Spotlight: Jeweler And Artist Weldon Merchant
The Chickasaw jeweler's work has been in the Smithsonian for decades, but to him, his masterpieces simply come from "chopping cotton."
An out-of-towner driving through West Point, Mississippi, may mistake Weldon Merchant’s house on the outskirts of the rural town for a scrapyard. The corrugated-steel fortress guarding his property rises from steel bars, aluminum sheets, bathtubs, a canoe, the skeleton of a tow truck, and thousands of industrial smithereens, but looking closely one can spot a flower or an angel poking through. Inside its walls, a 12-foot steel horse hangs from the frame of a jib crane. Merchant sits near it, smoking his pipe. “Hey, here comes the family,” he says as eight or nine real horses trot up.
The 63-year-old Chickasaw Indian would like to do nothing but run his horses, but on days when the weather is especially bad, he stays indoors working on the jewelry that has made him famous, catching the attention of rock stars and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The Smithsonian put his work — an antler-tip necklace with carved silver beads — on display in 1976, but by then Merchant’s list of patrons already boasted Zales, Macy’s, and Neiman Marcus.
“Most of it is feel and sound,” Merchant says about his work. He uses no tool of measure but his eyes and hands to carve, scrape, and bend the smallest objects of each of his creations, so his finished designs seem to be cut from the very soil of Mississippi.
Today, people from all over the South seek him out and sometimes pay thousands for his work, but Merchant’s jewelry usually just sits under a counter in local craft shop Culin-Arts. “He prices everything at $50, no matter what it is,” says owner Valeda Carmichael, Merchant’s longtime friend. “I’m the one who has to mark it up.”
Merchant cares little for money and needs it even less. He spends most days gardening, herding longhorns, breaking horses, or surveying his family land with a horse-drawn wagon. He calls his manner of living “the old ways,” a nod to his Chickasaw roots, and he refers to making jewelry as “chopping cotton.” Inside his house, silver earrings, steel flowers, and wooden horses sit among scrap metal, saddles, and books. His art is simply an ordinary occurrence of his course of living. Merchant claims, “A lot of people call me an artist, but can’t nobody prove it.” www.weldonmerchant.com