Celebrating Song and Metal

THE TURQUOISE TRAIL: NATIVE AMERICAN JEWELRY AND CULTURE OF THE SOUTHWEST Text by Carol Kurasik. Photographs by Jeffrey Jay Faxx. Abrams, 224 pp., $49.50

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 Foxx's marvelous photographs - elegant, straightforward ethnographic records of the art, the artisans, and the environment in which these beautiful things come into being.

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.

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 ancient peoples like the Anasazi, the trading of turquoise and other rocks for fabulously colored feathers, Foxx shows us the very kind of bird that supplied those feathers so many hundreds of years ago. He shows us the fantastic landscape - real, but also afire with early morning light or late-day shadows.

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. 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 told me 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.''

He finds a whole range of responses from the people who most interest him: Some don't mind, some welcome him, and others wish he would leave. Native peoples, after all, have been exploited in photographs almost from the inception of photography. Many are wary of him.

Foxx gets permission - sometimes it takes a while to assure the ``door openers'' that he is a good guy, not there to harm. If he is asked to stop photographing in the midst of a festival or a ceremony, he does. But even when the circumstances are most ripe, he has learned to indicate his respect in a variety of nonverbal ways. He has learned to lessen the camera's impact as a symbol of intrusion.

``I screw something onto the back of the camera so I can look down into the camera instead of holding it up to my face. The body language of looking down is much different from having a black box between the two of you. I'm not trying to fool anyone. I'm trying to give them the opportunity to overlook the intrusion of the camera. Frequently they take me up on that, but when they don't and they look at me directly - that shot is the most powerful portrait you can get, because all their intelligence and all of their concern [is there]. It is a pure moment.... Then I put the camera down because whether or not I'm doing something wrong is something they are going to read off my face. If nonverbal communication says `I love you,' they will let it go and go back to work. But if I were to look guilty or look like I'm stealing, I'm in danger. It's an incredible exchange.''

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. But it is clear from the pictures that he knows what is significant. He celebrates the turquoise and silver art form.

Foxx points to a particular favorite of his, a photograph of two pieces of jewelry lying side-by-side on the page. One is a frog and one a lizard.

``They are very exciting pieces,'' he says, ``one created by an anonymous jeweler (the frog) and the other made by one of the most famous Navajo jewelers who ever lived. There's not that much difference between the excitement of the pieces - they are both very alive and worthy of celebration. One was celebrated, and the other is unknown.

``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.''

And so it is. Art in the Southwest can be a means of livelihood, like anywhere else. But it is also and always a creative response to life expressed through culture - which is not necessarily true everywhere else.

A small carving in turquoise that can be held in the hand has been made into a bull's head for a key chain. It is a perfect little sculpture. It has no significance and much significance at once.

Karasik writes: ``Art conveys symbols that travel through history. The earth has its patterns, too. Lapidaries are fond of saying that they are simply freeing the forms and patterns hidden in the stone.... In craft, the line between nature and artifice dissolves.''

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