Studio Notes: Navajo Silversmith Navigates Life to Create Beauty
In the November 2017 issue of Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist you’ll find a sterling silver canteen on page 67 made by Gallup, NM, silversmith Lyndon Tsosie. The image is part of a lush package of jewelry stamp stories by Sharon Elaine Thompson and Jeff Fulkerson.
But there isn’t a lot about this Navajo artist. So I use this as an excuse to track him down and interview him. To my surprise, Tsosie is candid about the role alcohol and drugs played in his early years as an artist. The takeaway is that people recognized his talent early on, and gave him critical support so he could find himself as a Navajo, a person and an artist.
His start: Lyndon, 49, took a few silversmithing classes at Tohatchi High School in New Mexico to avoid homework. He preferred partying to academics. At 21, unemployed and saddled with a bad drinking habit, he got a job in a jewelry manufacturing company’s stamping unit to help support his new family. When he and his wife moved to Albuquerque so she could attend college, Tsosie made stamped jewelry in their tiny apartment and tried to sell it at retail shops. “Sometimes it was a hit and sometimes it wasn’t.”
Pivotal Moment #1 — Flat Broke: Tsosie and his young daughter were in town one day, when he spotted Southwestern Indian Jewelry by Dexter Cirillo at a book store. “I could not believe the stunning jewelry American Indians could make. I was flabbergasted and looked and looked at the book, and then I looked at the price. It was $65. I had $75 in my fanny pack. We had no food at home and this $75 was for food. We were broke. I sat on a bench outside for 20 minutes trying to figure out what to do as my daughter walked around.”
He bought the book.
“From that day on something jumped out in me. I didn’t have the tools. But I had enough silver to build new pieces and sell more and survive. I wanted to be famous. I wanted to be known.”
Pivotal Moment #2 — His first critic: Tsosie acquired tools, equipment, diamond wheels and stones one at a time as he sold his jewelry. He also asked a lot of questions at Thunderbird Supply. And he continued to party. One time he finished an inlay bracelet he was proud of. When he showed it to friends, they thought it was cool. Then he showed it to a known jeweler. “He said, ‘Damn. Were you f—– up when you made this?’ ” Tsosie laughs. “That gave me hope to create better.”
Pivotal Moment #3 — A Talk: By 1995, Tsosie was divorced and living with his young daughter in Chinle, AZ, near the heart of Navajo Country. On May 2 of that year, he was hired to inlay stones into a 5-inch-long silver feather at a gallery belonging to Teddy Draper, Jr. After working for several hours, Draper took him aside at noon and talked to him for the next five hours about who Navajos are as a people. “Something resonated in me and that day I wanted to change my life. In our culture there is no face of god. Instead, there’s beauty. It’s when you get up before the sun and go outside and you see that sun on the horizon, that’s enough.”
Tsosie has been sober 21 years, a jeweler 27. He runs several businesses, including the House of Stamps and a gallery, and shows his jewelry in Japan, where he has a major following. His work is also prized by collectors in the United States.
What does it take to be successful? “Hard work.”
When do you know you’re successful? “You don’t know it or see it or realize it until you have the collectors, and they say ‘how much?’ And you say, ‘$56,000,’ and they write out a check.”
But that isn’t the best measure.
“There’s this long road of what has transpired. In my head I still don’t think I’ve got it made. I’m still learning. I’m still learning about life, how to live, how to be a husband and father, how to be a friend.”
Betsy Lehndorff has been writing for Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist since 2010. Her story on Colorado diamonds appears in the September-October issue and she will be writing about her experience in Kate Wolf’s class in 2018, along with her grant-writing adventures as a silversmith. You can reach her at email@example.com.