Thursday, September 27, 2007

Don't Mess With My Barbie

"Uh Oh!" I thought, as Ian, Priscilla's four year old grandson, strolled into my office and hopped up onto one of my heavy wooden chairs As he sat there swinging his skinny legs freely beneath the seat, he looked over my assortment of Navajo collectibles on the shelves above his shaved head. I continued typing, answering e-mail, in hopes Ian would not ask about the toys again. Not a chance, Ian cannot tolerate unopened packages. He focused on my Navajo GI Joe, Barbie and Adam Beech Windtalker dolls, and started in on his favorite subject.

Ian in Barry's office
Ian at Twin Rocks Trading Post

"Why do you have toys you never play with?" asked Ian. "Go away kid!" I said jokingly, "Ya bother me." Ian was not in the mood for humor; he felt rebuffed and struck back accordingly. "Those are cheap toys," he said, hopping down from the chair and leaving the room. Watching him stomp away in anger made me regret not explaining the difference between collectibles in mint condition and used toys. Shortly thereafter the school bus came for Ian, leaving me feeling badly about the encounter.

After Ian left, a young Danish family came into the trading post and began looking at the store displays. The parents were probably thirty-something years of age, the little boy maybe five and the girl three. They all spoke English fairly well, and we fell into easy conversation.

I noticed the little girl was packing around a Barbie doll. I could tell the doll was well loved, because its clothes were tattered and soiled, and its hair stuck out in all directions. I spoke with the little girl about the doll, telling her that I too had a Barbie. "Nuh Uh," she said after looking me over carefully. "I do," I assured her; "I have a Navajo Barbie doll." The child just stared at me in disbelief, so I walked into my office and pulled the doll from the shelf.

Arriving back at the counter, I carefully showed the little girl the box with the untouched Navajo Barbie displayed behind cellophane. Her eyes grew to twice their normal size as she reached for the box. "She's beautiful!" said the little girl as she fingered the plastic. Then, without warning, she tried to open the packaging. The child's mother anticipated the move and took control of the box before any damage was done.

Navajo Barbie Doll

"I just wanted to touch her," complained the little girl, "I wouldn't hurt her." I thought back to what Ian had said about me not ever playing with the toys and thought, "What the heck?" I took the box and cut the tape off either side, then, oh so gently, removed the lid. I handed the open box to the little girl, she smiled brightly and handed me her doll before taking the box and looking upon the now exposed Navajo Barbie.

The child breathed deeply and looked at me once more to make sure it was all right. I nodded to the girl and her mother, signaling that it was okay. The youth reached into the box and touched the doll's earrings, pin, necklace and concho belt. She fingered the velveteen blouse, the rug-like shawl and Barbie's flowered skirt. "She's beautiful!" she said, again stroking the doll's jet black hair. "See, I didn't hurt her," said the child as she handed back the box. "No you didn't," I said handing back her own well loved toy, "You treated her very well."

The family departed, and left me in a good mood. As they made their way out the door, the little girl waved at me with the hand holding her Barbie, and said "Thank you!" "You take good care of that Barbie" I said. "I will" she replied, "You take care of yours too." "I will." I said, and thought to myself, "It's a greater treasure now than it ever was before; thanks to Ian.''

With warm regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

A New Philosophy

Lately we have been shooting a lot of video. As a result, Barry, Tina, Rose, Tarryl and Jana have begun wearing dark glasses and speaking like celebrities. One would think Bluff had become Hollywood East. When artists bring in baskets, rugs, jewelry or other artistic creations, we immediately put the bite on them to explain the techniques and motivations behind the piece.

The Twin Rocks Video Team
The Twin Rocks Trading Post Team.

Although we are just learning the secrets of good video production, we have captured some interesting cultural material and have even begun referring to the trading post as NCC; Native Cultural Channel. Rose has demanded a video van to traverse the Reservation in search of breaking stories. Although some have gone next door to the cafe with tales of crazy people at the Twin Rocks trading post, the artists have been extremely open with their personal stories, and we are discovering a great deal about local Native American traditions.

The other day, Navajo silver and goldsmith Robert Taylor came in with a beautiful silver and gold story bracelet. Although it took a while, and a call to his agent, we finally convinced Robert to talk with us on camera. Robert’s story bracelets typically feature symbols that illustrate various aspects of Navajo culture and life on the Reservation.

On this particular cuff, Robert had overlaid cowboys, livestock, a weaver, a hogan, an outhouse, a shade house and one of the Monument Valley Mittens. By the time he began explaining the significance of the Mitten, Robert was feeling pretty good about his performance and started talking about the movies that had been made in Monument Valley.

Being a movie fan, and having spent a great deal of time at Goulding’s, which is in the heart of Monument Valley, I was familiar with both the old and new adventures filmed in that magical land. I have often wandered through their museum, and have many times been told how Harry and Mike traveled to Hollywood to meet producer John Ford. According to the myth, Harry and Mike camped in John Ford’s outer office until he agreed to come have a look. Upon his arrival, Ford was smitten with the landscape, and the rest, as they say, is cinematic history.

Robert is apparently a serious John Ford and John Wayne fan, so he began telling stories about the making of certain films. He explained that on one particular occasion, John Ford had assembled his “Indians” and set about explaining very carefully just how they were to come riding over a certain pass, whooping it up and looking fierce. The headman was taken aside and instructed that when the war party crested the rise, John Wayne would aim and shoot, at which point, the chief was to fall from his horse.

Everything was properly arranged, and the leader assembled his warriors, saddled up and rode off into the distance, where they awaited their cue. The signal was given and the tribe began agitating. As they crested the hill, John Wayne carefully sighted in on the leader and gently squeezed the trigger of his trusty rifle. Bang went the blank cartridge, whereupon the entire war party fell to the ground.

Robert and I had a good laugh, and a little while later he headed back to Indian Wells; having enriched himself through the sale of his art and me with his funny stories. A few days later, an older gentleman came into the store and inquired about Robert’s bracelet as a gift for his wife. As we discussed the symbolism of the piece, I eventually came to the Mitten, and related Robert’s John Wayne story.

Worrying that Robert may have been pulling my leg, I said, “I don’t know if it is true.” In return, the gentleman said, “What difference does it make whether it is true or not; it’s a good story.” Barry and I have decided we agree with that philosophy, and have adopted it as our motto for the Twin Rocks trading post. Now, whenever someone looks at us askance and asks whether our tales are true, we just say, “What difference does it make, it’s a good story.”

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Cutting Off the Ugly

"We need to have that cut off;" said Laurie, "it's ugly!" "Cut off what," I said rather defensively, and in a voice slightly higher pitched than normal. My wife was in the process of trimming my hair with a sharp pair of scissors. I was afraid that if she got started cutting off parts of me that are ugly, there might not be anything left.

Navajo Skinwalker Carving
Navajo Folk Art

"Dr, Jones can cut it off in a matter of minutes," claimed my wife, "I'm worried about it." "What "IT" are we talking about?" I asked again." "That mole just above your left ear; the one I keep snagging with the comb." "I thought you were doing that to antagonize me," I said with a smirk. Laurie smacked me lightly upside the head, reminding me of her dislike of sarcasm.

Running her fingers through my locks, Laurie said, "Your hair is different." "Still thick, full and not a gray hair one!" I said defensively. "No," said my adoring wife, looking closely and feeling it suspiciously, "It's thinner with just a hint of gray, but it's also . . . coarser!" "A product of my environment," I quipped to myself smiling inwardly at my quick wit. "Smack!" "Did I say that out loud?" I asked in confusion. "That was ugly;" said Laurie, "cut-it-out!"

A few days later, I stood behind the counter of the Twin Rocks trading post rubbing my new temporal scar and worriedly wondering if Laurie had somehow acquired the ability to read my mind; a scary thought indeed! As I contemplated this possibility, Marvin Jim and Grace Begay walked in the door and gently, but firmly, set a carving in front of me. As I focused on, and then recognized the creature crouching before me, I looked up at them and asked, "Have you guys lost your minds?"

Marvin and Grace laughed out loud, and, with a humorous glint in his eye, Marvin said; "I told Grace you would say that." "We carved it because we realized you knew just enough about Skin-walkers to be dangerous." Marvin Jim and Grace Begay are two of the most gifted Native American sculptors I have had the pleasure to associate with. This time, however, they had crossed the line; our friendship was in jeopardy.

Dangerous indeed, I was born and raised around the Navajo culture; I have read the books! I had read "the" book on Skin-walkers. Clyde Kluckhon's thesis on Navajo witchcraft is considered the most intensive study of this cultural phenomenon to date. Dangerous? I think not! Grace smiled patiently and said "Sometimes you look too close at the bad stuff, you need to cut-it-off!" "You mean out?" I asked scratching my head and remembering Laurie's earlier comments. "Off, out, whatever," said Grace, "just get rid of it, look for the good!"

"Okay!" I said, "It makes sense that everything in Navajo culture has an opposing force. Are you willing to talk about this; on camera?" "That's why we are here together," said Marvin. "Get your video recorder set-up," chimed in Grace, "we are here to educate you!" "Great," I thought to myself, "now I have to deal with Navajo philosophers and educators instead of simple sculptors." "Stop it!" Marvin and Grace said in unison. "Did I say that out loud?" I asked in confusion. "That was ugly," said Grace "cut-it-off!"

Twenty minutes later, I was indeed a better informed man. The dynamic duo taught me that their carving was based on the time and place when medicine men knew how to transform themselves into animal-like creatures. The transformation was based on the need to expedite the gathering of healing herbs from the sacred mountains. The intent was based on harnessing supernatural powers for good, beneficial purposes.

The turnaround came through human beings, when a few misguided souls succumbed to what I interpret as the seven deadly sins and strayed from the seven heavenly virtues. However you personally describe this occurrence matters not; the outcome is the same. Many things intended to benefit humans are turned by corruption into that which is harmful. Embracing evil or negativity drove a positive force underground.

The sculpture Marvin and Grace bravely presented was intended to bring to light the upside of a cultural symbol, in hopes of reviving its original, positive intent; to, "cut off the ugly," and raise it back up to its original status of a helpful and beneficial force. I have personally gained a new and improved perspective of Skin-walkers and, hopefully, I will be more open-minded when someone tries to improve my health and well-being or better my education.

With Warm Regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Evolutionary Art

Being a slow learner, it took me a while to understand the importance of art in my life. My first truly significant acquisition came as Barry and I strode the pavement of the weekend flea market at the Phoenix dog track. It was the early 1970s, and Duke frequently took us along when he went seeking treasures to supplement the inventory of a secondhand store we ran from a leaky tin shed on the south side of Blanding. Since Barry and I also enjoyed the hunt, we often wandered independently and reported back to Duke when we found something useful.

Kira Simpson & Allison Snowhawk Lee
Kira Simpson with Navajo Jewelry
Artist Allison Snowhawk Lee

On one occasion, we stopped by a booth containing a large assortment of items Barry and I did not recognize. As the owner of the curiosities spoke earnestly with other interested individuals, and intentionally neglected us, Barry reached into a bin and extracted an unusual gadget neither of us recognized. Thinking the shape looked familiar, I took a step back, believing it might be safer to observe the developing situation from a distance.

As he puzzled over this latest find, and questioned whether it was something Duke might be interested in, Barry spied a button on the bottom of the instrument and flipped the switch. The thing came to life and began to dance wildly. Startled by the movement, Barry dropped the squiggler back into the bin. The gentleman manning the booth became extremely animated as he intervened to stop the commotion. Barry and I took the opportunity to quickly exit the scene.

As we anxiously continued our quest, speculating on the intended use of that extraordinary item, I noticed a poster of Farrah Fawcett and knew my life would never be complete without it. Although I could not compete with the Six Million Dollar Man, I did have six bucks in my pocket, and soon the image was mine.

Barry assured me Rose would never allow the poster in her house. Upon our return, however, the pinup was quietly affixed to the back of our bedroom door, where it stayed the remainder of the 1970s; serving as a constant reminder of God’s most artistic, fascinating and baffling creations.

Once I finished my formal education, and began generating a stable salary, I invested in framed Ansel Adams posters, assuring myself I was on the path to artistic nirvana. Almost everyone I knew had similar copies, so I felt comfortable I had made a good start. It was not until I came to the Twin Rocks trading post, and met Jana, that I knew for sure my initial ventures into the world of art had been misguided.

Not long after our marriage was consummated, the Ansel Adams posters were jettisoned in favor of original art. Although I felt a bit like an art refugee, I soon acclimated.

Last week, I was reminded of my inartistic legacy, and Barry’s flea market misadventure, as Jana, Kira, Grange and I strode the booths of Santa Fe Indian Market. Kira and Grange had bulging pocketbooks and were looking for art to supplement their Traders in Training inventory. Having had the benefit of an early immersion into Native American art, they sped quickly towards artists specializing in jewelry with unusual stones and potters with refined techniques, and I began to believe they may have been spared the poster phase.

Grange Simpson & Michael Kantena
Grange Simpson with Pueblo Potter Michael Kantena

While the kids scurried from Wilfred Garcia, to Michael Kantena, to Myron Panteah and on to Allison Lee, I felt comfortable they were acquiring the skills necessary to develop a rich relationship with art. Along the way, they were getting to know some the the most interesting individuals in the Southwest; doubly enriching their lives.

Having spent so much time at the Twin Rocks trading post, I have come to believe the primary reason I enjoy the art we collect and sell is that I love the people. When I look at a rug from Eleanor Yazzie or a basket woven by Lorraine Black, I see those individuals in every fiber of the creation. Kira and Grange are beginning to realize that same emotion, and are now incorporating this beauty into their lives.

Yesterday I went into Kira’s room to tell her good night and noticed a poster of Harry Potter. Scratching my head, I walked across the hall to Grange’s room and there I found a poster of the Nebraska wrestling team; featuring one of Grange’s heroes, Robert Sanders. Maybe the kids have inherited my genetic predisposition for posters, or it may be a case of art evolution. In either case, gene therapy may be in order.

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.