Zunis know that Idiwanna, The Middle Place, is the center of the Zuni universe. They know that they were meant to be there, and that all of the natural elements, including the land, the animals and the birds, are under their care, and for their sense of harmony in the universe. There is no denying that traders and collectors have had a huge influence on Zuni jewelry. The buying public want what they want.
Larson Randall Pinto, “Randy”, has, for the most part, managed to do his own thing. Since childhood he has been drawn to his natural environment, and the superb quality of his work has sold it to the public, even if his subjects are not “Indian.”
There is no mystery about his artistic talent, or his early interest in the making of fine jewelry. His grandmother Daisy Nampeyo (Hopi/Tewa), is famous for her fine pottery and her Olla Maiden dance group. But she is hardly known for her influence on Zuni jewelry. In fact, it was Daisy who first made figures in inlay, with finely carved faces. Her pieces did not follow the norms of the time. Early on she collaborated with Leo Poblano and they made pieces featuring spirit beings and Koko (the katsinas).
Randy’s mother Shirley and her husband Virgil Benn are masters of inlay who often do work that, except for technique, would not be considered Zuni. Over the years they have used a Noah’s Arc of animal figures, often combining a number of them in a single “squash”.
He helped his mother by grinding shell and other materials, and was watching the process. Most Zunis learn jewelry making by observing, and assisting, family members
And then, of course, there is his brother, the master carver Marlin Pinto.
As a teenager he started buffing for the Ingrams. He went off to the Stewart Indian School for his upper grades, then, as a practical matter, went to mechanics school to learn a trade. This had been a common practice for young Natives sent to Government boarding schools, but Randy was looking to the future when he took his new trade seriously and became mechanic. He says he was looking for social security.
Because his engine repair work is often seasonal, he began making the jewelry he had grown up with. Always a nonconformist, Randy went his own way, with his own aesthetic. He was drawn to his bird subjects because they are always around us, bringing joy and happiness. They move freely through the world, are almost all holy to the Zuni people, and bring blessings, as well a joy, to the people.
Randy is well aware of the physical danger the Earth is in, and sees a day when his grandchildren may not have the pleasure of wild birds at all. It doesn’t take a scientist to realize we have collectively lost the concept of Earth as our mother. Pinto does his best to honor her.
He started with the most iconic bird in the Southwest, the bluebird. He expanded his designs to include other birds of the area, then went on to some of the exotics. The macaw is one of his favorites, a bird sacred to the Natives Americans in prehistoric times.
He was pushed to do inlay of other types and has modified some of his mother’s designs, like the Indian maiden. But birds remain his favorites, and he is always looking to expand his knowledge of feathered creatures. At first he just picked up what bird books he could fine, then sought out more comprehensive references. Now he is always on the lookout for more and better compilations.
He became a fan of PBS because of the extent and excellence of their nature programs. He enjoys learning about the natural world, even animals and places outside his main interest.
Randy Pinto’s work is as clean and well-crafted as any Zuni working today, and he is understandably proud of his art.