A new addition to the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian puts the loupe on the jewelry we love.
Great news for lovers of Native American jewelry: In June, the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe opened a new permanent exhibition in two galleries. The Wheelwright’s first major expansion in its 78-year history, the Center for the Study of Southwestern Jewelry is the first museum space in the country devoted permanently to the past, present, and future of Native American jewelry and related traditions.
The new galleries comprise 2,000 square feet and represent 20 years of collecting and research focused on Navajo and Pueblo jewelry, flatware, holloware, lapidary, and stone carving. While the large gallery houses a permanent installation that traces the development of Southwestern Native American jewelry from its beginnings to the present, a smaller adjoining gallery features changing exhibitions highlighting individual jewelers, genres, or subjects of special interest.
Cowboys & Indians talked with Wheelwright curator Cheri Falkenstien-Doyle about the exciting newcomer on the Native American jewelry scene.
Cowboys & Indians: A lot of museums display Native American jewelry. What distinguishes the Center for the Study of Southwestern Jewelry?
Cheri Falkenstien-Doyle: When we say in our press materials that the center is “the first museum space anywhere devoted permanently to the past, present, and
future of Native American jewelry and related traditions,” we mean that it’s not simply an exhibition — it’s a vehicle through which we can present new research, investigate a variety of topics related to jewelry, metalwork, personal adornment, and fashion, and, we hope, provide a space in which artists working in metal and other jewelry-related media can present new ideas as well. Also, because much of the collection has been built over the past 20 years, the center is the result of collaborations among current museum staff and living artists, donors, scholars, collectors, and consultants, and it’s a reflection of all of those relationships.
C&I: What can visitors expect?
Falkenstien-Doyle: There will be approximately 700 pieces in the new permanent exhibition gallery. The idea is for that gallery to evolve as we find more information or acquire new material, so there should be some variation over time. There is also a changing exhibition gallery — shows will go in and out of there fairly frequently.
We hope that visitors will enjoy a great story about an important and enduring Southwestern art form and that we will surprise them with information they weren’t aware of. The best way to appreciate the historic work is to understand the ingenuity that went into making useful and beautiful metal objects with improvised tools and materials; and also the amount of collaboration and sharing — of ideas, materials, and technology — that occurred among Native and non-Native Southwesterners.
In terms of modern and contemporary work, we hope to give visitors an appreciation of the evolution that has taken place. Native jewelers today use the same methods and materials — with the same freedom of expression — that any contemporary makers take for granted, but mid-century innovators like Fred Peshlakai and Charles Loloma had to battle against conventional notions about what was “appropriate” in Indian jewelry.
C&I: What are some of the oldest pieces in the holdings?
Falkenstien-Doyle: We have a concho belt that dates to about the 1870s, which is early for Southwestern Native American silver. There is also a very simple, very early silver button and examples of copper and brass bracelets that people wore before there was a lot of silver being made. We have a Zuni bow guard that consists of tin plates attached to a leather cuff — a number of these were collected during the first [Smithsonian] anthropological expedition to Zuni that began in 1879, and you can see descriptions and sketches of them on the Smithsonian’s website.
C&I: What makes a piece museum-worthy?
Falkenstien-Doyle: It can be a number of things. Sometimes it’s age and rarity; sometimes a piece has important historical associations or represents a type of activity that we want to be able to talk about. For example, we have several pieces by a silversmith called Jake who worked at Fort Wingate [in what was then New Mexico Territory] during the 1880s and 1890s. He was the subject of the first scholarly paper on Navajo silversmithing, published in 1883 by Washington Matthews. Because we can date his work accurately, we can use it to talk about the decade when silversmithing started to become economically important for Navajo people. In terms of contemporary jewelry, we try to collect very strong examples by people who are doing excellent work in terms of design, innovation, and craftsmanship.
C&I: What are the real standout pieces?
Falkenstien-Doyle: There are many, but three immediately come to mind. First, a squash blossom necklace by Slender Maker of Silver, ca. 1885. Slender Maker of Silver was among the first generation of Navajo smiths. He was a recognized innovator and employed as many as 10 men to assist him in his work. The necklace was made for Navajo leader Chee Dodge, and it was published in John Adair’s The Navajo and Pueblo Silversmiths in 1944. The Wheelwright purchased it in 2007.
Second, a set of spurs by Fred Peshlakai, ca. 1955, which were a gift of Jim and Lauris Phillips. Fred Peshlakai was the son of Slender Maker of Silver. In 1931 he became the first instructor of silversmithing for Native American students at the Charles H. Burke School in Fort Wingate, New Mexico, but he was forced out in 1935, after being falsely accused of introducing mass production methods in his classroom. In 1938 he opened his own shop in Los Angeles, where he worked for about 30 years. He is important because he was one of the few Native American jewelers prior to World War II who successfully controlled his own career. He sourced his own turquoise and was known for obtaining the best stones available. He is said to have made spurs to wear in the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Parade in 1957.
Third, a silver ladle by Charles Loloma, ca. 1956, which was a gift of Susan Brown McGreevy. This tufa-cast, forged, and fabricated ladle is typical of the kind of work Loloma was doing early in his career, while he and his wife, Otellie, had a studio in Scottsdale’s Kiva Craft Center. The ladle was in the collection of John Adair, who was purchasing silver from Loloma as early as 1954.
C&I: Which tribes does the center focus on?
Falkenstien-Doyle: Our collection focuses on Native Americans of New Mexico, but we also have jewelry by Hopi artists as well as several contemporary jewelers who represent other tribal groups. Among these are Denise Wallace (Aleut), Larry Golsh (Pala Mission), and Jan Loco (Apache). Historically, Navajos have been known as silversmiths, while people at Zuni and in the Rio Grande pueblos have been thought of as lapidaries. Zuni in particular has a history of producing very beautiful stone and shell inlay, and Santo Domingo is known for fine heishi [disk-shaped shell, coral, or turquoise beads]. But these are generalizations — today there is great variety coming from Native jewelers throughout the Southwest.
C&I: Silver and turquoise, obviously, but are there other materials that might surprise people?
Falkenstien-Doyle: In early jewelry you’ll find brass and copper, and rings and other items set with glass. We’ll be showing gold filigree from Isleta Pueblo. Ironwood came into use in about the 1950s or 1960s; today people use gold, diamonds, and exotic stones. Pat Pruitt of Laguna Pueblo is known for using stainless steel.
C&I: After the Wheelwright, what other Native American jewelry collections should we check out?
Falkenstien-Doyle: There is a lot of great jewelry in New Mexico! Certainly the Millicent Rogers Museum in Taos. In Santa Fe, the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture and the Indian Arts Research Center of the School for Advanced Research have wonderful early jewelry collected during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
From the August/September 2015 issue.