Native Arts | David Gaussoin

By Dottie Indyke

A Native jeweler in Santa Fe takes his family’s traditions into modern times

David Gaussoin has taken a lot of heat for stepping outside the boundaries of traditional Native American art. Despite a lengthy career, prizes, and a long list of noteworthy ancestors—from the late R.C. Gorman to sculptor Robert Dale Tsosie—his peers and collectors didn’t cut him any slack when, at 19, he started using steel and pearls to craft sleek pendants and bracelets inspired by Scandinavian designs.

The artist, who is of Picuris Pueblo, Navajo, and French descent and lives in Santa Fe, NM, is quick to point out that experimentation is a longstanding legacy in Pueblo and Navajo jewelry-making. “Silver didn’t exist until the Spaniards came with coins,” Gaussoin notes. “Our tradition is to use whatever materials come into our area.”

Ultimately the criticism hasn’t fazed him, and today the 31-year-old is a fixture on the Native fashion-show circuit. Encouraged by a new group of collectors who suggested that his cutting-edge work needed to be seen on the body, Gaussoin learned to choose models, sew clothing, and design hair and makeup, all to provide a proper backdrop for his dramatic pieces.

Among Gaussoin’s recent one-of-a-kind creations are a delicate gold squash-blossom pendant, hand-shaped in wax and textured with the lines of his fingerprints; a heavy silver cornstalk bracelet cast from cuttlebone, or squid skeleton; and a bracelet of cast silver with multi-layered wood and pipestone inlay, made in homage to the late Charles Loloma.

His Controlled Chaos series includes a bracelet blending stainless steel, prayer feathers, and soft gold—materials meant to symbolize an amalgam of contemporary America, the customs of his Navajo and Picuris Pueblo people, and the balance between these two worlds.

Most days, Gaussoin can be found in the “sweatshop,” as he fondly calls it—a converted garage on Santa Fe’s south side where his mother has been based since the mid-1970s. There, vacuum casters, doming tools, and mini-compressors share the tiny space with a treadmill and a Coke machine. Frequently, Gaussoin, his brother Wayne, and mother, Connie—all jewelers—work together, bouncing ideas back and forth and prodding one another to take greater creative risks.

Matriarch Connie Tsosie Gaussoin is her sons’ primary teacher, emboldening them since they were young boys to explore the world, share their knowledge, and support one another as artists. Consequently, Gaussoin has traveled extensively in Europe and taught at the Institute of American Indian Arts and the Poeh Center at Pojoaque Pueblo, where he prods his students to “bust out.” “And they do,” he says. “They also push me, question me, and make me think.”

The Gaussoins’ latest venture takes them in yet another direction. With Osage ceramic artist Anita Fields, they are creating a series of concrete and mosaic benches for a healing garden at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, AZ. Starting out, they consulted with clinic doctors and patients, who told them that they derived strength, hope, and courage from earth-based designs. Consequently the 10 benches are set with handmade ceramic tile in nature-inspired motifs, with images of turtles, petroglyphs, clouds, and dragonflies. The navajo moon bench consists of gold- and mica-flecked slate that mimics the surface of the moon. Tumbled granite, turquoise, and flagstone are used to create rows of speckled corn kernels.

The collaborative nature of the project comes naturally to the group: “You’ve got four different designers here, but we’re very in tune in working with each other. It’s nice to spread our wings in a different way—it’s like working on inlay but on a big scale,” says Gaussoin. The artist credits Arizona’s Heard Museum, which facilitated the effort, for its vision in selecting jewelry artists to work in this unusual way.

In fact, the Heard Museum figures into Gaussoin’s life a long way back. He remembers that when he was a kid, traipsing along after his mom to Santa Fe’s Indian Market and other exhibitions, the student art show held at the Heard—in which young artists were judged on their own merits—first made him feel like a real artist. Whereas Santa Fe’s Indian Market strictly regulates materials, Gaussoin says, the annual Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair & Market has given him opportunities to test new ideas.

While once he contemplated becoming a doctor, Gaussoin acknowledges today that he never could shake his passion for jewelry—the fun of making it, the feeling that comes with seeing a part of him on someone else’s body, or the dream of getting his pieces to collectors worldwide.

“I want younger jewelers not to be afraid,” he muses. “In the past, artists were controlled by religion or government, but we live in a time when we can make art for art’s sake, so we should take full advantage. I want to shake up this art world, too. There’s so much out there that looks alike.”

Gaussoin is represented at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC; Heard Museum, Phoenix, AZ; and Institute of American Indian Arts, Santa Fe, NM

Featured in “Native Arts” October 2006