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Silver master’s work reflects imagination, humor and whimsy

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The gleam of molten metal rivers through Norbert Peshlakai’s veins.

His last name means beeshligaii, literally “white metal.”

The winner of countless ribbons at both the Santa Fe Indian Market and the Heard Museum Indian Fair, this silver master stars in his first one-man show at Santa Fe’s Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian opening Sunday, May 13.

“He’s a perfectionist,” the Wheelwright’s Case Trading Post Manager Ken Williams said. “It shows in his work.”

The artist made his first silver pot in the early 1970s. He makes his own stamps (so far, he boasts more than 300) from concrete nails. He developed his own style of textures and overlays.

Countless critters scamper across his pottery and jewelry: Mimbres figures, dogs, cats, quail, owls, deer, goats and fish. His often whimsical pieces spill over with imagination.

“It’s just like painting to me,” Peshlakai said in a telephone interview from his Gallup home. “You can do landscaping or figures; you can do all kinds of things with your stamps.”

Some designs resemble intricate mazes of figures and textures. Others incorporate stones and gold.

“A lot of his work contains humor and whimsy,” Williams said. “That’s how he is as a person.”

The rounded silver seed pots provided some shaping challenges. At first they collapsed. Through trial and error, Peshlakai learned to shape two cup forms from flat sheets of silver, then solder the halves together, leaving no trace of a line.

A single animal involves several stamps, he said; one for the body, another for the face, the ears, the eyes and the legs.

“He doesn’t have one single stamp that stamps quail,” Williams explained. “His hummingbird is 12 different strokes.”

Peshlakai’s trademark Cowboy Slim figure was born in the early 1980s, often surrounded by a swirl of horses and horseshoes.

“That Slim Cowboy went through many variations,” he said. “Some didn’t have a cowboy hat.”

Then his wife, Linda, offered a suggestion. “My wife said, ‘Slim Cowboy looks lonely,’ ” he said. “You need to make him a girlfriend.”

The result was a cowgirl with curly hair cascading from her hat.

His “Peyote Dream” seed pot features a hallucinating face bookended by soaring birds and peyote buttons.

“I’m not really in the peyote ceremony,” he said. “I went to one ceremonial. That (piece) was from a magazine (article) and I was trying to understand the symbols.”

Sometimes regular customers ask for commissions, like “Woof’s Catch,” a dog catching a Frisbee.

He’s already working on his Indian Market pieces, including a pin of a woman driving a pickup, her dog’s ears soaring in the wind.

A graduate of Albuquerque’s Highland High School, Peshlakai attended what is now Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan.

A misunderstanding with an adviser landed him in a commercial house painting class, complete with overalls and a pail, instead of the painting class he wanted. All of the arts classes were full, except for a jewelry class, so he signed up to fulfill his credits.

He never took the jewelry class seriously, disliked soldering and had been skipping class when his teacher Clint Leon confronted him.

“He came up to me and said, ‘I miss you in class; you’re failing’,” Peshlakai said.

Leon told his student to bring his sketchbook, learn all the basic tools and create six pieces of jewelry. The teacher then photographed all of the student work and invited Peshlakai to look into the camera lens. The artist finally spotted his own nascent talent.

“It caught my eye,” he said. “It was through the lens of the camera that got me.”

The exhibition runs through Oct. 7 concurrently with “Memory Weaving: Works By Melanie Yazzie.”

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