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Silversmith forges his own path with balance, harmony

Sterling silver canteen, a tribute to Harry Morgan, by Jacob Morgan. This uses a stamped swirl pattern from a canteen from the early 1990s. (Courtesy of Jacob Morgan)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Five generations of Navajo silversmiths flow through the veins of Jacob Morgan.

Now based in Rio Rancho, Morgan shapes and solders silver sheets and ingots into canteens, flasks, jewelry boxes and bracelets.

Morgan is one of about 1,000 artists who juried into the 2020 Santa Fe Indian Market. Now shuttered because of the pandemic, the market is online at swaia.org through Aug. 31.

Morgan grew up in Crownpoint, the son of renowned silversmith Harry Morgan, who was famous for his sand casting and stamp work.

Jacob Morgan at the 2015 Santa Fe Indian Market. (Courtesy of Jacob Morgan)

Jacob Morgan had no desire to follow in his famous father’s footsteps, citing an incident that occurred when he was 3 years old.

“I remember my Dad being escorted out of the house by the Navajo police,” he said. “He suffered from alcoholism his entire life. I just look back on his career and think how much greater it could have been.”

Sterling silver ingot whiskey flask, titled “’77 Reserve” by Jacob Morgan. He used a sterling silver ingot instead of a commercial sheet. The process involved melting down sterling silver, hot forging or hammering on an anvil and rolling the blank in a rolling mill to refine the surfaces to remove any indentations.

He also remembers his father taking out a sizeable loan from the tribe that he never paid off. The default saddled Jacob’s mother with the financial burden.

Despite the turmoil, Morgan graduated from Crownpoint High School in 1995 and headed straight into technical school, beginning with the culinary arts program.

But he didn’t like the “snarky people” and switched to a carpentry apprenticeship. He worked in construction in Albuquerque from 1996-2006 until an injury forced him to rethink his options.

“My back was literally broken from doing carpentry,” he said. “It kept getting worse and worse.”

Sterling silver bi-curve repoussé bracelet by Jacob Morgan. This features the repoussé or raising/relief stamping technique in an “s” bi- curve design, a difficult technique due to the intersecting angles and bevels.

A 2005 golf outing with his oldest brother Kelly became a wake-up call. His brother warned him that all of their father’s wisdom and technique would disappear with his death if no one followed him. Harry Morgan died in 2007.

“That really struck a chord with me,” Morgan said.

He quickly built himself a bench, bought tools and started practicing with copper.

As a child, Morgan and his siblings sometimes sat and watched their father work. “He was very good about philosophical ideas,” he said. “I’d ask him why you did this, why you did that and he would explain it to me.”

Sterling silver concho repoussé jewelry box by Jacob Morgan. This is a true test of a native silversmith, requiring all facets of the trade, Morgan says. It required the soldering of two sections of sterling silver sheet. From the soldering of sections to stamping to shaping and making sure all the pieces fit flush together, it is one of the most challenging projects.

Later they would work together twice.

“It was like learning it all over again,” Morgan said. “It was easy on the body and it had more meaning. I was very, very stubborn about using my own tools and coming up with my own designs. He understood my stubbornness and my need to do it my own way.”

Today, Morgan rarely works out those designs on paper.

“Whether the piece has a stone or not, it’s like a puzzle,” he said. “I’m really stubborn; I don’t replicate pieces. I didn’t want to replicate my Dad’s designs.

He also rejects historic Navajo motifs.

“I refuse to make a living through past designs,” he added. “I see no honor in it.”

Jacob says he focuses his style on balance and harmony, the twin gospels of Navajo culture. He often incorporates a reference to the number four, symbolic of the four sacred mountains and directions.

He designed a sterling silver canteen as a tribute to his father. The swirl on the front of the body references a stamp pattern from one of Harry Morgan’s early canteens.

“It’s really tricky because you have to stamp those conchos,” he said. Twisting the wire to frame the sides also proved challenging.

Sterling silver split band ring, 2019, by Jacob Morgan.

“It’s actually square wire, but you have to slowly twist it. If you use too much solder, you fill up those tiny grooves.”

“77 Reserve” is a sterling whiskey flask. To create the piece, Morgan melted a silver ingot, hot forging or hammering on an anvil and rolling the blank in a mill to refine the surfaces.

“I love Jameson Irish Whiskey,” he said. “I’ve always considered it as kind of a treat, not a lifestyle.”

The unembellished space is deliberate, he said, adding that Harry Morgan compared the old muscle cars of the ’60s to today’s sticker-happy Nascar.

“One of the most important things he ever taught me was to leave something for the eye. That’s the art of less is more. It takes a lot of time to make things simplistic.”

Morgan centered a piece of Royston turquoise atop an oval silver concho repoussé or raised jewelry box. The relief is hammered from the reverse side. The vessel’s curves proved challenging.

“There’s really no mold you can shape it on,” Morgan said. The artist placed a sheet of silver on a pipe and hammered it to produce the elliptical shape.

Morgan juried into his first Santa Fe Indian Market in 2009w, where he took first place for a sterling silver jewelry box.

In 2010, he began showing his work at the Heard Indian Fair and Market in Phoenix. Today 14 ribbons flutter in his collection, most of them from Santa Fe. In 2014, he contributed two pieces to the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts “inspirational Women” and the International Folk Art Market collaborative concho belts. SWAIA is the Indian Market umbrella organization.

Morgan moved to Rio Rancho in 2009. Today, he gleans most of his sales from his website and Instagram.

He says he wasn’t surprised by the closing of Indian Market.

“I am grateful and thankful for the market shows,” he said. “But with the technology we have now, we don’t have to be in a gallery or a market.”

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