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Wheelwright Museum opens its first gallery devoted to Native American jewelry

SANTA FE – From the sculpted geography of a Loloma bracelet to the turquoise needlepoint of a Zuni ring, the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian is opening its first gallery devoted to the study of Native American jewelry.

Silver necklace by Navajo silversmith McKee Platero, circa 2000. (Courtesy of Addison Doty)

Silver necklace by Navajo silversmith McKee Platero, circa 2000. (Courtesy of Addison Doty)

The result of more than 20 years of collecting and studying Navajo and Pueblo adornment, the center sprawls across 1,600 square feet of space permanently dedicated to historic and contemporary jewelry.

A second, 400-square-foot gallery will show changing thematic exhibitions. Both evolved from a $3.5 million, 7,000-square-foot expansion and renovation culled from private donations, the first in the museum’s 78-year history.

“It just seemed like jewelry was a natural for a lot of reasons,” Director Jonathan Batkin said. “In most institutions, jewelry is treated like a footnote. We wanted to do something no one else was doing.”

Collectors from across the country donated much of the jewelry.

The exhibit showcases a squash blossom necklace made by the first innovative Navajo silversmith known as Slender Maker of Silver. His living descendants call him “Slim,” Batkin said.

“The craftsmanship is amazing, the design is beautiful,” he said. “It represents some of the earliest stone placement in Navajo silversmithing.”

In 2010, California collector and trader Lauris Phillips offered the Wheelwright her vast collection. Dating from the 1960s, it includes a second necklace created by Slender Maker of Silver, which was once displayed at the Hearst Castle in San Simeon, Calif.

Two of Slender Maker’s sons, Fred and Frank Peshlakai, also became silversmiths. Considered one of the masters of 20th-century silver work, in 1925 Fred worked briefly at Maisel’s Indian Trading Post in Albuquerque. He was known both for his design genius as well as the high quality of his stones.

The peninsula of cases shelters works by some of the most recognizable names in Native American jewelry: Charles Loloma, Preston Monongye, the dramatic cabochons of Gail Bird and Yazzie Johnson, the traditional/contemporary fusions of Liz Wallace, the handmade beads of Joe and Terry Reano, the petipoint of Zuni master Edith Tsabetsaye.

Organizers have devoted a case to Santo Domingo (Kewa Pueblo) thunderbird jewelry, another to bridles and spurs and another to Zuni inlay and fetish carving that features pioneers like Leekya Dayuse, Teddy Weahkee and others.

The Wheelwright jewelry collection started with donations from Byron Harvey III, the great-grandson of railroad impresario Fred Harvey, to former Wheelwright director Bertha Dutton in the 1970s, curator Cheri Falkenstien-Doyle said. An anthropologist, Harvey became an expert on and collector of artwork by Southwestern pueblos and tribes. The 1970s also marked the donation of more than 150 Zuni fetishes by Santa Fe art patron Leonora Scott Curtin.

A second impetus came in 2005, when a Chicago couple named Jack and Ann Stewman contributed their collection of contemporary jewelry. They made the offer with the stipulation that it be displayed regularly and not languish in a vault. The group includes pieces by such artistic luminaries as Loloma (Hopi), Monongye, (Mission; raised at Hopi) and Harvey Begay (Navajo).

A Navajo hair comb dating to 1895. It is of handwrought silver.

A Navajo hair comb dating to 1895. It is of handwrought silver.

In 1995, the museum reached an agreement with anthropologist John Adair, the author of “Navajo and Pueblo Silversmiths” (1944) to acquire his field notes and archives. Adair’s book is still considered the most important published on the history of Southwestern jewelry, Batkin said.

A wooden workbench once owned by Manuel Naranjo anchors the opening exhibition, Naranjo made jewelry at the old Maisel’s Indian Trading Post, then at Kohlberg’s in Denver.

“He literally worked in the window on that workbench,” Batkin said. “He made the bench using a sewing machine treadle as the base. We originally bought that bench as a prop for the Case Trading Post.

“We’re trying to give an encyclopedic overview.”

Mary Cabot Wheelwright founded the hogan-shaped institution bearing her name in 1937, when it was designated the Museum of Navajo Ceremonial Art. Over the years, museum personnel have voluntarily repatriated medicine bundles and other spiritual items to the Navajo Nation.

Today that mission has shifted away from such sensitive materials to the contemporary and historic secular arts of the Native people of the Southwest.