In our last blog, we looked at the Diné textiles and fine art as two categories of their artistic expression. Another area for which the Diné are known is pottery. Having said that, there is often a distinct difference in the pottery produced by the Diné and that produced by the neighboring New Mexico pueblos. Historically, the Diné pottery was coated in pine pitch for waterproofing, and designs and ornamentation were not allowed. Because of their traditional method of firing the pots, dark smoke clouds often appeared on the outside.
Today, potters like Alice Cling and Samuel Manymules continue the traditional methods of creating and firing their pots, though the restrictions on design and ornamentation have been greatly relaxed. Different artistic forms, sometimes representing cultural images like mountains or kiva steps, are being produced. Other artists like Betty Manygoats are including figural appliques of local animals on the outsides of their vessels.
Jewelry has been around since the first cavemen and women found shiny stones and thought they were pretty. The Diné have mined turquoise for a long time, and have historically used it as a symbol of wealth. But when the Spanish brought silversmithing in the 16th century, the Diné rapidly adopted this craft and took it to new levels.
Initially, the Diné silversmiths took large, irregularly shaped pieces of turquoise and mounted them on sterling silver bezels. They produced a stunning variety of squash necklaces, rings, cuffs, earrings, and pins for both ceremonial use and daily wear.
Some Diné jewelers of today continue that style, though many contemporary jewelers are producing gorgeous pieces that can be worn either with or without Southwestern attire.
One Diné jeweler that I adore is Albert Lee. His focus is on the highest quality possible stones, hand cut and painstakingly set in substantial silver bezels. Albert is a sixth-generation jeweler, with his silversmith knowledge passed down through the family and his skills honed by countless hours of producing cuffs, rings, necklaces, and earrings. This kind, gentle man doesn’t brag about his work – the quality speaks for itself. One of his favorite stories is about the First Lady, Laura Bush, and her daughter Jenna Bush Hager, purchasing and wearing some of his jewelry.
Other Diné jewelers have taken different approaches. Alvin Yellowhorse has evolved the art of inlay to one of extremely detailed pictorials in his pendants and cuffs. Abraham Begay has produced increasingly fine micro-inlay, with hair thin slices of different stones set into the bezel. And there are many, many more outstanding Diné jewelers, each finding their voice and utilizing their talents to create memorable jewelry.
As with all peoples around the world, the Diné art is a reflection of their culture and their surroundings. The warrior spirit of the Diné, refusing to surrender to the harsh environment, is combined with their reverence of the land and is reflected in their cultural traditions. This duality has created some spectacular art as expressed by many of today’s Diné artists.