18k-gold necklace with Morenci turquoise, lapis, black jade, red coral, sugalite, opal, and Bisbee turquoise.
By Deenise Becenti
Look closely. Can you see it? Right here it’s the face.” When observing the work of Wes Willie, one has to imagine. Follow his verbal clues, and it becomes evident that each piece of jewelry tells a story tales rooted deeply in Navajo tradition, culture, language, and history. “I grew up surrounded by Navajo culture,” Willie says. “I’ve heard the stories of our people. I think about them when I create my jewelry.”
He considers himself an artist, a builder, a welder, and a designer of unique contemporary American Indian jewelry. Among the materials he selects to design his bracelets, rings, necklaces, pendants, and bolo ties are silver, turquoise, coral, black jade, and abalone shell.
“These stones especially turquoise have powerful stories in our culture,” Willie says, sitting in his quiet Teec Nos Pos, AZ, home within the boundaries of the Navajo Nation. It is here, under bright blue skies and sparkling dark nights, where he assembles his delicate jewelry using materials treasured by his Navajo people.
Wes Willie selling his jewelry at Indian Market.
“I was told that in the old days our people would carry or wear a piece of turquoise whenever they left home,” he says. “This was an important teaching that many of us still follow.”
Willie was taught that good things come with turquoise. “Even with one little stone, good thoughts are observed and prayers are answered. The person is recognized by the Holy People,” he says. “I remember these teachings. That is why I put a piece of turquoise in most of my work—because of what turquoise represents to the Navajos. We have been told that turquoise is a stone that is to be respected. It is a powerful symbol of good.”
In each piece of his jewelry, whether a bracelet or a ring, Willie balances his knowledge of Navajo tradition with contemporary American lifestyle. “My grandmother would tell us Creation stories. Later on in life, I continued to hear more stories about the Creation of the present world and the Universe. These stories have had a powerful impact on me, and that’s why I build them into my pieces,” he says. “The stories are alive and teach us about life.”
Navajo Creation stories reveal that turquoise is a sacred stone. It is the color of Mount Taylor, near Grants, NM, one of the Four Sacred Navajo mountains near the borders of the 25,000-square-mile Navajo reservation located in northeastern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico, and southeastern Utah. The colors of the other sacred mountains are abalone, white shell, and black jet.
The Creation stories also explain that the Sun was made with a turquoise stone. Tribal elders say that after the Universe was created, the First People wanted to make something that would give strong light during day. A large, perfectly round turquoise stone was placed on top of six buckskins. First Man and First Woman marked the large stone with a mouth, nose, and eyes. They placed a streak of yellow below the mouth and across the face. This became the Sun.
“When I hear these stories my work seems to make more sense because I understand,” Willie says. “As an artist I create and come up with different ideas—yet I still remember the power and strength behind the stories.”
Willie’s interest in jewelry craftsmanship started at a young age. He attended elementary school in Teec Nos Pos, a small reservation community located 20 miles south of the infamous Four Corners. His childhood was simple. His parents worked odd jobs to support the family. Later, with his own family to support, a wife and two children, Willie became a welder. His expertise led him to jobs across the country, from New York to California.
For years, Willie was hired for weeks at a time, earning top cash for welding oil pipelines. But eventually fluctuating oil prices led him to leave the unpredictable industry. He decided to go home and start over. He made up his mind to revisit his dream of designing jewelry.
“When I chose to make jewelry full time, I did not have to spend a lot of time learning how to solder pieces together. It came to me naturally. I was grateful for having learned this as a pipeline welder.”
Willie was near 40 when he entered the world of contemporary jewelry design in 1995. He knew he had to do work that was different if he was to carve a niche for himself in the vast and competitive American Indian jewelry market. So he observed and studied. He relied on his own creativity and imagination. He also sought instruction.
He had learned the traditional Navajo style of basic turquoise and silver sand-cast design but knew his work had to be unique. He decided to make a statement and be different from the rest by enhancing traditional Navajo jewelry design and giving it a contemporary twist.
He had always been interested in inlaid stone jewelry, so he began experimenting with different kinds of pieces. With each piece, he advanced his design, moving beyond basic inlay. He viewed himself as a builder, and his strong interest in architectural design was reflected in his work.
“My bracelets have an angular shape, and sometimes I design them in different levels. I have always been amazed by skyscrapers, so when I design a piece I think of it in different dimensions my bracelets become a high-rise. It is sort of a step design, one level on top of another,” he says.
Willie’s architectural jewelry became popular, and collectors began recognizing his work. This support gave him the confidence to continue exploring new realms of design and opened the door to creativity. He started adding faces to his pieces—images not distinct but hidden in the mosaic arrangement of turquoise, coral, black jade, and opal stone.
“When I started designing jewelry, everything became visual. I started to take close notice of paintings, buildings, scenery—even a simple piece of furniture,” he says. “In almost everything I can see a design. I visualize, wondering how the object or scene would look if it were a piece of jewelry. Every object, no matter how big or small, is different. It is special in its own way.
That’s how I see my pieces.”
Willie carves tiny circles into the sides of his bracelets, reducing their weight and making them more comfortable to wear and adding another element of individuality. Other signature elements include lines sketched into a piece or Native symbols cut out of them.
Willie has also adapted Native design by placing symbols inside the bracelet, seeking to express traditional stories in his art. “One of my colleagues told me that he puts Native designs in his art because everything should have a spirit,” he says. “He explained that everything in the universe has a living spirit. Take a horse. You see the physical image, but there is a spirit that you can’t see. Using that philosophy I put images and symbols inside my bracelets. I feel this gives the piece its own spirit and its own strength. It gives the whole piece respect.”
His studio is a transformed bedroom that formerly belonged to his teenage daughter. With Michael Jordan and Ford Mustang posters hanging above his tables, Willie works from sunup to mid-day—often listening to the radio. Today the dial is set on rock and roll. He says his early evenings are reserved for basketball games transmitted via satellite.
“I work best when it is quiet,” he says. “Usually during the day relatives will stop by to visit or the phone will ring. I like the silent times because the quiet allows me to start thinking about different designs and keep working. Sometimes I make a mistake, but even that isn’t too bad. Another design comes out, and it’s sometimes better than what I had imagined.”
Willie says the possibilities for his works are endless. His next venture with design is to introduce nontraditional stones into his “high-rise” pieces. He is considering using diamonds, pearls, platinum, and gold.
“These designs will incorporate the universe, using more of nature’s materials. Imagine wearing the solar system or parts of the environment—scenes here on Earth we see every day but take for granted,” he says. “I know I’m a late starter, but it seems like I’ve done this all my life because I’ve wanted to do this all my life. I’m committed and will keep going. One thing that I do know is that each piece I create has its own spirit, it’s own identity. People can see it. They just have to look closely.”
Photos courtesy the artist and Yazzie’s Indian Art, Gallup, NM; Heard Museum North, Scottsdale, AZ; Garland’s, Oak Creek Canyon, AZ; Mudhead Gallery, Denver, CO; and Native Spirit Trading Company, Nagano, Japan.
Deenise Becenti is a freelance writer living in Arizona.
Featured in August 2001