Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Art of a Trader

Several years ago, I was bent over the counter, eying the creation a Navajo carver had brought in to sell, when Duke strolled into the trading post. This was before Kokopelli became just another howling coyote; a time when people still looked at our doors and the Stormy Reddoor petroglyph pecked into the outside wall and asked, “What is that?” On the opposite side of the display case, the carver, who was about to lose patience with my indecision, anxiously shifted his weight from one foot to the other.

Steve's  drawing
Steve's drawing

The carving that had me perplexed was of three ant Kokopellis playing their crooked flutes and dancing across a small log. The figures were somewhat crudely carved, and the log was really just a big stick. When Duke finally rolled in, I had been looking at the carving for over 30 minutes, trying to decide whether it was genuinely inspired or just another knickknack destined to gather dust on the trading post shelves. Duke took one look at the piece and proclaimed, “Wow, that’s really good!” Shortly thereafter, the transaction was consummated and I carefully placed the Kokopellis on a shelf. It was not two hours before a patron came into the store, spied the piece and insisted on taking it home.

That was the first time I realized I am uniquely unqualified to identify quality art. Several years later, as folk art began to seep into my consciousness, and customers started asking about it on a regular basis, I knew it was time to unravel the mysteries of this particular art form. I had recently met Patrick Eddington and Susan Makov, and we had visited about the pieces they were collecting. As a result, I called Patrick and asked how I might contact the better folk artists. He was happy to oblige, and sent me a greeting card inscribed with several names, addresses and comments relating to individual artists. I have kept the card and still chuckle whenever I read it.

With regard to one particularly difficult artist, Patrick’s note said, “He does interesting work, just don’t loan him money.” During the man’s second visit to the trading post, he asked for a substantial advance. Having been forewarned, I was prepared for the query and easily avoided a disaster of significant proportion.

As a result of my newly acquired connections, I was introduced to the art of Charlie Willeto. When I looked at photographs of Charlie’s carvings, I clearly saw that I would not have had enough vision to believe his work would become so important. It was then that I began to wonder about the art of being an Indian trader.

Having stood behind that same counter over 16 years, I know that I often am not always the best judge of what is important when it comes to Native American art, and art in general. I have, however, become somewhat competent, and realize that a trader’s real contribution has little to do with the tangible manifestations of the artist’s work and much to do with interpreting the artists themselves.

Much of a particular creation’s importance is derived from what is influencing the artist to create the piece. Once you know the person, you can better understand the work and provide helpful comments that give the purchaser insight into why certain things are happening. In effect, our job is to help personalize the art.

As traders, we are windows through which people outside the Reservation can view a vanishing culture. Barry and I often listen to, read, interpret and convey messages from the artists, masking the unseemly and revealing the beauty. That is the art of a trader. I have tried my hand at many other art forms and find this one suits me best.

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Copyright 2006 Twin Rocks Trading Post

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