Indigenous Dreams. Photography: Courtesy Allen Aragon

The unique designs of this award-winning Navajo artist hold a world of color and meaning in silver-accented miniature.

Allen Aragon’s grandmother Marie Tsosie Pete cautioned him about Navajo taboos. He shouldn’t touch anything belonging to the dead. Living near New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon, the boy disregarded his grandmother’s admonition. He collected beads atop anthills, arrowheads, grinding stones, and centuries-old potsherds he spotted on the ground while moving cattle with his father, Fito Aragon, a rancher and horse trainer. Besides Allen’s fascination with the potsherds he found, another early inkling of his future work with ceramics occurred when he befriended an elderly Acoma woman whose pottery captivated him at a rug auction in Crownpoint, where his mother, noted weaver Nanabah, was selling her art. Aragon’s new friend gave him a handful of wet clay and urged him to begin working with it.

The influence of the Acoma woman and his mother is key. In addition to being a weaver as her mother had been, Nanabah briefly worked with silver and later taught as an artist-in-residence in Arizona schools. Aragon traveled with her to ceremonies, auctions, and the New Mexico State Fair and, under her tutelage, began working with silver at 8 or 9.

His exposure to Native American art, combined with inherent talent and inventiveness, eventually led to a string of awards and a career as a full-time collectible artist. Now 52, Aragon has been collecting awards since 1990, among them the Southwest Association of Indian Arts’ Malcolm and Connie Goodman Fellowship in 1998 and Native Peoples magazine’s inaugural Creativity Award in 2012 for the development of an “entirely new art form.” In 2015, his miniature seed pot Mother Earth won six awards. His art appears in three books and is included in the Helen Cox Kersting Collection of Southwestern Cultural Arts at the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis.

Always interested in arts and crafts, Aragon says he was “pretty sharp about making pictures and stuff” as a child. He worked with leather and made pieces of pottery. He sold his first pair of silver earrings for $15. After high school, he worked at a variety of jobs near the Navajo Reservation in northwestern New Mexico. Yet he was constantly drawing in his spare time. After losing one of those jobs, he devoted all his time to art and admits he “struggled a lot.”

Mother Earth. Photography: Courtesy Allen Aragon

He used white porcelain clay when he first began working with that medium and fashioned small ceramic discs painted with designs in black, brown, and white. At the same time, he started working with silver. He eventually combined the two techniques and used more colors. Departing from the Navajo tradition of setting turquoise and less valuable stones in silver, he embedded painted ceramic discs in silver for concho belts, bolos, cuff links, pendants, earrings, and pins. The outcome was his innovative, unique jewelry, special enough that he has presented his bolos to New Mexico’s beloved Tony Hillerman, creator of the Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee Navajo mysteries, and to Kevin Costner at the Discover Navajo exhibit at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Games.

Producing the ceramic discs — which range in size and shape from an oblong 1½ inches by 1 inch to circular discs approximately 1 inch or less in diameter — involves rolling the clay into thin slabs, then cutting pieces out. Aragon sands them before painting. When he picks up his No. 18 nylon paintbrush minus half its bristles, “The image comes,” he says. And so does a sort of Zen: “When I paint, I relax.” With his reading glasses in place, he hunches over the disc to create the detailed freehand designs that characterize his work, some pieces requiring four weeks to complete. “My eyes are great,” he says, but his shoulder muscles might spasm.

Once he finishes painting the designs, he fires the pieces at a high temperature in a gas kiln. He then covers the pieces with a clear glaze and fires them again to prevent the surface from scratching.

To create the base for his conchos, bolos, and jewelry, Aragon cuts pieces from huge sheets of silver — 6 inches wide by 3 feet long — to make a bezel, or rim, to hold his ceramic designs. He cuts the bezel with a jeweler’s handsaw and forms it around the ceramic disc, then solders it in place.

Given his personal background and New Mexico’s 19 pueblos and Navajo and Apache tribes, it’s not surprising that Aragon borrows from the array of Native American symbology around him. “I use Navajo designs, Acoma designs, and other Pueblo designs,” he says. Some think he’s Acoma when he uses patterns of finely drawn lines. Symbols for lightning and storm patterns, feathers, and stars cover the ceramic surfaces of his work, along with the yei figure revered by Navajos for its role communicating between the people and their gods. Dragonflies symbolize water — a blessing in the arid Southwest. Geometrics can represent the Four Directions, corresponding to the four cardinal points of the compass.

Worlds of color and meaning in miniature.

Applying for a fellowship in 1998, Aragon had a vision of where his creativity might take him. It was almost 20 years ago, but he knew then that his goal was to sustain a livelihood from his art. “It has gotten me this far,” he wrote, and he vowed to continue working toward that goal. He believed he would succeed. Less than 10 years later, in 2007, “right before the economy went down,” Aragon opened his gallery in Albuquerque’s Old Town. “I always wanted a place where I could work and show it every day,” he says.

Another 10 years hence, and he’s still there, meeting people from all over the world and attracting customers who follow his work and return every year.

See more of Allen Aragon’s work on his website. Visit him in person at Allen Aragon Gallery in the Patio Market in Old Town Albuquerque, New Mexico.

From the April 2017 issue.