Thomas Curtis Sr
On the Navajo Reservation you will find lots of silversmiths and rodeo cowboys. Animals are a way of life, just like silver is. Legendary Navajo silversmith Thomas Curtis Sr. excels at both. He has had an amazing career and might be in more demand now then when he was younger.
Thomas Curtis Sr
1965 to 2013
Deep, Detailed Stampwork
FIRST YEAR MAKING ART:
LAST YEAR MAKING ART:
I am always fascinated by a story I once read about you trading a piece of silver for a pick-up truck, is this true?
Yes, I had made a vase for the 1987 Indian Market. The piece won the “Best of Classification”, which is right below the “Best of Show”. I traded the piece for a 1966 ¾ ton pick-up truck.
Do you remember who you sold it to?
His name was John Woodard and he had a shop in Sedona. We had visited before Indian Market and after I got back from Santa Fe he called me and asked if I still had the vase. I took it to him and when I saw him he handed me the keys to the truck.
What price did you have on the vase?
I had the piece listed for $4500 at Indian Market.
What would it cost today?
A lot of the price was the silver. At that time silver was around $5 an ounce, it has tripled since then. It would be around $9000 for that vase today.
Have you won the “Best of Show” at Indian Market or Heard?
I have a “Best of Classification” at each show.
Do you have lots of awards for your silver work?
I have 600 ribbons from lots of different shows. My late friend Gibson Nez encouraged me to enter Indian Market. So I started to do shows in the early 1980s, my first was the Northern Arizona Museum show. I won a “Best of Show” for a concho belt, the Curtis Champion belt.
That was your first show, and you won the “Best of Show”?
Yes, and after I started doing shows I acquired customers from all over the Country.
Lets talk about rodeo, how did you get into that sport?
When I was growing up in the White Cone, AZ area we didn’t have a car. In the 1940s most of the Navajo families around us still used a wagon. That meant lots of horses around and I was always riding them at a young age, it was just a way of life.
What events did you do?
I did bareback, bull riding, and saddle bronc.
When did you win your first Champion buckle?
In 1957, I was 15 years old and won at both the Indian Rodeo and Juniors Rodeo for bull riding.
Your jacket has a “Legendary Cowboy” award, when and for what organization awarded that?
Twice, I was awarded the “Legendary Cowboy” in 2004 and again in 2006 by the All-Indian Rodeo Cowboys Association.
When did you give up rodeo?
My last rodeo was 1969, it was also my last 1st Place. I somersaulted backwards off of a horse and when I got up he came back around and busted me up pretty good.
Is this when you started your silver making career?
No, I did that before I started rodeo. I was twelve when I first started making my jewelry, the early 1950s.
How did you get into it?
My Uncle was a blacksmith and he had his own business repairing wagons. It was like today’s garage, he had wagons lined up. I would help him and was fascinated by all of the tools and really had an interest in working with metal.
So did your Uncle teach you jewelry making too?
No, I am self taught. I found out that my Grandparents on both sides were silversmiths. That really turned me on to jewelry making.
Did either of these Grandparents give you any instruction?
My Grandfather was really stingy and would keep me out of his shop.
What was your first jewelry like, the same heavy traditional style you make today?
No, silver was expensive and I made it lighter then my pieces today. I would do lots of stone pieces in a shadow box style.
Who did you sell to?
I would go around to the Trading Posts and do Pow-Wows.
When did you start making the Curtis pieces we are use to seeing?
In the 1960s I started making heavy silver and once I did the art shows my stuff became real popular.
Now, you have a daughter, Jennifer, that is going to continue the tradition of Curtis silver?
Jennifer was always a daddy’s girl. She went with me everywhere and always showed an interest in everything. It didn’t matter if it was horses, guns, or silver. In high school she would help me in the shop and it has turned into a career for her.
Do you have any other children that do silver work?
No, they all do their own things. One is in medical school, another sells cars, and one is a project manager for a contractor. I also lost a child in a motorcycle accident.
Now, do you do lots of orders for the Japanese?
Yes, the Japanese come to my home and give me orders. It always amazed me that other artists around me struggled to sell their work and I had buyers coming right to my door.
Why do you think the Japanese have such an appreciation for Navajo jewelry?
It comes from Navajo Land and is all handmade. Navajo jewelry is real popular their because it is real pretty.
Have you ever been to Japan?
About 5 years ago the Ms Collection took me and my daughter to Tokyo. We did jewelry making demonstrations and had the opportunity to visit lots of the island.
What’s in your future?
Keep going, make jewelry. I would like to open a museum that had both rodeo and silversmithing in it.