Thursday, May 15, 2008

Folk Traders?

Shortly after we opened Twin Rocks Trading Post in the fall of 1989, Wilford Yazzie wandered into the store with about a dozen carved wood chickens. As Wilford arranged his hacked out poultry on the counter and asked if I was interested in purchasing them, Barry, Duke and Amer sat on the opposite side of the post like crows on a fence. When I expressed interest in the carvings, they universally cawed and guffawed. “What are you thinking?” they asked once Wilford departed, “Have you gone crazy?” Well, yes, in a way I had; but not just because of chickens.

Barry & Wellito Sculpture
Barry with a Willeto Sculpture at Twin Rocks Trading Post.

That was the early days of the contemporary Navajo folk art movement, and not many people, including me, understood what was happening. Barry, Amer and Duke can, therefore, be forgiven for their lack of faith. At the time, I viewed the chickens as simply funny creations that might generate some much needed revenue. Lately, however, the carvings have come to symbolize much more.

Not long after Wilford arrived at the trading post, I met Patrick Eddington and Susan Makov. Pat and Susan were in the process of accumulating information for what would ultimately become the Trading Post Guidebook, a very informative publication describing trading posts, galleries, auctions, artists and museums of the Four Corners.

Pat and Susan were avid folk art collectors, who spent a great deal of time introducing me to the craft. Once my baptism was complete, I asked Pat if he was willing to disclose his sources. Generously, he sent me a notecard listing names, addresses, types of art and pertinent advice. Echoing the words of Winston Churchill, his recommendation relating to the Willeto family, for example, was, “Never, Never, Never loan them money!”

Following Pat’s recommendations, I wrote to each individual on his list, introducing them to the trading post and directing them to Bluff. To my great surprise, the correspondence set off a veritable folk art flash flood; artists streamed in from all corners of the Navajo Reservation, inundating us with everything from mud toys to muslin memory aids.

Folk art has always fascinated me, probably because I have never been able to fully comprehend it. Variously described as naive, self-taught, primitive or outsider art, it covers a variety of media. It is generally work done by untrained artists that is non-utilitarian and highly personal. In their book entitled The People Speak; Navajo Folk Art, Chuck and Jan Rosenak state that one of the universal truths of this art form is, “[T]hat the compulsion to communicate through the medium of art exists in the human soul even though the creator may not recognize his or her work as art.”

I have come to wonder whether a similar compulsion might explain the attraction Barry, Jana and I have to the people of the Southwest, and why we have chosen to spend our lives in this remote corner of the world, peddling American Indian art. I have often thought how illogical it actually is, but have recently begun to consider the possibility of it being explained by obsession.

Georgiana, Steve & Barry Simpson
Georgiana, Steve & Barry Simpson, the "Traders" of Twin Rocks Trading Post.

The reason for this revelation occurred last week, when an interesting man whose wife was teaching at my alma mater, Weber State College, came into the store. Since we had a common connection to Ogden, Utah, and since he was an accomplished artist interested in Navajo folk art, we struck up a dialogue. During our conversation he mentioned that much of the primitive art movement was obsessive in nature, and at that moment I began to relate folk art logic to the trading post.

My companion opined that folk art comes from deep inside the individual, and is generally an obsession that must be satisfied. He concluded that there was no alternative but to engage in the creative activity to sate the craving. That is, in many ways, how we feel about the art and people of the Southwest; we must be immersed up to our . . . ears; poster art simply will not do.

We have, therefore, begun to refer to ourselves as naive, primitive, outside or folk traders, all of which apply on many levels. The obsession has fully engulfed us, and there is nothing else that will satisfy our hunger. I wonder whether there is a Betty Ford clinic or a ten step program where we can get treatment for our malady.

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

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