. While in college, he began to make heishi (turquoise or shell beads) under the direction of his grandfather to help support his family. Next he bought a torch and began experimenting with metalwork. His jewelry received immediate recognition: In 1976, he won a grand prize at the Eight Northern Indian Pueblos Artist and Craftsman Show.
Jesse Monongye, buckle, gold, lapis lazuli, opal, turquoise, white shell, coral, mother of pearl, jet and sugilite, 21⁄2 x 35⁄8.
Despite the acclaim, Chavez initially ran into the same problem as his predecessors. “At one time my designs were not accepted by [dealers] as what ‘Indian jewelry’ should look like,” he says. “But over the years I’ve continued to create pieces that are expressions of form, color and simplicity. This focus on expression has helped change the perception of what ‘Indian jewelry’ is and will continue to be an expression of the artist, no matter what his or her ethnicity.”
Carl and Irene Clark create distinctive, intricate inlay jewelry, sometimes using as many as 6,000 stones in a single bracelet. “We keep it simple and subtle,” says Carl. “We use silver as a framework and inlay as a picture.”
Charles Supplee, pendant, gold and Tibetan turquoise, 31⁄4 x 1.
They begin by melting silver and pounding it out or by casting silver in a tufa (porous rock) mold to make an ob-ject such as a bracelet band. They hand-tool the back, add a bezel to hold the inlay work, bend the silver bracelet band and assemble the stones. To form the stone inlay, the Clarks laminate thinly sliced sheets of turquoise, coral, sugilite, lapis, jet and other stones, then crosscut the laminated sheets.
The Clarks frequently use symbols from their Navajo heritage. Carl primarily designs and makes the larger items such as bracelets, bolos and buckles, while Irene devotes her efforts to the more delicate jewelry such as earrings, rings and pendants as well as the inlay work in necklace chains.
Jesse Monongye was raised by his Navajo grandmother and “brought up with the stars, moon and sun.” He remembers vividly growing up in a hogan that had a hole in the center for the fire to escape. As a boy, Monongye was mystified by that construction and spent hours looking at the stars and the night sky. His grandmother told the seasons by the Big Dipper and talked to him about the constellations. Those teachings are reflected in his jewelry.
Ron Bedonie, container, silver, 81⁄2 x 51⁄2.
In 1974, Monongye began to work with his father, Preston Monongye, an important jeweler of the day. Jesse learned to make jewelry by observing his father’s hand movements; later he collaborated with his father.
Monongye popularized the bear design in contemporary jewelry, and he is also known for the night-sky designs he places within the bear shape and other forms. His intricate inlay is created using a multitude of semi-precious stones.
Charles Supplee combines basic techniques such as forging with engraving, etching, casting, fabricating and diamond setting. He strives to create pieces that are three-dimensional and have movement. Supplee doesn’t sketch his designs in advance but follows ideas in his head. “The more techniques you learn, the less inhibited you are and the more freedom you have with what you want to make,” he says.
Ron Bedonie’s silverwork is characterized by fine-line chisel work. In addition to buckles and conchas, he also creates unusually shaped large and min-iature containers that he fashions for practical use. He sketches the shapes and designs and carefully measures before beginning the construction. For a complex shape like an octagon, he may make a prototype out of sections of cardboard held together with masking tape. Once he determines the exact measurements, the individual silver parts are cut, stamped and then soldered to make the finished container. When completed, an octagon shape with a lid may be composed of as many as 18 individual parts.
Angie Reano Owen, bracelet, glycymeris shell, turquoise, pipestone, white shell and jet, 1 x 31⁄2.
Angie Reano Owen grew up in a family of jewelers. Her parents and grandfather made heishi, which her father sold to Navajo jewelers. Her mother’s “Depression jewelry” was often fashioned in the shape of a thunderbird from a base made of car batteries decorated with mosaic turquoise chips and plastic. Owen developed her distinctive mosaic style in the early 1970s. She be-gins each work by cutting a section of a seashell or a piece of cottonwood into a base form. Selecting a color pattern, she cuts the stones and shells to form the mosaic pattern and then glues them to the base. After this has dried, she grinds the entire surface, sands it several times and then polishes it with a buffer.
Despite various styles and techniques, these innovative artists share an intent reflected in the words of Charles Loloma: “A piece of art should be full of surprises, like a person. When you look inside you should find excitement,” he said. “If there is beauty in a piece of art, a person can absorb it and become more beautiful.”
Featured in “Portfolio: Native American Innovators” August 1997