I was standing by the register admiring the latest set of baskets by Elsie Holiday, thinking that she is truly an exceptional artist, when Barry interrupted my thoughts. “Another turtle basket?” he asked. Elsie had come into the trading post several weeks ago to talk about basket designs, as she often does when she has weaver’s block. Since I also had a design block, we were not getting anywhere and Elsie left uninspired. About two weeks later she brought in a beautiful 14” diameter turtle basket with a ceremonial motif on the shell. A few weeks after that she was still uninspired, but the house payment was due so she made another turtle basket, this time three inches smaller. Since we already had two, I thought it best to finish the project with one more, making it a graduated set. Elsie agreed and off she went. I was looking at the final basket when Barry came by with his question.
From time to time Elsie and I will pull down several books and magazines from the trading post library to search for inspiration. We then commence to ooh and ahh over the art of other Southwest artists and brainstorm about how to translate it into new ideas for her work. She frequently laughs at my suggestions, but over the years this exercise has resulted in some really great baskets. Although I had little to do with this particular set, I was very pleased with how everything turned out. The ceremonial basket and turtle motifs are both very important to the Navajo people, so these baskets are very meaningful.
Several years ago, I was at Tobe Turpen’s trading post in Gallup New Mexico and spied a sensational Hopi turtle basket. I began to think that the basket would be even more interesting if the weaver had put a really unusual pattern on the turtle shell. Since I couldn’t get that thought out of my head, and since I felt guilty about asking for a photograph (so I could explain my idea to the local Navajo weavers) I bought the weaving and brought it back to the store. When the Navajo weavers brought in a really great geometric basket that seemed appropriate, I would ask them to make a second basket featuring a turtle with the same motif on its back. At first they thought I was crazy, but the idea caught on and they have made many very nice turtle baskets. The problem is that Barry has now seen so many turtle designs that he has begun to think of me as the Turtle Man. Something similar has happened with Barry because of all the folk art chickens we sell.
Shortly after we opened the trading post, Wilfred Yazzie came in with about eight roosters carved from cottonwood. The chickens were roughly hacked out and had raffia tails and stick legs. For some reason they really appealed to me, so I agreed to buy them for ten dollars each. Barry; Duke, my father; and Amer, my brother-in-law, who were all sitting on a counter on the west side of the room like three ravens on a fence, thought I had lost my mind and strenuously crowed their objections. By that time we had developed a rule that one person could overrule the objections of everyone else if he or she felt strongly that we should try a new item in the trading post, so I proceeded in spite of the protestations. I then put the bite on everyone who came into the store to buy one of the chickens, so that I wouldn’t look foolish. As it turns out, they sold very fast, and folk art chickens became a very big hit.
Soon after we bought the first batch, we were preparing for a wholesale show in Denver and decided to take some to the show to see how other shop owners would respond. Again they sold briskly, so we decided to keep buying them. That was one of the last shows I did, however, because shortly after that Cindy, our sister, informed me that I wasn’t a very good salesman and that I was banned from attending any more. As a result, Barry became responsible for selling all those chickens, and people began referring to him as the Chicken Man. At one point our friend Layne Miller was writing an article about folk art for the Salt Lake Tribune. Layne had used some of our Navajo folk art pieces in his feature, so he sent a copy to us for review. In the article Layne mentioned that Barry was frequently referred to as the Chicken Man. As you may guess, Barry was very worried that he would never shake the name if it was used in a major newspaper and threw a genuine fit. He called Layne and asked him to change the article. I later reassured Layne that it was okay, and Barry has been the Chicken Man ever since. I have offered to buy him a chicken outfit so he can stand outside the trading post making funny noises and doing strange dances. I believe it will bring a lot of people in. I have even told him that girls will think it is sexy, but he’s not buying it. I have reminded him that Charles Loloma, the hugely talented Hopi jeweler, was well known for giving all his female customers a hug and kiss when they bought something from him, and all he had was a funny haircut. You never know what may result from wearing that chicken suit. On second thought, maybe I will buy it for myself.
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