Saturday, March 28, 2020


Early this morning, Jana and I were out walking Pearl as the sun began to rise in the east. Pearl, whom many of you have yet to meet, is the successor to Buffy the Wonder Dog. Buffy grew up and spent most of her days lounging on the mat in front of the Kokopelli doors. Winter, spring, summer, and fall, she maintained her post. Being a golden retriever, she loved meeting people and was at all times diligent in her work, never missing an opportunity to greet a customer or make a good impression. Buffy passed many years ago, and since that time, Twin Rocks has been devoid of dogs. No longer.

Pearl arrived at the Simpson house one evening in early December. Her owner had apparently concluded he or she could no longer sustain a pet and unceremoniously abandoned Pearl in the center of town, a few blocks from our home. Soon after that abandonment, Jana and a few concerned community members decided Pearl should be adopted into the Simpson clan. After a few months of acclimation at the historic L. H. Redd Jr. home on Mulberry Avenue, Pearl has begun the training necessary to succeed Buffy as the daily canine companion of Rick, Susie, Priscilla, and Steve. While she has large shoes to fill---since Buffy was internationally known and universally loved---Pearl seems up to the challenge. Still a bit skittish and inclined to wander if she gets a chance, Pearl is settling in and developing a workable routine.

As Jana, Pearl, and I rambled down Mulberry Avenue, the streets stretched out towards the old Jones Hay Farm and the sun began to crest the horizon. It was, in a word, glorious. At a time when Bluff should be bustling with tourists, the novel coronavirus has left the town quiet, almost ghostly. It has not, however, diminished the stark beauty of this narrow river valley or the spirit of its small population.

The coral cliffs illuminated and the turquoise-colored sky shimmered while Pearl sniffed the budding plants and Jana evaluated the Netflix movie that she, Grange, and I had watched the prior evening. The verdict was mixed on both fronts. The world seems to have become more complex almost overnight and that was reflected in the conversation and in the time it took Pearl to snoop out what animals had gone before.

At Twin Rocks Trading Post and Café, we have had many inquiries regarding our status. The town of Bluff recently issued a directive closing all nonessential businesses. That, and a quarantine of residents living on the Navajo Nation, virtually our entire staff, has left the trading post and café closed to the public until further notice. After a brief period of uncertainty and economic soul searching, Rick suggested we stop fretting and begin looking for the opportunity in this crisis. Consequently, that process has begun in earnest. Frances is re-imagining Twin Rocks Café, and Rick, Susie, Priscilla, and I are brainstorming how we push forward with our plan to make Twin Rocks the trading post of the 21st-century.

As I pondered the job ahead and the effects of the novel coronavirus, it struck me that a corona is typically something extraordinary, unusual, and even beautiful. The dictionary defines it as a “white or colored circle or set of concentric circles of light seen around a luminous body, especially the sun or moon.” A corona is usually hidden from our view by the bright light of the sun’s surface, making it difficult to see without special instruments. It can, however, be easily identified during a total solar eclipse, as the moon passes between earth and sun. That seemed an especially appropriate metaphor for what we are presently experiencing in the US and around the world.

Since the mandated closure, most mornings Frances and I sit on the porch with our coffee infused with honey and cream and watch the bluffs blush with early light, strategizing what we will be when this eclipse passes. We intuitively understand things are hard to visualize right now, but we also know that if we apply our special instruments, acquired over many years, we will find a workable solution. We know there is beauty out there because we see it in the character of Bluff’s young residents, the ones who have organized a food-distribution network out of the empty dining rooms of Twin Rocks Café and the ones who are keeping this tightly knit community from fraying under the stress of a pandemic.

Once my daily convocation with Frances is complete, Rick and I usually take time to discuss what we can do to maintain connections with our artists and customers and what is necessary to begin building Twin Rocks into a trading post that remains viable now and into the foreseeable future, maybe even long after we are both stardust. Because of his experience in not-for-profit enterprises and private businesses, Rick is a fountain of information. Although this may seem a time to panic, Rick has found a way to ensure we begin identifying circles of light. Pearl meanwhile lies on the Navajo rugs and lends moral support, a substantial responsibility at this point.

As I went about my work earlier today, I found myself humming a tune from the musical Annie. “The sun’ll come out tomorrow. Bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow there’ll be sun. Just thinkin’ about tomorrow clears away the cobwebs and the sorrow . . . .” At Twin Rocks, we are exploring the future and working to identify the beauty illuminated by this corona. We have already witnessed some of it in the people of this small town and the many ways they are responding to the present uncertainty. Be assured, the sun’ll come out tomorrow, and tomorrow we will be better than we are today. Tomorrow, it's only a day away.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

The Wonderful World of Navajo Folk Art

I readily admit to a lifelong fascination of and involvement in American Folk Art. Back in 1970, as a photojournalism student at the University of Kentucky, I worked with Professor Michael D. Hall to introduce the work of master Appalachian woodcarver Edgar Tolson. Many scholars consider our modest exhibition in the Student Center Art Gallery to be the genesis of 20th-century American folk art. Until then, art critics and connoisseurs thought of the genre in terms of 19th-century weathervanes, whirligigs, or advertising signs. Scholars believed that the age of naive, self-trained artists had disappeared.

The spirit of folk art, however, was very much alive. In mountain hollers, Mississippi senior citizen centers, a mission in Sweetwater, Arizona, and untold other unexpected sites, “naïve” or self-taught artists were making their own artistic statements.

Tolson’s work exploded on the national art scene and his work was featured in the prestigious Whitney Biennial and major American museums. Collectors clamored for his work. Several of Edgar’s neighbors in Eastern Kentucky began producing their own personal expressions and a new market was established almost overnight. This grass-roots art movement meant a chance for income to some of the most poverty-cursed areas of the nation. It also allowed some gifted artists and craftsmen the chance to express themselves in woodcarvings, pottery, paintings, and other imaginative art forms.

Folk art has been defined as the creations of self-taught artisans, working within a framework of their own community’s traditions and cultures. Among the Navajo people, objects like carved wooden figures and ceremonial baskets were strictly limited by tribal taboos and not meant for casual self-expression. In the 1980s, Jack Beasley, a trader in Farmington, New Mexico, recognized and encouraged Navajo craftsmen to try their hand at this emerging art form. Early Navajo pioneers included Clitso Dedman, Charlie Willeto, Woody Herbert, and the irrepressible grande dame of the movement, Mamie Deschillie.

For several years in the late 1990s, Susie and I operated our own gallery in Cortez, Colorado, called Folk Art of the Four Corners. We took the work nationwide by participating in shows and art fairs from Atlanta to San Francisco and nearly every place in between. 

Twin Rocks Trading Post has been working with talented self-trained folk artists over 30 years. Most critics agree that folk art is marked by asymmetrical lines, vivid colors, and a sense of whimsy and humor. If that is so, few contemporary folk artists excel the work of Matthew Yellowman. Carvings like his large and vivid Cowboy Chicken, or Roadrunners in tennis shoes, bring smiles to everyone who views them. American popular culture has for too long depicted Native Americans as formal and solemn, when in reality, few people value wit and humor more than Navajos. They delight in puns and jokes and their folk art reflects this, and few craftsmen express it as clearly as Matthew.

Dennis Ross is another of our featured artists, and his work typically reflects the Navajo world in a different, idealized form. Dennis depicts a past era in which the Diné dressed in their traditional clothing and jewelry. His wood carvings reflect his combined Navajo and Hopi heritage. As large and jolly as Dennis Ross is in person, his woodcarvings are elegant, elongated, and sophisticated.

Much of the work of Marvin Jim looks into the distant past of Navajo legend and lore. He carves powerful renditions of the earliest days, when humans and animals lived as one and wild beasts proudly wore their blankets, moccasins, and formal jewelry, walking and talking with humans. Legend has it the animals grew tired of dealing with the frustrating humans and decided to drop down on all fours and return to their natural state, without human fashions or complications. Marvin’s imagination and superior wood-crafting skills brings the ancient stories alive as no other contemporary Native artisan.

So, this is a confession that I, Rick Bell, continue to be a committed fan of American folk art, and especially that of the Navajo people. When I see someone bring into the trading post a piece that is new, original, and entirely personal, it always brightens my day.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

It’s Black and White

It started with a "Splat," then came "Black Hole," "Boomerang," and most recently, "Diné Diamonds." What can all those things possibly have in common? Well, when it comes to Twin Rocks Trading Post, the likely answer is Navajo baskets, and baskets it is.

First, a little context. Several years ago, we decided the area above the plate glass windows looking out onto our small town needed something distinctive, something exciting to fill the empty space. The expanse is long and narrow, approximately 14 inches wide by almost 80 feet long. So, as they say, we "cussed and discussed," until we ultimately decided the only sensible solution was to ask weavers to create new versions of the traditional ceremonial basket. Our thought was this would help educate our customers about Navajo life, customs, traditions, and legends and create a visually stimulating display. Using a basic motif, we requested the makers weave something fresh and new, never before seen, but recognizable as a ceremonially inspired basket. The artists could use contemporary colors, add design elements, subtract features, whatever they thought was interesting; they just had to retain the traditional foundation.

That was 2009, and the Great Recession had just come crashing onto our shores, so neither we nor the artists had much to do besides fret about the economy and pray things did not get worse. This new project seemed like a good way to distract us, keep a little capital flowing to the artists, occupy our time, and conceivably generate some business. It was a bit like the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression of the 1930s, only smaller. We had to have something to do or we would go crazier.

As a result of the collaboration, the local weavers created almost 100 stunning weavings showcasing their ingenuity and creativity. There was the "Striped Cat," "Abstract Butterflies," "Blue-eyed Sheep," "Walking Sun," and many, many more. As luck would have it, along came representatives from the Natural History Museum of Utah, who determined they should have all the baskets for their collections. That was 2018, and the "Window Collection" was fully transferred to the museum in early 2019. Consequently, for approximately a year and a half, we have once again been staring at blank space. As I may have previously mentioned, at Twin Rocks Trading Post, we are converts to the philosophy that nature abhors a void, so the window expanse had to be filled. So, the "cussing and discussing" resumed. This time it was even more animated, and my input was influenced by events of my youth.

To explain, when I was young, Momma Rose sat me down to deliver some unfortunate news. With a concerned look on her face, she revealed I do not have the color gene. Color blind? No, not a problem; I have a full spectrum. I cannot, however, be relied upon to match things up. Rose's diagnosis came after careful observation over an extended period of time and included at least one expert in the field. Although she was unaware of anyone in my linage with the same missing link, Rose was confident my genetic code did not include that particular sequence. She correctly predicted I could expect to be color challenged my entire life and that things would therefore be difficult for me. As it turns out, it is like being dyslexic, only different.

This, of course, was long before Celera Genomics and Dr. Craig Venter sequenced the human genome, so Rose may not have had the correct terminology. She was, however, secure in her conclusion. Rose knew when something was amiss with her offspring and also knew kids can be unkind. Rose is a compassionate individual and probably wanted to prepare me for the difficulties she knew would come.

As Rose concluded her report, she looked at what I was wearing and exclaimed, "Just look at you!" It was the psychedelic ‘60s after all, and I, like the evolving culture, believed anything was possible. Rose assured me society and I were both wrong. Although I maintained my choice of clothing was perfectly fine, she shook her head and sent me back to retool.

When Twin Rocks was opened 20 years later, it became an unspoken rule that I was not allowed to assign coloring to the new rug or basket designs. The few times I had been engaged in the process things had gone desperately wrong, so new regulations were adopted barring me from the undertaking. While my feelings were injured, cash flow improved.

As time went on, I discovered black and white went perfectly well together, and I didn’t have to worry about missing genes or mismatched socks. While I was fascinated to know black results from the absence or complete absorption of visible light, and white represents perfect reflection, I was even more pleased to know people did not look askance when I wore them together. Even Rose seemed satisfied I had found a solution to my genetic defect.

So, when it came time to fill the void, everyone at Twin Rocks knew it had to be black and white baskets or there would be trouble at the trading post. So, Joann Johnson’s "Splat," Elsie Holiday’s "Black Hole," and Alicia Nelson’s "Boomerang" and "Diné Diamonds" were created to seed the New Window Collection. As Andri Caldwell, the well-known American photographer once said, "To see in color is a delight for the eye, but to see in black and white is a delight for the soul."