Thursday, May 26, 2005

Death and Life

Rising early allows me time to think with a clear head, uncluttered by the day's confusions. During my morning jogs, my mind flows in an unbroken stream of thoughts; sometimes productive, often not. As soon as I get back to the house, the demands begin; "Dad, can you make me a pancake? Dad, where are my socks? Dad, have you seen my shoes? Dad, did you sign my homework folder?" The questions come quickly; like machine gun fire, and that is before I even make it to work, with ringing telephones and angry public servants.

Grange & Ruth @ Twin Rocks

During my recent jogs, I have had time to think about the loss of a childhood friend. When we were young, Johnny and I were the best of friends. I fondly remember countless times when his father took us camping, hiking and water skiing. As we grew older, geography and the demands of everyday life kept us from seeing much of each other.

When he died of a heart attack recently, at age 45, I was stunned. At this stage of my life, I have not often had to deal with that type of loss, and the emotions are still quite new. I think I may have accepted Johnny's death from an automobile or industrial accident much easier. A heart attack just seems an unnatural way for such a young man to die.

I was scheduled to be out of town during his funeral, so I did not attend. When I arrived back after my trip, I drove to the cemetery to see Johnny's grave. Frankly, I am not sure what I was looking for, but felt compelled to make the pilgrimage. A slight mound beneath the grass, banners that said, "Beloved Son" and an abundance of flowers wilting in the afternoon sun, confirmed the solemn ceremony had indeed occurred.

Kira and Grange were intrigued with my detour, and wanted to know why I had taken them on a drive through the cemetery. They peppered me with questions about why we were there, who was my friend, how did he die, did he have any family in Blanding, did I know any other people in the graveyard and, if so, what were their names. The concept, finality and inevitability of death are still foreign to my children, even though Jana and I have spoken with them about it on countless occasions in relation to strangers, little girls who have been abducted and other bad things that can happen to kids who are not careful around people they do not know.

For days, I thought about my own mortality, and what it might mean to my family if I were suddenly gone. In the midst of these thoughts about death and dying, Grange did something to remind me that life is an ongoing adventure; a gift to be enjoyed as long as it lasts. His message, though inadvertent, came through loud and clear.

On Wednesday, as I grabbed a notebook and headed for my weekly meeting with Craig, Susan and Mark, the restaurant management team, the signal arrived. Grange streaked by as I walked out the trading post door. He was heading east, towards the cafe. I thought he must be on yet another mission to convince the gift shop cashier to exchange a candy bar for a few of his extremely valuable marbles. His overall concept of money is not well developed, and he still believes he can convince the staff that marbles are a proper medium of exchange, even though his arguments have never succeeded in the past.

What I did not realize until later was that he had something much sweeter in mind. When I arrived for my meeting, I noticed Grange was not at the candy counter. Instead, he was following Ruth, a smart, blonde, 20 year old server around the cafe. I mistakenly concluded he was trying to learn the business so he could pick up a few quarters to make yet another run at the candy display. With that thought in mind, I said to Ruth, "Train him well."

I was pleased to see my five year old catching on so quickly, and went over to rub his head and compliment him. When I did, he turned scarlet, and said, "Daaaad." It was then that I noticed what he was really trying to pick up was Ruth; he had fallen in love. The staff was quick to let me know this was not a completely new infatuation, Grange had been at the restaurant asking for Ruth every day that week. When she was not there, he left dejected, and when she was in, he followed her around, mooning over her like a love struck puppy.

Grange and I are both struggling with new emotions.

With Warm Regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Copyright 2005 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Trading Post Textile

When we opened Twin Rocks a little over fifteen years ago, I promptly set about learning all I could about rugs, baskets, jewelry, katsina dolls and various other Native American creations that were brought into the store on a daily basis. Although I grew up in the trading post business, I had been away from Southern Utah so long that my ability to evaluate and value Southwest art had severely atrophied.

Southeastern Utah by Twin Rocks Trading Post

The Navajo and Pueblo people who visited us at the post quite often transported their creations across the reservations in vehicles that made me wonder how they ever got out of the yard, let alone to Bluff. It seemed almost impossible that those dilapidated cars and trucks had actually traversed the miles and miles between our small desert oasis and such exotic places as Old Oraibi, Arizona; Acoma, New Mexico; or Monument Valley, Utah.

Duke had a running joke that he used whenever the more road weary vehicles sputtered to a stop outside our doors, clanking, squeaking and belching oily smoke. As the artists entered the store, Dad would say, "Hey, was anyone killed in that wreck?" Most often our guests just gave him a blank stare; not quite understanding his humor. After a few tense moments, we would explain the joke and have a good laugh. Once the transaction was completed, our visitors would climb back in their Reservation Rockets and pull away, leaving us to wonder whether they would actually make it home safely.

It was about that time I decided our trading post needed to be more like Ganado, Two Grey Hills, Crystal, Wide Ruins and the other historically significant posts; we needed a new type of rug that would be known as the Twin Rocks regional style. Obviously I was looking to secure my rightful place in the pantheon of legendary traders; right next to Don Lorenzo Hubbell, C. N. Cotton and J. B. Moore. I even considered referring to myself as Don Esteban or S. P. Simpson and running for territorial governor. Because I am at times a slow learner, have absolutely no artistic talent and could not identify a territory to govern, I labored at this task for several years before realizing the trading post era has passed me by; a Twin Rocks rug pattern and a spot in the trading post hall of fame was simply not in the cards.

As the saying goes, "I was much happier once I lost all hope." For the past several years I have not worried about creating a new weaving style. Then, last weekend I attended the Grand Reopening of the Edge of the Cedars Museum, where Jana's latest exhibit "Processes" was unveiled. As I sat in the museum's auditorium, listening to Clark Tenakhongva, a Hopi singer and storyteller, perform, I realized a different kind of textile had grown up around the trading post. It is completely different from what I had originally conceived, but is a weaving nonetheless. Instead of being made from wool, ours is a tapestry of people; individuals who have woven themselves into this land, its people, its history; into the very fiber of the trading post.

Aside from being a talented performer, Clark is a carver of traditional katsina dolls. He carves his culture, his stories and a big part of himself in wood and sells the finished works to galleries, trading post and collectors. He has labored many years to preserve the Hopi ways, and worries they are being rapidly lost. As I watched Clark perform his songs, I saw the beauty radiating from him that I see in this starkly captivating land, and felt he was adding to the complexity of our tapestry; weaving his songs and traditions into us as we sat listening. After his performance, we discussed various issues relating to the Hopi and Navajo people, and their existence in the desert environment. I could almost see the weaving evolve as he added his threads to the emerging masterpiece. At one point, Clark said, "It is a harsh life when you choose to live as a Hopi," and I could not help thinking that it is a challenge to live in this land no matter who you are.

The land and its people incorporate themselves into your being, become part of your warp and make you understand that you cannot live without them. Each morning as I drive home from delivering Kira to school in Blanding, I anxiously await the vista cascading south from the top of White Mesa Hill. Because we have had so much moisture this winter, the jagged, uplifted desert landscape is flooded with green, orange and lavender vegetation. The view is incongruent, and indescribably wonderful. It is the same type of unexpected beauty found in the people who wander through the trading post. At times you must peer through their difficult circumstances to find the gem within. On other occasions the treasures are very much on the surface and readily identifiable. The color and texture of our textile has nothing to do with skin pigment, instead its tones originate from inside the people who visit us, and the texture is that which has evolved over the decades of their experience. When I glimpse the fabric and have the opportunity to run my hand across its surface, I feel we have indeed created a unique and beautiful Twin Rocks textile, one I hope will continue to evolve and expand for years to come, and one I hope will be passed on to our children.

Steve, Barry and the Team.

Copyright 2005 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, May 12, 2005


The San Juan River Swinging Bridge in Bluff, Utah.

Recently Indian traders and their role in the development of the American Southwest have been on my mind. I find their lives, and their recollections, extremely interesting. History is most meaningful to me if I can connect with it on a personal basis, and Indian trading is very close to my heart. I have gained a new perspective on historical accuracy since Steve and I began writing our weekly stories, and cringe at the idea of future historians placing much stock in our musings. Our thoughts are rarely based in historical fact, dutiful research or deep cognitive considerations. They are instead based on our personal experiences, and we do not let facts get in the way of a good story.

While contemplating the subject of Indians, traders, trading posts, mercantile stores, co-ops and pioneer businessmen in general, I keep coming up with . . . Bridges! Not the type of modern day miracles that stretch across the Florida Keys, the San Francisco Bay or even the San Juan River, what I had in mind is more human.

The swinging bridge near Bluff is an excellent metaphor for what I mean. Hand-built, and fashioned from whatever materials were available at the time, this bridge reminds me of many trading posts I have known. This wonderful, historic bridge is a classic example of frontier ingenuity. The bridge stands as a symbol of how people with serious differences can come together to span a cultural gap. "A bridge over troubled water," as it were.

The individuals, families and partners who established early businesses on Southwest Indian Reservations often spent their lives sharing experiences, discovering cultural parallels and realizing common ground; essentially developing relationships that go far beyond economics. There is an excellent book written in the 1960s by T. D. Allen, entitled Navajos Have Five Fingers. The book emphasizes the importance of relationships and respect for cultural differences. It is an expression of the realization that human beings are really one, in spite of their differences. It seems that familiarity often disperses hostility and creates bonds of understanding and friendship.

Trading post operators were often on the front lines of this movement towards comprehension, compassion and compromise. The bridges the old-timers built were not always constructed of the stoutest materials or on the most solid ground, and there were failures. Manifest Destiny, jealousy, greed and miscommunication sometimes caused serious undermining of many well intentioned foundations. At times no bridge was developed, the riverbed seemed dry; devoid of the life giving waters of tolerance and commerce.

Floods and drought are not uncommon in our part of the world, but because business motivations were generally based on fair and equitable trade, a few of these bridges survived the ravages of time and destructive forces directed at them. The relationships established in those early businesses provided a basis for understanding, friendship and future development. Trading posts like Hubbell's, Keams Canyon, Shonto, Cameron, Inscription House and The Gap have stood the test of time. These trading posts, and the people who manned them, were instrumental in joining diverse cultures and projecting them into the future.

Communication, education and understanding were essential in constructing these relationships. Anyone associated with business in Indian Country understands that it is not the place to be if you are motivated solely by financial matters. There are many more important reasons for staying on. A perfect example of this is the big, old maple tree in my front yard. The poor thing is struggling to stay alive after more than 40 years of life. My dear wife stands right in there and fights the battle with it. She fertilizes, sprays for pests, (early in the year to protect nesting birds) and takes it personally when the tree loses a limb during a storm.

Laurie is emotionally connected to that tree. It was planted by her grandparents, who were descendents of some of San Juan County's first white settlers, and the roots run deep. As the tree grew, so did her family, a good and solid root system was formed, and the trunk became firm and supportive. The family prospered at an acceptable rate; growing and expanding. We are, after all, talking about a Mormon family. That tree is a guardian figure to be sure, and a true and honorable representation of why we are still here as a family.

Barry's house in Blanding, Utah

There is a story we share with visitors who are looking for the swinging bridge. A few years ago, a young German couple searched out the bridge to experience its wonder. Upon arrival, the young man gathered his camera gear and made his way to the center of the bridge in order to capture images of his sweetheart traversing the expanse. His wife busied herself extracting a hat from the trunk of the car and applying sunscreen.

Upon mounting the bridge, the young woman was captivated by the dramatic scenery, and her eyes drawn to the landscape. The soft rose-colored cliff faces of desert sandstone, the brush strokes of tamarisk in the gentle breeze and the music of the river trickling over cobblestone and sandbars distracted her. She was enthralled by the undulating motion of the bridge as she made her way towards her loving motion-picture man.

As she neared the center of the bridge, and experienced a particularly exaggerated rise in movement, our heroine stepped into space. That's right! As her husband watched through the viewfinder, his wife disappeared into the muddy brown depths of the San Juan River. The fraulein had not witnessed her husband's earlier crossing, and was unaware there were a few planks missing. Luckily the river was not very deep, and the woman was uninjured and swam to safety. The only losses were a hat, a bit of dignity and a slight blemish on an otherwise perfect relationship.

Bridges must be properly built and maintained; they require regular repair and consistent improvement. Our skill in building can help us weather the floods of misfortune and bring together the opposite shores of opinion through understanding. Build a bridge.

With Warm Regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Copyright 2005 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, May 5, 2005


Once again, Steve's wife, Georgiana, has a few thoughts to share in the ongoing saga of Hitched to the Post.

Navajo Weaver Peggy Black

After spending over 40 years in and around silversmiths, carvers, painters and weavers, living and working with art is as natural to me as breathing. The home in which I was raised included Navajo rugs, Hispanic santos and early Santa Fe paintings. Since my family has been trading in the Southwest for over 100 years, baskets, rugs, katsina dolls and pottery have been a part of my viewshed from the moment I was born. Trips to the northern New Mexico enclaves of early Spanish settlers introduced me to the simple cottonwood carvings mirroring their devotion to Christ, the Virgin Mary and a myriad of saints. My grandfather, a surgeon, moved to Santa Fe in the 1930's for his health. During the height of the depression, it was not uncommon for him to be paid with artwork or some other form of barter.

It is becoming more and more rare for us to see, touch, smell and experience the processes and products of those individuals creating handcrafted items. Immediate gratification, cloaked in packaged foods, television remotes, instant text messaging and manufactured everything is making patience and the rites of apprenticeship obsolete.

Throughout my years in the art business, I have turned away many catalog companies demanding 1,000 pots by next Tuesday for inclusion in their publications. While politely declining their requests, I have often wondered, "Where do you wish me to find the 'Start Creating' button on artists? Into which outlet shall I plug them so they may reproduce multiple pieces in mind-numbing uniformity?"

On one occasion I acquiesced. A large resort in Sedona wanted a unique corporate gift and after several suggestions, we settled upon large seed pots by Acoma artist, Simon Vallo. Upon the initiation of our discussions, I stressed the importance of giving us plenty of lead time to complete the project. The drop dead date was three months away, then two months. Finally, six weeks before the gifts were needed, the company gave me the order.

A majority of artists at the Acoma village have moved toward selling pottery which is painted on precast greenware which allows for pieces to be sold more quickly and cheaply. Simon, however, was from the old school; he gathered his own clay and volcanic ash. Each pot was started in a puki, a form for holding the initial shape, then built with hand rolled coils of clay. Acoma clay has a particularly plastic quality, not in the Made in China sense, but rather its ability to be pulled and shaped into beautiful, thin-walled pottery. Because of the seed pot style, a mostly enclosed piece of pottery with a small opening at the top, these nine-inch diameter pots required two separately shaped pieces that are joined together. The seam is then sealed with clay.

I like to joke that the Acoma people are the obsessive-compulsives of the Indian art world, because they are able to paint the most intricate designs on pottery with nothing fancier than a yucca fiber brush. Simon favored polychrome designs inspired by Ancestral Puebloan pottery from the Chaco Canyon area and figures from the Mimbres culture. For this order, a particularly nice geometric design was selected and he commenced creating 36 large seed pots in about half the time ordinarily needed.

Simon was a reliable artist so I knew if anyone could accomplish the goal, he would. He started bringing in five to eight pieces at a time. With one week left until our final ship date, Simon had brought in 34 of the 36 pots needed. Simon was a large man and quietly proud of his work as an artist. On his next to last visit, he had this brief story to share. "I would have had them all done, but a wind came up while the bowls were cooling. Two of them fell off the table, rolled down the hill, and crashed into the basketball standard".

While demonstrating the stoic acceptance of so many pottery artists who are accustomed to numerous problems arising throughout the artistic process, I was racked with guilt over his loss. Preparing to leave that day, he set down the original seed pot upon which all of the remaining pots had been based. When I asked him if he needed the design to complete the last two pots, he looked at me with his usual hang-dog expression and said, "Oh, trust me, I have the design in my head". As I shipped the last two pots, I wondered if any of the recipients would have the slightest inkling of the blood, sweat and tears which carried a shapeless, gray mass of clay into 36 beautiful expressions of Acoma tradition.

Recently, I spoke to Teri Paul at the Edge of the Cedars Museum about building an exhibit around this idea of process. The exhibit is an introduction to the beauty of detail and the virtuosity of skill, hopefully giving people a glimpse into the many baby steps which must be accomplished to bring a bracelet, a basket, a pot or a katsina doll from the artist's imagination to its complete, if you will, adult form. While photographing the various artists for this exhibit, I was struck by the ease of process acquired by each of them after many decades of practice in their chosen art form. Images of a man digging clay, a woman splitting sumac, a man hammering silver, a woman burnishing pottery, and a man carving wood encapsulate hundreds of years of experience and tradition. Some were self-taught while others spent time at the side of a mother, a grandmother, an uncle, or some other mentor steadily progressing toward their own artistic mastery.

As the pace of our lives quicken, may we slow for a few moments and savor the thoughts and actions of the artist. Hopefully with a more deliberate pace, instead of rushing toward the finished product, we can capture and experience the spark of creation as well as the beautiful in-between.

On May 7th, the exhibit, "Processes..." officially opens at the Edge of the Cedars Museum in Blanding, Utah.


Georgiana Simpson

Copyright 2005 Twin Rocks Trading Post