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What is a Hallmark?

Hallmarks identify the jewelry maker. Many times they are just simple letter stamps. They are not something new, but can be traced back to the 4th Century. Famous American metal smiths used them before we became a country. Paul Revere who warned the Colonial militia “the British are coming” during the American Revolution used a hallmark on his handmade silver pieces in the 1700s.>

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Milford Nahohai

Tuesday, April 9, 2019 5:43 PM

Milford Nahohai

         All Zunis grow up surrounded by art, but Milford Nahohai has probably done better than most.  His family tree looks like more like a Christmas display.  Wherever the family name came from, as it is written today it is the Navajo word for rodeo [originally chicken pull] a rather exciting event.  Astonishingly, Milford’s paternal grandfather, Antone (Antonacio) Nahohai, was born in 1863 and his wife the same year.  That is a huge connection with the past. 

This is a century and a half in only three generations.  Milford heard older family members tell about the past and traditional beliefs.  His great uncle Lonkeena later recorded stories for posterity and Milford is listening to them.  I urge him to transcribe them.

Antone had two sons, Dalyupta, 1905, and Nat, 1906.  Dalyupta is one of the best kept secrets in Zuni history.  He was blind, but that didn’t keep him from doing more (and better) than most of his contemporaries.  He moved around the village without a cane, knew people by their footsteps, and was a seer in the Ancient Greek pattern.

Over the years dozens of people have told me their personal stories about this man.  It seemed he could read minds.  Blind people tend to sharpen other senses to get along, but Dalyupta could “see” things that never ceased to astonish folks.  Even if some of the stories are exaggerated, his actual accomplishments are dizzying.  He repaired furniture.  He dealt in jewelry raw materials.  One man swore Dalyupta had a still for bootleg liquor at one time.

I have seen a carved frog he made and it is very lifelike.  For silversmith Myrtle Naieshta he rebuilt a rolling mill that turns silver slugs into plate and wire.  The broken, heavy tool had been discarded.  Dalyupta’s brother was Milford’s dad, Nate.  Nate carved katsinas and fetishes.



Milford’s mother Josephine was orphaned at an early age and was raised in the Bowekaty family.  Needlepoint master Hugh was the baby of the group, but several others were jewelers.  His grandmother’s brother was Lonkeena who is given credit for taking his wife and several other ladies to the first Ceremonial and originating the so-called Olla Maidens.  He was a consummate storyteller and contributed to the Duke Oral History project in the late 60s.  Lonkeena made the old traditional “tab” turquoise necklaces.

Maternal grandma Lawatsa made pottery and was known as a weaver.  Nobody seems to know that Zunis wove blankets.  She steered Josephine away from weaving because she said she was often not paid.  Milford recalls Grandma Lawatsa didn’t make as much pottery as some of the ladies, but it was a skill she passed down.

Josephine was first married to another important silversmith, Jerry Shebala and together they produced jewelry legend Dixon Shebala who in turn was married to a Hustito.  Josephine, never associated with silverwork, won a blue ribbon at the first New Mexico State Fair where Native artists were allowed to enter their own work.  She traded a squash-blossom necklace for the land the Nahohai house stands on.

Milford told me that both he and brother Randy first learned to make jewelry.  Josephine switched them all to ceramics because the clay and other materials were free in nature.  Silver and turquoise were becoming too dear.

Over the years she won many awards for her pottery eventually being honored as a living legend.  Both Milford and Randy have also been stars in the world of Zuni pottery and a few years ago, not long before Randy’s sudden passing, the two brothers and their family were given extensive coverage in Ceramics in America 15, a hardcover annual devoted to the pottery arts.

Randy was married for years to Rowena Him, whose parents were both important jewelers.  Their son JC, who sometimes works parties as a DJ, is now taking over the mantle and winning awards at the big Indian art shows. He also spent time in Japan, studying Japanese pottery The family has pushed the boundaries of Zuni pottery into the 21st Century while keeping it grounded in tradition.

Milford got a big dose of Zuni art when he joined the Zuni Arts and Crafts enterprise, eventually managing the business.  This took Milford all over the country from folk gatherings in DC to their two shops on the West Coast; San Francisco and Venice.  There was talk at one time about opening a store in Paris, France.

Thanks largely to grants, the Zuni Tribe created their own book imprint in the early Nineties and produced several volumes.  I have known Milford and his late brother for many years but it was the book Zuni: A Village of Silversmiths, 1996, that I particularly quizzed him about.  I hoped he could explain why there were so many errors in a book, issued in the name of the Zuni Tribe. 

Even though he is listed as co-author with James Ostler and Marian Rodee he says his involvement was primarily with the interviews, one between Ostler and him, the other a perceptive interview he conducted with the late Charles Hustito.

His interview with older ladies is the best discussion of Zuni aesthetics I have ever read, but he told me he never saw the rest of the text.  “They just copied stuff from books, like everyone does.”  That was a really unfortunate missed  opportunity.

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Master Jeweler Eldred Martinez: Pushing Tradition

Friday, March 1, 2019 11:18 AM

Master Jeweler Eldred Martinez: Pushing Tradition

Eldred Martinez is well-connected in the traditional world of Zuni jewelry making, even in the village of silversmiths.  His mother Abbey Martinez had Eldred about the time his maternal grandfather, Leo Poblano, lost his life in California.  His father Joseph and his uncle Juan were both jewelers.  Like most Zunis, he and his brother Mark picked up the basics of silver work helping their parents.

He started making his own jewelry at about age twelve and says he got hooked on the art when he started selling rings to Mickey Vanderwagon on the way to school, keeping him in spending money.   He was soon doing so well he turned to silversmithing full time.  When the jewelry business slipped he worked in construction, doing both until 2005 when he went back to silver full time.

His maternal grandmother was Cynthia Iule, which ties him to two of the most prominent early families in the business.   Eldred recalls Dale Edaaki in particular as an early influence.  He was fascinated by Dale’s masterfully inlaid animal figures.

Yelmo Natachu was an uncle and he and his wife Betty were creating Rainbow Man figures which influenced and inspired him as a youngster.  “I would see these things all around me,” he says.  “I wanted to do work like that.”  Porfilio Sheyka, another maternal uncle,  was also one of his teachers.  Sheyka was known for his eagle dancers and animals. “I wondered,” says Eldred, “if I could make things like they did.”

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Even though he was making a living with his inlay, it was the birth of a very sick grandson that pushed him to go further because the family needed money.  It was at that point he started to develop a unique style of his own.  At first he created his well-known corn and butterfly maidens, which he still makes.   He got the shape of his butterfly maidens and a male version from a painting by his daughter Kelly.  Several children and grandchildren are rising artists. 

Martinez says that some of his buyers pushed him to try more ambitious items, katsinas and other figural pieces, and he turned out to be very good at it.  Once he discovered he could create his own designs his work got more and more ambitious.  Even when he does traditional pieces like the Sunface he puts his own stamp on them.

Eldred Martinez’s works are a combination of four traditional techniques:  channel inlay, where bands of silver separate the parts; mosaic inlay, where pieces of stone are fitted together seamlessly to make a component; stone carving, where details are cut into the turquoise and shell; and overlay, where stones of different types are stacked to create a bas-relief, three dimensional effect.

When I visited Eldred last he was putting the final touches to a new design he hopes will be as popular as his huge (6x3 in) flying eagle.  He got the idea from one of his horses who had a bad habit of rearing up and waving his forelegs.  The design on his rearing horse was suggested by a large piece of pottery he came across in the hills.

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Eldred’s grandfather once had a large herd of horses and that animal has always been a big part of his life.  He enjoys the time he spends on their care every day.  He got his first horse on a trade with his wife Jobyna’s uncle, Patrick Phillips.  The pony cost him bolo/bracelet set depicting rain dancers.

At this point Martinez has done two complete Shalako/Council of the Gods sets, many individual Kokos, and he is especially fond of the Sayatasha, a ceremonial whipper figure that appears in several annual dance cycles.  Several of his high-end collectors want an example of every new design he creates.

While drawing on tradition, Eldred has found power in following his own muse, and feels now that he could make almost anything in stone and silver.



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Lewis Malie

Tuesday, February 19, 2019 4:14 PM

Lewis Malie

LEWIS_MALIE_CARVING_OUTSIDE_OF_HIS_CABIN_KEEPING_DOWN_THE_DUST       Lewis (Mertz) Malie is a nephew of Maxx and Pernell Laate and as he grew up he watched them work, picking up techniques and inspiration. Though Lewis Malie grew up in a family of carvers, he has developed a work style different than any fetish maker I know of.

He has never used a grinder as others do to rough out his pieces and do the basic shaping.  He carves his amazing fetishes using only a Dremel and at that uses only three bits. That minimalism of tools certainly doesn’t handicap him and undoubtedly enhances his super fine detail.THIS_IGUANA_WAS_CARVED_FROM_COW_BONE_A_MEDIA_SELDOM_USED_BY_ZUNI_CARVERS

Though his work is similar to his uncle Maxx and his cousin Esteban Najera his subjects and his style are his own.  Though they all carve stunning eagles, each of them manages to make their birds uniquely their own.  One eagle carving shows an eagle on the ground, wings outspread in a protective pose, but there is a large rattlesnake in the bird’s beak, revealed like a surprise.

Mertz also carves a lot of bats.  They are challenging because they don’t have the detailed feathers of birds. In an effort to keep interest among buyers and collectors, most Zuni fetish artists have ventured into a Noah’s Ark of animals.  One of Lewis’s most interesting pieces is an iguana climbing a branch.  The slitted eyes are inlayed with black stone.  That and the shape of the mouth make the lizard look somewhat sinister.


He once carved twenty eagles on a single piece. One of his signature pieces is a two-part antler pendant: an eagle head backed by a detailed feather. The two parts move separately.  Each one he does is a little different.

                  

Maxx Laate

Saturday, February 16, 2019 3:40 PM

Maxx Laate

Maxx Laate comes from a family of famous Zunis.  Less well known is that many of the other top carvers are his brothers and nephews because they go by other surnames.  They have mostly lived near each other and Maxx’s brother Pernell has been an inspiration and teacher for many of them, though Zunis don’t teach in the way schools do. So, the family has been influential to other carvers.

         Pernell’s carving was amazing.  He mostly did animals and figures of cowboys and Indians that are incredibly intricate.  Pernell was the oldest of the Laate brothers and he inspired Maxx to do fetishes. Then they in turn inspired Lewis Malie (Mertz), Esteban Najera, and his brother Ruben, Florentine Martinez (Tino), and in-law Garrick Weeka, all of them master carvers today.

ONE_OF_MAXX_S_LOADED_CANOES

Maxx, like most Zuni artists, has tried many art forms: painting, pottery, wood whittling, katsinas and then silverwork.  He learned casting from his father and he remembers casting arrowheads in the round.

He and his brothers carved wood when they had to herd sheep, a really boring job.  Their grandfather Gus Laate did only the traditional style fetishes, but he was the motivation to begin fetish carving, picking a soft rock and using a knife and file. 

           His father Bennie Laate taught him to cast silver and he remembers casting a three-dimensional arrowhead piece.  But mostly they were self taught, as most Zunis are.  They took their creativity from the material and inventiveness they had from their own imagination.

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Maxx soon added a Dremel to his tool box when the files he was using were too restrictive, both in the stone he could use, and the detail he wanted.  A Dremel is a hand-held variable speed rotary tool that takes all sorts of grinding and cutting bits, and that that allowed him to do the super fine carving.

         Maxx thinks he was the first to be inspired to carve the six directional animals together from a single stone.  Today he mostly carves antler, both elk and deer. His brother Willard used to spend a lot of time in the woods, hunting.  He would find shed antlers regularly but they are much scarcer these days. At one time he was able to get caribou antler and he carved an Eskimo sled with a string of dogs. He found that deer antlers were easier to use, because elk grows in layers like an onion but many carvers, including him, still use it.  MAXX_TAKES_A_FAMILIAR_IMAGE_AND_TWISTS_IT_A_BIT_TO_CREATE_SOMETHING_NEW



         He says the material dictates what he carves and how fast he works. Many sculptors say they carve what they see in the rock (and some Zuni pieces can’t be called any thing else).  The delightful thing about really good carver is their ability to keep their work tribal but create new variations.  Maxx has done some really original pieces like a man fighting a bear, a ring tailed cat and a plains chief holding and eagle.  At one time he did canoes with people, goods and dogs in them.

Recently I visited his workshop and he was finishing up a piece carved from an antler that stood by itself, covered with spiders. Both tines of the antler had dozens of spiders running down the sides.  The spider legs didn’t look any bigger than small twine, smaller than a toothpick, as small as  or a cactus needle, which made the carving stunning. Maxx is most famous for his intricate eagles and fine deer, but he does lizards and anything he can think of, even alligators.

HUMMINGBIRD_AND_BATS_ARE_FAVORITES A mark of his amazing skill is his fine detailing and his miniatures are amazing. But he has a sense of humor and originality as he carves buffalos with exaggerated humps, or an eagle with a rattlesnake in its mouth.  The work of his pupils, Lewis Malie and Ruben Najera also do excellent and finely detailed work.

Can Your Bear Dance?

Saturday, November 17, 2018 3:05 PM

Can Your Bear Dance?

Study shows French prehistoric paintings ‘oldest and most elaborate’

         "Remarkably, agreeing with the radiocarbon dates of the human and animal occupancy, this study confirms that the Chauvet cave paintings are the oldest and the most elaborate ever discovered, challenging our current

knowledge of human cognitive evolution”, said the study.

ONE_OF_CLAUDIA_PEINA_S_SINGING_BEARS._SHE_ALSO_CARVES_SOME_DOING_BOTH--SINGING_AND_DANCING

         Those folks did not think of bears as “happy” creatures, but the extinct cave bear was more than twice the size of our bears.  Strangely, there are no synonyms for bear in English— not counting the Latin, Ursa--the best we can do is growler, brute and other descriptive words. The word bear came from Proto-Germanic, but it’s meaning was “brown” or “shining”, “honey eater”, “shaggy coat.” In many cultures, bear, like coyote, was taboo to speak, so other names were made up.

         Taboos involving bears are widespread.  I collected a dozen of them from the Navajos—including “don’t step on a bear track” and “don’t put your shoes on the wrong feet”.  Zunis are forbidden to kill bears, but members of a certain medicine group may do it.  Of course none will eat bear meat, which is really delicious.

TROY_SICE_S_BEARS_ARE_EVOLVING

         In general most societies have given bears a wide birth because of the threat they are.  But for reasons I can’t find, they were tamed and forced to dance for people in the dim past. Their training has been described as “unimaginable cruelty”.  In Nepal the last dancing sloth bear was only recued in July of this year. Many eastern European countries only stopped recently and in Pakistan the practice continues.

         I think the underlying reason for dancing bears came out of fear.  If you can make a ferocious animal perform for people, then you might be able to control all forms of danger and evil. The same thing is part of the appeal of lion tamers and dancing elephants.  Control in a world that has never seemed to have much of it.

I remember seeing an old print that hung in a friend’s home, showing two young bears dancing. There was also a print of a huge stag, and one showing dogs playing poker.  I thought they were humorous but not significant in any way.  A much less funny print from 1620 shows a handler with his two bears.  They don’t look happy at all.

         I was only recently educated on the subject when I tried to find the origin of the Zuni carved dancing bears, originated by Claudia Peina.  Now her half-brother and a few others are making them. But when I started looking I discovered some Artic tribes have been carving dancing bears for a long time and they keep pushing the envelope.  They are the ones who give life to the dancing bear, believing it is joyous, and brings happiness, prosperity, and good things to the people.  I believe they have it right. 



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