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.”
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.
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.