Friday, November 18, 2016

More Good Weather, More Great Baskets

As he wandered through the store last week, Rick, of the now famous Rick and Susie Bell duo, asked, “Yo, whatcha writing about?” Rick and Susie have recently returned to the Southwest from Louisville, Kentucky. They grew weary of slugging it out in the heat, humidity and traffic of the South and wanted a slower, drier existence. Susie worked with me at Twin Rocks over 20 years ago, so when I realized they were moving back, I took the opportunity to recruit them for the trading post team. They accepted, and shortly thereafter comfortably ensconced themselves in the home above the store, where I lived for more than two decades before moving around the block to the historic L.H. Redd, Jr. home. Almost every day the Fed Ex and UPS drivers arrive with packages for Susie, and once in a while a semi-tractor/trailer makes a large delivery. Barry, Priscilla and I have begun to wonder where she is putting all that stuff. We think Susie, like Jana, proves the theory that, “Nature abhors a void.” No matter, Rick and Susie seem happy with their new living arrangements and are already integrating themselves into the fabric of Bluff.

Rick does not typically use ghetto slang, so, when he posed his question I sat upright to pay closer attention. He just stood there, awaiting my reply. “The incredible light and the fabulous weather we are having”, I said. “Don’tcha think that has been done enough?” he asked. "Well, maybe”, I replied defensively, "but they are great, there has not been any real character in the store since early October, and Barry and Priscilla have been quiet, so what else do I have?” “Maybe it's writer’s block”, he suggested. “Yeah, for the past several . . . months”, Barry interjected. This caused Priscilla to snicker as she sat at her desk pricing turquoise jewelry. When Barry migrated to Blue Mountain Trading Post last year, Priscilla took the opportunity to move a desk into his office. Now that he has returned they are as tight as two pigs in a blanket.

Just as I had gotten myself into a jam writing too often about the extraordinary early winter months in Bluff, I had also gotten my tail in a crack ten years ago with the basketry of Elsie Holiday. Elsie and I began working together about 25 years earlier when she stumbled into Twin Rocks with a nice, but not necessarily exceptional, basket she had recently woven. At the time, many of the local Navajo basket and rug weavers followed the traditional design model; they were conservative in their approach so they could ensure a sale. Unfortunately, at the time, a lot of the Indian traders were not forward thinking when it came to Native American arts and crafts. They knew what had sold in the past and did not stray far from the standard motifs. As a consequence, the artists generally played it safe with respect to what they produced. As they say, “No sale, no chiddy.” Not having extra money to pay the truck or mobile home payment, insurance premium, grocery bill or school fees if their creation did not sell, they could not risk working days, weeks or even months on an item only to be turned away. Saving for a rainy day is not widely accepted on the Reservation, so as Barry is fond of saying, “The artists we work with are generally living close to the bone.” Consequently, once the item was finished, it has to be turned; even if that meant sacrificing it for a lower than expected price. This unfortunately led to an environment where creativity was not encouraged and was, in fact, generally undervalued.

The traders could not really be faulted, since they were in much the same predicament as the artists. They had to turn their inventory or the rent did not get paid and the landlord came knocking. Barry and I intuitively, and experientially, understood the situation. Being young and without a great deal of financial savvy, however, when Twin Rocks Trading Post opened we set out to change the model. It would be fair to say we did not know the financial commitment we were making. Barry had been flirting with designing new and innovative rugs, baskets and jewelry for some time. Because his drafting skills are, however, limited, his first attempts were rudimentary. In any case, we knew we wanted fresh, never before seen designs. We had not really thought about how we might market these products, we just jumped blindly into the project.

When Elsie arrived, Barry and I noticed she had real, raw talent. As a result, we began exploring a variety of other artistic movements we thought she might be interested in pursuing. We soon began suggesting geometric graphics, but she remained lukewarm. That attitude persisted until she determined to relocate her mobile home from Farmington, New Mexico back to Monument Valley and needed a pocketful of money to enlist the movers. As a result of this pressing need, she showed up at the trading post looking for a way to earn a sizable chunk of cash. I was ready, and suggested a large vessel, which she promptly wove. It was truly beautiful, and from that time forward Elsie has created the most unusual baskets we have ever seen.

What got me into trouble is that every time she brought in a new weaving I said to our customers, “I think it’s the best piece she has ever done!” After a time, the trading post patrons began to say, “Oh, that’s what you said last time.” The thing was, it was true. Just as each fall day here in Bluff has been more beautiful than its predecessor, each basket Elsie wove was better than the one before. Her designs careened from Oriental optical art, to Art Deco, to traditional Navajo blanket, to Escher illusions, to Helen Hardin, to Anasazi, to Pueblo pottery. Barry, Priscilla and I could only stand back in amazement when she arrived with the next in the series. So, while I seemed disingenuous, I was completely and absolutely sincere in my appraisal of her talent; as I am about the fall weather in Bluff.

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