Indian jewelry intertwines stone, spirit

January 20, 1994|By Marilynne S. Mason | Marilynne S. Mason,Christian Science Monitor

Beauty before me,

With it I wander.

Beauty behind me,

With it I wander.

Beauty below me,

With it I wander.

Beauty above me,

With it I wander.

Beauty all around me,

With it I wander.

In old age traveling,

With it I wander.

On the beautiful trail I am,

With it I wander.

-- from Navajo Night Song

When jewelry is more than a mere fashion statement, when its beauty incorporates both tradition and innovation, when it becomes symbolic of a people, a way of life, a whole region, then it may be said to be an art. The making of turquoise jewelry in the Southwest by native American craftsmen and -women is such an art. Transcending simple utility, it is often useful. Transcending decoration, it is always decorative, too. Religious significance aside, it reflects the culture of its makers, past and present -- a history of stone and metal carved and poured into objects of beauty in abstract or referential forms going back thousands of years.

Turquoise jewelry of the Southwest, as made by the Navajo and the Zuni, evokes the four elements -- earth, wind, fire, water. Mined from underground, turquoise looks like pieces of sky that have fallen and been swallowed by the earth. It comes in a wide range of colors from green to blue, not quite precious, but cherished just the same for its beauty. Anyone who travels anywhere in the Southwest will find it in stores and on jewelry carts in the most elegant and in the most plebeian malls and shopping centers. High and low craft skills, new and old designs, antique and modern pieces often lie side-by-side under glass. There is a long history here and a rich cultural heritage.

The history of the art of turquoise comes vividly to life in a new book, "The Turquoise Trail: Native American Jewelry and Culture of the Southwest," by Carol Karasik, with photographs by Jeffrey Jay Foxx. The text is beautifully written -- evocative and sometimes poetic. But what really makes this book is Mr. Foxx's marvelous photographs -- elegant, straightforward ethnographic records of the art, the artisans and the environment in which these beautiful things come into being.

Ms. Karasik elicits the mystery and wonder of the Southwest in her dazzling descriptions of the desert landscape. But it is her recounting of history that rivets attention -- sometimes so close to myth it is difficult to draw the line. She describes how the Aztec and Mixtec kings and nobility wore the turquoise, how clever merchants dedicated their lives to trading without earning profits and brought turquoise and other precious stones back to their kings and princes.

Mr. Foxx's photos capture this sense of myth and sought-for treasure. The second image in the book, a swirling sea of unmined turquoise inside the Sleeping Beauty Mine in Arizona, links the stone to images we all know of the earth as seen from space. As we learn about the trade routes of such ancient peoples as the Anasazi and the trading of turquoise and other rocks for fabulously colored feathers, Mr. Foxx shows us the very kind of bird that supplied those feathers so many hundreds of years ago.

Mr. Foxx's still portraits and his pictures of the people of Arizona and New Mexico dressed for ceremony and festival say volumes about the importance of turquoise jewelry in their societies. Turquoise, which figures in some of the oldest myths from this region, is a mark of religious as well as worldly riches.

The posed portraits are striking, but the action shots tell more. Mr. Foxx developed his own method for seeking out these images.

"The essence of what I am has to do with love and a passion for how different people live," he said recently. "The way I present myself is based on the assumption that humility and body language and respect for other people's dignity [matter]; these are the things I try to communicate in every way I can. It's difficult because the camera is such a powerful symbol of intrusion, especially from our culture to others; I'm very aware of what I'm carrying. One of my special attributes is being sensitive to what people's concerns are, addressing them as quickly as possible and putting them at ease."

Mr. Foxx's pictures capture the intensity and calm of the Indian artisan at work. He relies on intuition rather than scholarship to tell him what is important.

"If you come to New York," he continues, "and say you are an artist, if you succeed, you have paid a heavy price for that success. Out there [in the Southwest] are individuals who just do their work quietly, sometimes just for their own use -- ceremonial or otherwise."

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