The ‘new’ generation of jewelers in Vail
August 10, 2010
Many items are popular to Colorado living –skis, antlers, cowboy boots and Indian jewelry. The reasons for the popularity of the first are obvious. However, other than the attractive design of the Kokopelli’s, lizards and eagles, and the brilliance of the turquoise, little is known about the art and history of Indian jewelry. Tonight acclaimed writer and Indian jewelry expert Dexter Cirillo will present her latest book, “Southwestern Indian Jewelry – Crafting New Traditions,” and explore the history and tradition of Native American art and jewelry.
In her second book on the subject, Cirillo focuses on cultural traditions behind the crafting and designs of jewelry. In the process she interviewed over eighty artists from eight different tribes including Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Apache and Pueblo. Cirillo took the time to answer a few questions for the Vail Daily.
Vail Daily: What sparked your interest in Southwestern Indian culture and jewelry?
Dexter Cirillo: My first introduction to Southwestern Indian culture came in 1965, when I trained for the Peace Corps at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. I was in a public health program, and we did all of our field work among the Navajos and at the Indian pueblos between Albuquerque and Taos. I also attended my first corn dance at Santo Domingo Pueblo then. It is one of the great pageants in the Southwest in which the dancers wear incredible turquoise and shell jewelry. Years later, I would learn the significance of turquoise and I’ll be talking about that in my discussion.
VD: Why did you begin writing on Southwestern Indian jewelry?
DC: I didn’t plan to write on jewelry at the beginning. I had submitted a proposal to Abbeville Press for a book on Native American women artists that would include weavers, basket makers, potters, jewelers and so on. Instead, the editor at Abbeville suggested that I concentrate just on the jewelry.
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VD: You had a long career in academia. What prompted you to switch to American Indian art, and was it a difficult transition?
DC: Much of my academic work focused on Native American culture. I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on early American Indian women writers. I had also published “The Third Woman: Minority Women Writers of the United States in 1980” that included a substantial section on Native American writers. Moving from literature to art was a natural progression for me.
VD: Your book seems to have required extensive research. What was your favorite part of the process of researching and writing the book?
DC: Without question, my favorite part is always interviewing the artists. I may begin with one set of questions about technique and materials, and end up with an entirely different discussion about the role of jewelry in the ceremonial life of tribes. Artists have taken motifs from their respective cultures and integrated them into jewelry that is unique in American culture.
VD: You interviewed all of the artists featured in your book. Which were the most interesting?
DC: Every interview is interesting, but some were full of surprises. For example, during my interviews for the first jewelry book, I had arranged to meet Clarence Lee in the parking lot of the Sizzler Restaurant on Route 66 in Gallup, New Mexico. I kept looking for the ubiquitous pickup truck that most Navajos have, when he drove up in a black Mercedes with the license plate, “Zorro.”
Liana Moore is the executive director of the Vail Symposium.