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Coe exhibit showcases nickel silver jewelry

A tiara by Bruce Caesar, from 1975. (Courtesy of The Coe Center)

Native jewelry made of nickel? Who knew?

Actually, there are plenty of collectors who are aware of nickel silver jewelry, but the metal has never gotten the same attention as silver.

An exhibit at the Ralph T. Coe Center for the Arts in Santa Fe aims to change that. The under-the-radar museum is showcasing the nickel artistry of the Caesar family of Andarko, Oklahoma, starting with an opening event on Thursday, Dec. 12.

Located at 1590-B Pacheco Street, the Coe Center was founded in 2011 with a legacy and collection endowed by the late Ralph T. “Ted” Coe. The museum is open only on the first Friday of the month and by appointment.

According to the museum’s website, Coe believed that “art can bring people together and should be accessible by all, regardless of their background.” Unlike traditional museums, the Coe allows visitors to touch the roughly 2,500 objects in its collection.

That will not be the case, however, during the Thursday gathering of jewelers and collectors for “How It Was Handed to Me: The Caesar Family Legacy,” explained curator Bess Murphy.

Julius Caesar (Pawnee) and Pearl Caesar (Sac and Fox) created these earrings of nickel silver, with beads and tanned leather backings, in the 1940s.

The mission is to explore the process of how Native jewelers pass their skills on to the next generation. Members of the Caesar family, including Bruce Caesar, will be on hand. Also expected to attend are jewelers Cody Sanderson, Adrian Standing Elk Pinnecoose, Pat Pruitt and J.J. Otero, to name just a few.

The public event will feature nickel jewelry, some of which is on loan and some of which will be for sale.

It is the first exhibition in Santa Fe to focus on Plains jewelry created from nickel silver, an alloy of copper, zinc and nickel. Despite its name and appearance, the metal contains no silver.

Murphy said nickel has never gotten the attention that silver has in Native jewelry circles, first and foremost because it is not as valuable. However, it doesn’t tarnish as quickly as silver, and is lighter and brighter. As a result, nickel silver has often been used for tiaras, armbands and other items associated with powwows, particularly among Plains Indians, she said.

Murphy, who has a Ph.D. in art history from the University of Southern California, has been curator of the Coe for about a year. Its benefactor left the museum a small endowment, but the institution relies on donations and grants to keep going.

Most of the works in “How It Was Handed to Me” were created by the Caesar family, beginning with Julius Caesar, who has been referred to as “the dean of contemporary Native American metalsmiths.” He established a family legacy that was passed on to his son Bruce, who in turn has handed it down to his own children.

Bruce Caesar made this baby cup around 1980. (Courtesy of The Coe Center)

In addition to passing down his legacy to his son, Julius Caesar is known for being a pioneer “in bridging the gulf between commercial and noncommercial aspects of jewelry making,” Murphy said.

“How It Was Handed to Me” was organized by jeweler Kenneth Johnson (Muscogee/Seminole), who is a member of the Coe’s board of directors. The exhibition is sponsored by Palace Jewelers at Manitou Galleries.

Asked why jewelry makers and collectors in New Mexico would be interested in the work of their counterparts in Oklahoma, Murphy said she didn’t think tribalism divided the Native jewelry-making community, though she conceded there are exceptions. Furthermore, there are Native artists from all over the country living in Santa Fe, she said.

Those who want to have a hands-on experience with the Coe collection should make an appointment for a tour. Murphy said that events such as “How It Was Handed to Me” attract too many visitors for the museum to allow patrons to have an interactive experience, mostly because of security concerns.

Before Coe died in 2010 after living in Santa Fe for 30 years, he often opened his home to members of the public to see his collection. “He would invite anyone to come into his home – researchers, curators, even the plumber,” Murphy said.

For more information, go to www.coeartscenter.org or call 505-983-6372.

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