Perry Null Trading:

How did your art career begin?

Harlan Coonsis:

My late Grandpa had sheep, so all of us Grandkids would help. They lived by Nutria, an area where they had very dense clay. Herding sheep can be a very slow operation with lots of time to do other things, so we would collect this clay and make carvings. It would have to be dunked in some water and then cut. What we didn’t finish while herding the sheep, we would take home to work on.

Perry Null Trading:

Are all of you grandkids still making jewelry?

Harlan Coonsis:

I have three brothers and two sisters, and all of us would help our grandparents. My Aunt was always with us, too. We all still make jewelry, but we all have our own style.

Perry Null Trading:

Do you remember your first piece of jewelry?

Harlan Coonsis:

I would make a single stone ring and sell it to the Vanderwagens for $1.50. They would let you choose between taking the cash or a due bill. We always would take the due bill and get things in the Vanderwagen store. It was a lot of money back then.

Perry Null Trading:

What age were you when you began carving the clay fetishes?

Harlan Coonsis:

I was eight years old and it was in the 1960s.

Perry Null Trading:

Did you start making inlay pieces after the one stone ring?

Harlan Coonsis:

No, my Grandma would buy Kingman Turquoise by the pound and we would make tons of cluster work. People would tell me that it was like Navajo work and that I used too much silver. All that silver is what sold it. I was around 16 years old when we were making this cluster jewelry.

Perry Null Trading:

So how did you get into making inlay pieces?

Harlan Coonsis:

I met my first wife around the same time I was grinding Kingman for cluster work. Her father was Jake Haloo who also taught her mosaic inlay. It was after I was married that I began making inlay pieces along with my wife.

Perry Null Trading:

Did you like making the inlay better than cluster work?

Harlan Coonsis:

I began in 1974 and the first piece I made was a Thunderbird Buckle. That first year my earnings improved over 500%. We worked all the time, but it was worth it.

Perry Null Trading:

How did you develop your own look?

Harlan Coonsis:

My brother in-law was Albert Banteah and he gave me his old patterns. They included a Sunface, Rainbow Man, Knifewing, and Thunderbird. I changed these patterns making them more realistic. First I added curves to the body that gave them a new look. I had watched the movie Conan and decided to add a little muscle to my pieces. Lots of things influenced my style. After Albert saw my work he was amazed and told me how glad he was to have given me the old designs.

Perry Null Trading:

How about the birds, when did you start doing them?

Harlan Coonsis:

In the mid 1970s we had to go into Gallup to get our vehicle worked on. We went to the Eagle Café downtown to have lunch. The sugar packages had a Gold Finch on them and I thought it would be fun to try and make one. I made my first inlay bird after that sugar package and gave it to my daughter.

Perry Null Trading:

How many different birds do you make?

Harlan Coonsis:

We usually do twelve different birds, the ones that we use for our belt. However, we have made many others for special order pieces. One of those was a Pink Flamingo, and I hope I never do another.

Perry Null Trading:

Do you do lots of special orders?

Harlan Coonsis:

Yes, we get orders all of the time for different pieces. I have made many different things. One piece I had an inlay Rainbow Man as small as a finger nail.

Perry Null Trading:

Where do you get ideas for making new pieces?

Harlan Coonsis:

I always tell my buyers that the best designer is MOH. I learned that from my mother who worked at Tobe Turpens and would buy scrap and bring it home. I would draw inspiration from the different pieces of silver and make things from what I saw. One time I took apart an old dead pawn bracelet and made a piece from the triangle wire. I always look through the silver scrap box.

Perry Null Trading:

What is MOH?

Harlan Coonsis:

Material on hand. I always look and see what I have around my shop and get many of my ideas from the material I have.

Perry Null Trading:

Where do you draw your inspiration?

Harlan Coonsis:

My ancestors, it is part of Zuni culture. I also miss my Grandfather. I pray to him a lot. One time I took a bolo to show my Grandma, and when she saw it she asked where I got it. I told her I made it and she looked at me with a little disbelief. She went away and came back with a bolo just like it, and this piece had been made by my Grandpa. So I think that he really helps me with my work through praying to him.

Perry Null Trading:

Do you still do any fetish carving?

Harlan Coonsis:

I have a couple going in my shop. It helps me relax from doing jewelry. Right now I am working on a baby elephant.

Perry Null Trading:

How about art shows? You have a good following.

Harlan Coonsis:

I tried to do shows once, but they are just too busy. I work out of home and like the quietness.



Available art from: Coonsis, Harlan