When you meet Navajo artist Vernon Haskie you don’t get the feeling that you are talking to one of the greatest Native American artists of his generation. Art is not his only passion and he feels very comfortable talking about cars, guns, biology, or whatever topic comes up. Like his art, this is a genuine human being that you will never forget meeting.
1990 to Present
Heavy silver or gold, deep channel inlay, lots of coral
FIRST YEAR MAKING ART:
Well, how does it all begin for Vernon Haskie?
I was nine years old, my parents have left me alone at the house, and I wanted to make a piece of jewelry. I had been observing my parents making jewelry and I wanted to try it.
Your parents, what kind of style jewelry did they make?
This was the 1970s and they made chip inlay pieces, lots of water bird designs.
What are their names?
My father is Leonard Haskie and my mother is Lillie Haskie who is deceased. Eventually my father taught me the basic skills of silversmithing like cutting and soldering, but for the most part I am self taught.
So, back to the day when you are 9 and your parents are gone?
I took a piece of my dads scrap silver and drew a water bird design on it. Did some practice runs with the torch, learning how to soldering, messed around with the flux. Then soldered my piece of silver with the water bird onto another piece, cut it out, got out some epoxy and chips of stones, soldered a small ring bail. Made my first piece of jewelry and couldn’t wait to show my parents.
What did they think?
They didn’t believe me. They thought that I found a piece that fell off of my dad’s work. So I had to go and get all of the scrap to show where I cut it out from and explain to them how I made it. I still have that piece somewhere.
So what is next, are you a full-blown silversmith at age 9?
No, I had an uncle who lived in Farmington so starting in the 10th grade I went to the high school there. Our mascot was a scorpion so I started messing around on the weekends when I would go back home and make pieces that had a scorpion design.
What where you doing with these scorpion pieces?
Some of the staff saw them and I started getting orders for more my scorpion jewelry. Now I was making jewelry every weekend and selling them at school. I started experimenting and would add stones or make the scorpion a three dimensional piece.
How much did you get for these first Vernon Haskie pieces?
I was selling pieces without a stone for $6 and if it had a stone it would be $8. Big orders would be like 8 pcs for $64. Today, I bet I could get $150 for one of those scorpions (said with a smile).
Do you think any of them know that you turned out to be a famous artist and they have one of the first pieces of your work?
We should go and find some of those green stone malachite scorpions. They are all retired now. I had to go back about 3 years after graduating to get some transcripts and one of the ladies remembered me and asked if I was still making scorpions, I wasn’t.
You are graduated now, the talented class of 1986, what do you do?
I went into the service, the Army for three years. After I got out I went to UNM, got married, finished my associates at Navajo Community College in Tsaile, and went back to UNM for the next three years and received my bachelors degree in biology, it is now 1996.
That was a quick 10 years, a lot is going on here, are you still making jewelry?
When I got out of the service I started making jewelry again, but didn’t really get going until I left UNM and came back home, the first time before going back to UNM to finish. That would have been around 1990.
Are you making money with your jewelry in 1990?
I was challenging myself. I started with small things like pendants, rings, and earrings and then would make larger pieces like bracelets and buckles and finally large squash blossoms and concho belts. Most of the pieces would be all silver overlay, but would add single stones and do some cluster work. So, here I was making this jewelry, challenging myself, had 8 pieces, and decided to go into Gallup and see if I could sell them.
Did that work out?
I went from one end of the town to the other, took it back to my best offer and sold all 8 pieces. It was Perry when he was at Richardson’s, he made the best offer and in the beginning he got all my work. We would even do some custom stuff with stones, he gave me turquoise stones and coral and was always encouraging and giving me pointers on what I could improve.
You got married and then decided to finish your schooling in Albuquerque, did you move there?
No, I was a commuting husband. I would leave early in the week and have classes through Thursday and come home. I continued to make jewelry this whole time and once I had my own apartment was able to work during the week in Albuquerque and not just on weekends back home in Lukachukai.
So you are doing school and jewelry making, how much time are you spending on each?
I did pretty good, would get my school work done and then do jewelry. I had built a relationship with Tanner & Chaney gallery in Old Town and they would buy my pieces.
How much stuff are you making during school?
Usually I would get about two pieces made a week and they would buy both pieces for around $600 to $800.
I am still trying to figure out Biology, not something to do with the arts?
I have always been fascinated with how life begins and ends.
Did you get your answer?
No, but came to the conclusion that we are guided by a higher power, spiritual beings.
So, here you are making jewelry and getting school done. When did you decide that you would pursue art fulltime?
In 1991 I entered a piece in the Inter-Tribal Ceremonial art competition and won a blue ribbon. I was really excited and wanted to see who else was in my category. One of the pieces was Erving Hoskie work and I knew how intricate and well made his jewelry was. This made me feel like I had accomplished something great and gave me lots of encouragement.
So, you continued to go to school after the blue ribbon?
My parents and then my wife really wanted to push me towards a real job. They didn’t think that I could make a living just doing art. When I graduated I went to work for a telephone company and spent lots of my time drawing art on scrap paper. I only had the job for a year, my wife and mother saw how miserable I was and encouraged me to do the art.
Well, what happens?
In 1996 I had a Blessing Way Ceremony done for me and that really changed my life. I had always been envious of the Hopi artists because their work was inspired by their culture. I wanted my culture to inspire my work, and the Blessing Way really showed me the beauty of my People and history.
Your work changed?
I had used lots of templates in my early work, so lots of my design were limited to what templates I had. I started drawing and would use my drawings to design my work, no more templates. This really improved my work and of course I was always challenging my self and trying new things.
What made you into Vernon Haskie?
It just happened, I started winning ribbons at shows and had some early collectors who really helped me out by buying some valuable pieces. Lots of hard work and some risk taking, and now I have lots of people who recognize my work.
Going forward, What is next for Vernon Haskie art?
I talk about that with my wife and really want to start to make legacy pieces. Work with collectors and museums to create phenomenal art pieces, that will be studied and admired 100 years from now. I want to make a contribution to the history of Native American art, give back to my culture so future generations will have the same inspirations I had.
You have already made some spectacular pieces of art, what do you feel to date is your best work (s)?
Three pieces, a jewelry box I did around 1998 that had a woman on top. In 2005 my Best of Class winner the Fire Dancer with an inlay dress. And a Best of Show piece that was a concho belt, I called it Stars of the Universe, that was from 2007.
Thanks for taking the time.