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Hammering out legislation, New Mexico style

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, commissioned Dylan Weller and Douglas Magnus to make a new gavel for the New Mexico House of Representatives. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

New Mexico Speaker of the House Brian Egolf has a new handmade gavel, one that epitomizes the state’s rich history and culture.

On the first day of the Legislature, Egolf showed off his gavel and announced to his colleagues that it was a gift to the House made by local artists from local materials.

Egolf didn’t have time for an interview, but he did issue a statement to Journal North on the significance of the mallet.

“We are fortunate to have one of the most beautiful Capitol buildings in the country, filled with art created by countless New Mexico artists,” Egolf wrote. “Now, the House of Representatives will have another fine work of art in the Speaker’s gavel, thanks to master craftsmen Douglas Magnus and Dylan Weller. I am grateful for their creativity and generosity. This beautiful gavel will belong to the House for future Legislatures.”

A gavel commissioned by House Speaker Brian Egolf is adorned with a silver Zia symbol. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The walnut mallet with beveled edges is embellished with a sterling silver Zia symbol and adorned with turquoise from a mine in Cerrillos.

It is a collaboration of woodworker Weller, and jewelry maker and silversmith Magnus, who has been an artisan in Santa Fe for nearly five decades.

The gavel that Egolf is using was donated to the House by Weller and Magnus. But they are working on a replica that will be the speaker’s personal property.

Both of the artists have worked on projects separately for the House Speaker, but the gavel marks the first collaboration between the two. It was Egolf who brought the duo together.

Weller is uniquely qualified to design such a powerful symbol of the state legislature. The Santa Fe native holds a doctorate in political theory from Johns Hopkins University. Before becoming a professional woodworker, he taught American Political Theory and American Nationalism for Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York.

The career path from professor to woodworker may strike some as odd, but it mirrors the professional choices of Weller’s father, who became a woodworker after earning a Ph.D. in philosophy.

In his American Nationalism class, Weller explored the power of symbols and objects, such as flags, buildings like the Pentagon and pieces of paper, such as the U.S. Constitution.

“When I was thinking about designs for the gavel, I thought a lot about the idea of crafting legislation, and the hard work and compromise involved,” Weller said. As a result, he chose a mallet design similar to what he uses for woodworking instead of the more common cylindrical shape.

“Creating a gavel with a utilitarian quality appealed to us,” he said. “New Mexico is fairly earthy in terms of the history of craft and we wanted the gavel to reflect that.”

Weller said he chose walnut as the wood for the gavel because of its sturdiness and because its color would complement the silver and turquoise that Egolf wanted for embellishment.

Walnut isn’t native to New Mexico, but it is sold by Alpine Builders Supply on Water Street. According to Weller, Alpine is the only hardware store that sells high-quality wood suitable to make furniture and decorative objects.

Featuring the Zia symbol on the gavel was a natural since it adorns the state flag, Weller said. Asked to define what the symbol means, he said it reflects the state’s Native American roots and the four directions.

Weller said he came to Egolf’s attention after designing and building furniture for other members of the Speaker’s law firm, Egolf + Ferlic + Martinez + Harwood.

Magnus said he can’t remember exactly when he met Egolf, but thinks it was around 2012. That’s when a turquoise bolo tie that Magnus designed to commemorate the 100th anniversary of statehood was featured on the cover of New Mexico magazine.

Not long after that, Egolf and other legislators asked him to make another one for Ben Luján, who served as Speaker of the House from 2001-12, Magnus said.

A California native, Magnus came to Santa Fe after a two-year stint in the U.S. Army at Fort Bliss, in El Paso.

He first worked as a staff photographer in the City Different for a magazine called Sage, where he had access to a darkroom, a necessity for professionals in the pre-digital days. After Sage folded, he got assignments from such national publications as Time and Newsweek, but soon realized that, without free access to a darkroom, photography wasn’t going to be a viable career for him.

Magnus got his feet wet in the jewelry business as a trader of Native American pieces. He said he became a jeweler himself after spending $6 to buy some copper and a jeweler’s saw.

“I had an epiphany watching someone hammer silver dimes and make buttons out of them. I thought, ‘I could do this myself,’ ” he said.

His first creations were concho belts that he was able to sell to friends, and to trade for materials and equipment. “I moved from copper into brass and silver in rapid order,” he said.

His big breakthrough came when a friend showed him a abandoned mine off a dirt road in Cerrillos. Magnus was able to find small pieces of turquoise in the mine that he used in his work.

As his reputation spread and his business grew, Magnus hired others to work on his creations and even acquired some abandoned turquoise mines in Cerrillos in 1988.

Magnus said his ownership of the Cerrillos mines brought Egolf to him a few years ago when the representative from District 47 wanted a belt buckle featuring New Mexico turquoise. Last year, Egolf hired Magnus to make a bolo tie for him because “every Speaker needs a bolo.”

Turquoise from a Cerrillos mine and silver decorate a walnut gavel designed by Dylan Weller and Douglas Magnus for House Speaker Brian Egolf. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Embellishing the gavel was one of the most difficult commissions of his career, Magnus said, because of the requirement that the silver and turquoise remain attached to the wood despite constant pounding and because of the gavel’s beveled edges.

“Sooner or later, everything comes loose. I had to buy special drills to make sure everything was precise. Even 1/64th of an inch could make a difference,” he said.

One reason the project was so challenging for him is that Magnus gave up doing his own handwork in 1990. “My skills had become rusty. But I was determined to do every bit of the work myself,” he said.

Magnus is hard at work on the second gavel, the one that will belong to Egolf. This time, the learning curve isn’t as steep. Still, he said, “All I can think and dream about is the silver pieces for the gavel. I do almost all my work in my head first.”