Thursday, July 20, 2006

You Have To Go Through A Few Sponge Bobs To Get To The Yeis

The other day, I came back from a little time off to find Barry extremely agitated about something that had arrived at the trading post during my absence. As he led me into his office, in anticipation of disclosing this latest development, he was visibly affected. As I entered the room, I noticed him reaching up to retrieve this most recent artistic creation from the back of his high shelf.

Approximately 16 years ago, I returned to the trading post business, "for just two or three years." Back then, I questioned whether I could actually survive in Bluff. After I overcame my initial jitters, I found small town life agreed with me, and that I was immensely interested in how the art that found its way into the trading post evolved. Navajo basketry was just beginning to flower, so it was an interesting time. I even thought about writing a book called The Evolution of the . . . . Since I couldn't find the right word to rhyme with Species, however, my project never got off the ground.

Barry had read a great deal of Navajo mythology by that time and had developed a few concepts he wanted to implement. He and I have limited artistic capacity, so initially he sketched his basket designs using a compass and ruler. Although I felt the designs were a bit static, they began to catch on, and, with a little imagination from the weavers, some pretty interesting baskets started to come in.

Once we realized this design experiment might actually work, Barry hired Damian Jim, who at that time was a young man with some big ideas that fit very nicely with what we needed. Damian, who hitchhiked 30 miles to work each morning because he had no reliable transportation, had a good graphic sense and computer experience that far exceeded anything Barry and I had or have been able to develop.

Recently, the latest installment of Greg Schaff's American Indian series came out. The book showcases Native American basketry, including a large section on Navajo weaving, and I was pleased to see several of Barry and Damian's early designs represented. Many of the baskets featuring these motifs were submitted by other collectors and traders, which tells me the designs have gone mainstream.

Damian spent several years with us, designing and encouraging us to embrace the internet. I can still see the frustration on Damian's face when we asked him a silly question about the web or requested a design he thought was ridiculous. At times, the substantial investment in time and money seemed unmerited. I clearly remember one of our best trading buddies, Jacque Foutz, relating a story about how her father-in-law traded in baskets. Jacque had become interested in writing a book about Navajo basketry, and began her research by talking with Russell Foutz. When asked about his experience with baskets, Russell, one of the true old time traders, said, "Jacque, I bought them, I sold them; they were like cans of beans to me." Needless to say, she was deflated.

Since Russell had been a successful trader, I often questioned whether Barry and I were on the right track. But then somebody would bring in a truly great work, that was like nothing we had ever seen, and I would become convinced anew that we were doing something worthwhile. A few months later, however, when we noticed other people carrying similar items, our enthusiasm would ebb.

This morning I noticed a flock of crows hopping around behind the trading post. One of them had found a crouton and was carrying it around in his mouth. Once the other birds realized what he had, they all converged, trying to get a piece of his treasure. Barry and I have often felt like the crow with the crouton, trying to protect the gems we have discovered, but knowing all along that we had to let them go so things would be better for the flock. Letting go, however, can be difficult.

Navajo Folk Art

As Barry reached up for the gems hidden on his top shelf, he said, "You gotta see these carvings." My mind immediately flashed back to a Sponge Bob figure Ray Lansing, an artist who is being mentored by Marvin Jim, had carved a while back. Ray is a talented carver, but Sponge Bob was an enormous emotional stretch for me. Barry on the other hand felt a kinship with Sponge Bob, and believed we needed to purchase the carving to, "keep things going." I thought it was Barry's affinity to the cartoon character more than his love of the art, but was compelled to give in."Besides," Barry said, "How can you dislike a guy who lives in Bikini Bottom?" I had to admit he had a point.

Much to my surprise, Sponge Bob Rez Pants was a hit, and I was reminded that setting the artists free to create on their own terms, and believing in them even when Sponge Bobs are the result, is an important part of our business. When Barry revealed four Yei rattles Marvin had carved, I realized how far he has come with just a little encouragement, and thought,"Well, I guess you have to go through a few Sponge Bobs to get to the Yeis."

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Copyright 2006 Twin Rocks Trading Post

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