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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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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.

THIS_WHITETAIL_DEER_TAKES_ADVANTAGE_OF_THE_ANTLER_COLORS



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. 



Freddie & Enrique Leekya

Saturday, November 17, 2018 10:59 AM

Freddie & Enrique Leekya

        In the recent book Leekya: Master Carver of Zuni Puebloby Deborah Slaney, Leekya’s grandchildren don’t get much attention.  Of course the book is about Old Man Leekya but the examples of work by the grandsons are not very representative of their extraordinary work.

         In the second generation only Sarah, Alice and Francis seem to be fetish carvers and Francis only turned to carving in his advanced years, after he had a stroke.  He carved left-handed.  Among his sons Freddie, Hayes & Delvin are master carvers. 

Though all of Leekya’s descendants have carved Leekya’s grinning bears--plump, happy, and charming—none actually copy his work.  Hayes can do stringing fetishes; especially the distinctive bears that look a great deal like the Old Man’s work.  Dealers have sometimes banked on this resemblance.

Like most Zunis, Freddie began working at a young age, educating himself by observing his father and grandfather.  But Freddie carries the tradition to produce new, very original, and surprising carvings.  His mini-sculptures have moved into a fanciful world of dancing or playful frogs, gorillas and other exotic creatures, howling coyotes, Zuni dancers and men on horseback.  One fat pig seems to be puckering up for a kiss.THIS_LOVABLE_PIG_SEEMS_TO_PUCKER_UP_FOR_A_KISS

His frogs run the gamut of possibilities.  They are seldom just water animals and even when they look just like frogs, they are presented in an original way, like the small frog riding a large one.   He has made frog Boy Scouts, frog hikers, frog people holding coffee mugs, books, a flower, and a sandwich.ONE_OF_FREDDIES_STRANGE_HUMAN_-LIKE_FROGS._

He also does familiar animals like bobcats, beavers, some charming raccoons, bulls, horses and wonderful buffalo.  Like other carvers in his class he works at his art every day

 Freddie married April Unkestine at a young age and they have been together ever since. April inherited an original sunface design that she has modified with ever-tinier stonework.  Recently she made a concho belt that takes the breath away with its color and design.

   It is not surprising that son Enrique carries on a tradition of excellence, imagination and originality.  Though he does familiar animals, he often puts a twist on them, like his Valentine raccoons.  But he also ventures into the exotic with tropical fish, African lions, a marvelous hippo, and a ferocious looking boar.THE_UNCONVENTIONAL_HIPPO_ILLUSTRATES_ENRIQUE_S_TALENT.

In order to solve the problem of the fragility of his fanciful pieces, he has developed removable parts, mainly allowing him to do exaggerated horns on some of his carvings, longhorns, moose, and elk.  Recently he carved the local rodent, the kangaroo rat.  They are mice, not rats, and they can be seen at night hopping in great leaps, trailing a long tail.  Enrique creates these horns and tails out of carved cedar, and they are removable.  Some dealers and collectors pass on pieces of great fragility: problem solved.THESE_AMAZING_ELK_ILLUSTRATE_ENRIQUE_S_REMOVABLE_ANTLERS

They still make involved figures with some extras.  Freddy puts necklaces on many of his carvings and objects in their hands, like the chief who plays flute or carries a peace pipe.  Enrique has done some hunters that have great detail, like a dear over the shoulder with white shell antlers.  The man carries a knife on his belt.

Oversized, expressive eyes are a mark of their work, as well as jet hooves, added noses, and other touches.  They are also pricing their work in a range that keeps them very collectable.

 

Both Freddy and Enrique have done Old Man Leekya proud.

Juan De Dios

Wednesday, October 10, 2018 2:28 PM

Juan De Dios

The earliest Zuni maker of jewelry who can be identified with certainty is Juan De Dios, who taught his nephew Dan Simplicio Sr. and several other Zunis.  Juan remains mysterious but Lee Weebothe remembers him well and has told me some great stories.  There are two Juan De Dioses in the 1885 census, both born in 1876.  De Dios manages to avoid being listed in most of the later censuses. 

Nobody seems to know the origin of his Spanish name in Zuni—De Dios is not actually a surname, but part of his given name, “John of God”, like John the Baptist.  It was usually pronounced and sometimes spelled Didios.

His apprentices include Dan Simplicio, Frank Calavaza, Leslie Shebola, and Wilbur Weebothee among others. Wilbur’s son Lee would take the family horses to Juan’s well for water and he would talk to the old man.  Lee says Juan was an excellent herbalist and medicine man.

SIGNED_RAINBOW_MAN

 It is generally accepted that Juan De Dios was doing tufa casting very early in the last century.  The often repeated story about Juan learning the casting process from a Navajo, but not noticing the step where the mold release was applied doesn’t have much credibility—either part of the story.

         When John Adair recounts the tale (1944:150) it leads into explaining that Juan prefers to use kerosene or machine oil as a mold release so the silver doesn’t stick to the stone. Every silver caster had his own favorite.  Many Navajos prefer smoke from pinon pitch.  Some use lampblack, charcoal, or most any carbon substance.  Horace Iule claimed to prefer smoke from peach pits.

The literature has several references to De Dios casting “in the round” using two tufa molds, one for each half, then casting them as a single piece.  Apparently most of these were small animals that resembled fetishes. Adair says, “There is one smith in the pueblo, Juan Deleosa, who makes these fetish animal forms in silver.  These are small in size, one figure being no more than one-half inches long, and delicately molded.” (1944:149) Again, Lee Weebothee verifies these castings.  Juan helped him cast a silver mouse but, sadly, Lee didn’t know what became of the little critter.

         The most spectacular piece is the famous crucifix.  Adair writes that Deleosa’s first crucifix was fabricated by hand and made for the new Catholic priest, Father Arnold.  He indicates this would have been about 1910.  Father Arnold was sent to Zuni in 1920 to re-establish the mission there        Marjery Bedinger puts the date of the first crucifix at 1908. (1973:150).  

The Wallace knifewing piece in the Heard collection is dated 1929. The first pieces were fabricated from thin silver ingots using a hammer, chisel and files, a method that is work intensive. Claims are made for either Juan De Dios in 1932 (Slaney p.33) with the inlaid version in 1934, or Horace Iule as the innovator (1928) but Adair, in a footnote (1944:140), admits that Margaret E. Lewis (daughter of Margaret A.) says the Navajo Ike Wilson made the first one in 1928 at the request of Charlie Kelsey.

LEEKYA-DE_DIOS_JOINT_PIECE_1

Margaret helped many an ethnographer in Zuni, and by 1930 was an established silversmith herself.  It is likely she is correct on this.  Both Horace and Juan soon switched to cast silver versions (faster to produce) and then De Dios added stone inlay to his creations.   It has even been suggested that De Dios’ inlay in his knifewing was the first such work in modern times.  If Juan De Dios’ version of the knifewing wasn’t first, it was very early

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Snakes - History of Zuni Jewelry

Wednesday, August 22, 2018 2:52 PM

Snakes - History of Zuni Jewelry

        While snakes do not qualify as a popular Zuni design they are interesting for that reason—why were they not more desirable? Only two jewelers are known for their use of snakes; Dan Simplicio and Effie Calavaza who was an in-law through Dan’s sister who married Frank Calavaza.  Dan Jr. said his father got the idea for snakes from Navajos he worked with in the Kennedy shop.  Dan made his snakes with serpent shaped heads [they say that all vipers and poisonous snakes have triangular heads], textured the body, and added rattles.

         The Juan Calavaza piece illustrated here has a snake with a slightly pointed head, but later work, and the distinctive Effie C. examples have a perfectly round head, sometimes with the front squared off. 

JUAN_CALAVAZA

         In the book Navajo Taboos you will find more than twenty taboos relating to snakes.  In a strange little article by Charles F. Lummis printed in Out West Magazinein 1896 he tells this story:  “A very good friend of mine, the best silver smith among the Navajos, made to my order once a bracelet in [the] shape of a rattlesnake.”  Though the Pueblos revere such serpents, “…to the Navajos he is “bad medicine”—and his people beat poor Chit-chi nearly to death, destroyed his hut and made [a]way with the obnoxious symbol.”  Pretty harsh.

         Though taboos today, whether Navajo or Zuni, are weakening and dropping by the wayside, snakes are still dangerous.  While Navajos will go out of their way to avoid the snakes, to Zunis they are representatives of the lightning, and thus rain.

         Item 165 in the Wallace catalog is a belt buckle attributed to Teddy Weahkee dated 1935.  It is a veritable snake pit of serpents, coiling and writhing around like impossible mazes.  One coils around the entire buckle and the other four are so twisted and convoluted it is hard to follow the bodies.  The stones are cut in such a way they look like snakes as well, judging from the coral inlaid eyes.

C._G._WALACE_ATTRIBUTED_THIS_SNAKE_PIT_OF_VIPERS_TO_TEDDY_WEAHKE_IN_1935.

         Once the stones are set the artist can’t heat up the piece again.  For Effie and Juan Calavaza this was not a great problem.  Just leave the heads of the snakes sticking up and out of the way. The silver has just been annealed; heating the metal up makes it soft.  Once the stones are in place just bend the snake heads down on the turquoise.

CLASSIC_EFFIE_CALAVAZA

         There are many pieces attributed to Dan Simplicio just because they have nuggets or coral, including pieces by Robert and Bernice Leekya. But so far as I know, the Simplicio leaf is his alone.   His pieces, and the one by Teddy Weahkee, show master craftsmen at work.  The writhing snakes are hardly attached to the plate at all.  I have not actually handled these creations, but the photos are pretty clear.  The amazing ring has Dan’s leaf.

ANOTHER_GRAVITY_DEFYING_SIMPLICIO_SNAKE

         These incredible snakes were largely unattached when the stones were put in place, making the writhing, wriggling snakes a separate creation.   The makers had to put them in position without marking the soft silver with a steel pliers.   Both Teddy and Dan had spent significant time out in the world, so they probably ignored any taboo, which accounts for the small number of reptiles in Zuni jewelry.

THIS_DAN_SIMPLICIO_SNAKE_HUMPS_INTO_THE_AIR_AND_OFF_THE_SIDE_OF_THE_BOLO

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