First American Art Magazine No. 22, Spring 2019 - Page 44

Silverwork is a family affair with skills handed down from one generation to the next. above Fred Peshlakai (Navajo, 1 8 9 6 – 1 9 74 ) , S t a m p w o r k Bowl, silver, collection of the Wheelwright Museum. opposite, top Fred Peshlakai (Navajo, 1896–1974), Choker with Removable Pendant, silver, Nevada turquoise, collection of the Wheelwright Museum. Photo: Jonathan Batkin. opposite, below Fred Peshlakai (Navajo, 1896–1974), Rattlesnake Bracelets, silver, turquoise, collection of the Wheelwright Museum. Photo: Jonathan Batkin. that adorn the naja pendants on each of these three pieces. Like many Native art forms, silverwork is a family affair with skills handed down from one generation to the next. Slender Maker of Silver taught silversmithing to his brothers and his sons, including Fred Peshlakai (Navajo, 1896–1972), who learned the craft from his father when he was around 18 years old. By 1929 Peshlakai had become a Christian evangelist with the Presbyterian mission at Ganado, Arizona, but around 1931 or 1932, he moved to Gallup where he learned commercial metal casting from a local German jeweler. Eventually Peshlakai settled in Los Angeles, and by 1938 he opened a shop there. 5 For the next 30 years, Fred Peshlakai produced innovative jewelry, earning a reputation as an expert in the selection and use of turquoise. Though much of the Native American jewelry trade had been heavily influenced by American traders and the trading post system, Peshlakai broke away from this arrangement. He rarely worked for others and insisted upon managing his own career for most of his life. He obtained his materials directly, buying silver from the Wildberg Brothers Smelting and Refining Company in Los Angeles and working closely with mine owner “Doc” Wilson to procure the finest turquoise available. Peshlakai’s indepen- dent approach to running his artistic career signaled the decline of a power system in which reservation traders, shop owners, and other collectors struggled to maintain control over not only the output of Native jewelers, but also the resources they needed for their craft. Peshlakai had become one of a growing number of Native American silversmiths who, through their own initiative, joined the ranks of modern studio jewelers. 6 Peshlakai had a prolific career as a silversmith, and although he learned the art from his father, his work does not copy that of Slender Maker of Silver. Instead, Peshlakai took the art of silver- smithing in new and exciting directions, taking full advantage of the turquoise he had gained access to and often utilizing large cabochons (rounded, cut stones) to embellish necklaces and bracelets. His skills in selecting and setting stones can be clearly seen in two bracelets dating from about 1960, for which he chose large Lone Mountain turquoise stones that nearly obscure the silver settings. In other pieces, he creatively used smaller stones to accen- tuate details in his jewelry, including two bracelets that implement smaller stones designed into the form of rattlesnakes. The snakes’ coiled bodies are finely deco- rated with scaled patterns, and their heads and rattles are embellished with turquoise stones. These unique pieces demonstrate the diversity of Peshlakai’s work. Of course, silversmithing was not practiced only among the Navajo, and I would be remiss if I failed to mention the development of this art form among Pueblo artists. As he had among the Navajo, Adair also recorded the history and development of silverwork among the Pueblos. At Zuni Pueblo, the silver- smith La:niyadhi (Zuni) informed Adair 5. Dana Joseph, “Native Treasures,” Cowboys & Indians (August/September 2015), web. 6. Cheri Falkenstien-Doyle, “Eighteenth-century economy, twentieth-century merchandising: the market for turquoise in the American Southwest, 1900–1940,” in JCH King, Turquoise in Mexico and North America: science, conservation, culture and collections (London: British Museum, 2012), 215–220.. 42 | WWW.FIRSTAMERICANARTMAGAZINE.COM