Friday, October 23, 2015
Navajo Rug Weaver Mae Yazzie's hands
Lately I have been obsessed with a song I heard long ago which goes like this, “Daddy’s hands weren’t always gentle, but I’ve come to understand, there was always love in Daddy’s hands.” Although I can recite that part of the tune word-for-word, I cannot remember a single other phrase.
The melody got me thinking about the Ancient Puebloans who occupied this land centuries ago and left beautiful handprints in many of their cliff dwellings. Maybe that was their way of leaving a mark on the world, an eternal signature of sorts. Those personalized pictographs open a window into the past and inspire me to visualize painted pottery, corn, beans, squash and nurturing farmers.
Old songs and ancient people started me noticing the hands of our Native artists and the effects rug weaving, basket making or stonecutting has on their extremities. Basket weaver Evelyn Cly may have kicked off my latest mania when she brought a ceremonial basket into the trading post. These weavings are extremely important in Navajo culture, and she seemed to caress the basket while passing it to me for inspection. For the first time, I noticed her fingers are slightly angled from dipping sumac strands into water. Hydrating the splints makes them pliable, less brittle, easier to manipulate. The moisture had apparently swollen her joints, and the strain of stitching fibers into art had raised callouses on her fingers.
What brought my obsession out in full force, however, was a telephone conversation with my friend Gerald. Gerald frequently calls to relate bad jokes and discuss the local business climate. His call reminded me of several years ago when we were talking about his now grown son and Gerald said, “I knew I had lost my little boy when I looked at his hands and there were no more dimples.” After that conversation, I immediately located Grange and was relieved to find his chubby paws were still dimpled. At almost 16 years of age, Grange has long since lost that particular physical characteristic and is no longer small. I have, however, not yet lost him.
One thing led to another, and Mae Yazzie, my favorite rug weaver, and Bruce Eckhardt, my favorite bead maker, crept into my thoughts. Although I have not seen her in many years, I remember Mae’s hands had the patina of seventy-something years. Mae's skin was paper thin, wrinkled and beautifully brown, her fingers were crooked from decades of tamping wool with a weaving comb. I could never see Mae without wondering if her hands were painful. Although Mae's rugs had become somewhat simple at that stage, many stunning weavings had sprung from her skilled digits.
Bruce is a stonecutter who searches far and wide for suitable materials to make his fabulous necklaces. Barry and I buy Bruce’s jewelry whenever we can and will go a long way to purchase his work. Several years ago I met Bruce in Cortez, Colorado to look at his latest creations. The arrangements made me feel we were setting up a clandestine operation, and in fact Bruce mentioned one meeting in Gallup, New Mexico where he was buying uncut turquoise and was mistaken for a drug dealer. He and the stone seller had their scales out on the backend of a pickup truck, weighing and measuring. Apparently a passerby concluded they were engaged in an illicit transaction and contacted the police. Officers arrived with lights flashing and sirens wailing, only to discover it was rock, not narcotics, the two were haggling over.
Bruce and I arranged to meet around 9:00 p.m., and as I walked into the restaurant he was sitting at the bar. After a few minutes we moved to a dark corner table and Bruce began telling stories about old miners. At the appropriate moment he placed a rumpled paper sack on the table and said, “Well, it’s about time we had a look at this stuff.” He then carefully extracted bracelets, pendants and crosses encrusted with stones of deep green and sky blue from the bag and placed them on the table. The lighting was low, so we inspected the jewels using his Bic cigarette lighter. The striker wheel kept getting hot and burning our fingers, so we could only look a short time before stopping to let the cylinder cool. It felt like a scene from a gaslight movie.
As we looked through his treasures, I kept noticing Bruce’s fingers. After years of cutting stones under the perpetual drip of a diamond wheel, his grip had become permanently fixed at an almost 90 degree angle. His love of turquoise had cost him the mobility of his hands. In spite of that, Bruce would not give up cutting; it was his life, he is made to interpret the beauty inherent in those stones.
I have often heard people say eyes are the window to the soul, which makes me wonder whether hands are the portal to the heart.
With warm regards Steve Simpson and the team;
Barry, Priscilla and Danny.