Sunday, June 28, 2015

Jim and Lauris Phillips Center for the Study of Southwestern Jewelry

The Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian was founded in 1937 by a philanthropist from Boston, Mary Cabot Wheelwright, and her collaborator, a Navajo, Hastiin Kllah. The original building was built in the shape of a Hogan, the traditional Navajo house. 

In 2011, I wrote a missive about the plans of the Wheelwright to build an extension to their institution to house a Center for the Study of Southwestern Jewelry.  The project had been discussed and debated for some time that there needed to be permanent galleries and installations since the museum had been conceived as a museum of Navajo ceremonial art, and, after repatriation of the sacred objects, it developed as a Kunsthalle for exhibitions of the work of individual Native artists and also historical subjects.  We have been coming out here for 25 years and known the director of the Wheelwright, Jonathan Batkin, during that time and the shows have been among the very best in town.

Finally, this June the long awaited goal of galleries for the permanent collection was reached and we attended the opening.   Though the museum had been donated some silver in the past when it was decided that silver and jewelry would be the focus of the permanent galleries the first major purchase was a collection of Native American silver spoons in 2002.

Martha Hopkins Struever, a dealer and collector for whom the main gallery is named has also been a major influence in the lives of many Native jewelers through mentoring and acquisition of their work. Over the course of the campaign, she directed many donors to the Wheelwright and, I suspect, was behind many of the anonymous gifts.

Photo Credit: Jonathan Batkin

Jack and Ann Stewman had scoured the country for an institution that they felt would appreciate their Native jewelry collection and when they saw the 2005 exhibition of Hopi jeweler Charles Loloma at the Wheelwright and met its dynamic director they knew they had found what they were looking for. They promised their collection as well as additional funds to kick off the last leg of a fund raising campaign to be able to add the wing for the study center.

They say good things come in threes and in this case it was Lauris Phillips known as a voracious collector and dealer in the field of Southwest Jewelry who donated her personal collection of rare early pieces in 2010. 

We attended the afternoon opening and it commenced with a prayer by the Navajo sand painter and silversmith, Joe Ben and his son Zachariah giving a blessing.   Joe Ben spoke about the great influence and assistance both Marti Struever and Lovena Ohl, another major dealer in the field had been.  After a short prayer song outside the doors of the new center the director went inside the galleries with the Bens who did two blessing songs in private as requested by the Navajo.  The door was left part way open so that those crowded into the ante room could hear but not see.

From left Zachariah, Joe Ben, Jonathan Batkin with artist Jonathan Lorretto

At the members’ opening the next day we saw Zachariah Ben demonstrate his sand painting technique.

After the blessing we were invited back to a large tent where tables and chairs were set out and food and drink were provided.  The director then thanked the many people who were involved in one way or another in the success of this monumental endeavor.  Wisely, we were given individual time slots to see the galleries so that they never got too crowded.  Since this first day was for donors and artists the pecking order was obvious by the times assigned!

The galleries are truly beautifully done with recessed vitrines in wood paneling.  Inside each case, on  the left and sometimes right side as well there are general didactic labels giving the history of what is in the case.  The silver and jewelry are beautifully mounted in the center of the case and below labels lighted from underneath have images of the pieces and brief label copy.  The cases are in roughly chronological order starting out in the late 19th century and going through to contemporary.  Some are devoted to bracelets, concho belts or horse bridles and others have the work of single tribe such as the thunderbird jewelry of Santa Domingo (Kewa) Pueblo or an individual artist such as Charles Loloma.

Photo credit: Jonathan Batkin

 True to its title as a study center Johnathan Batkin has assembled unique documentation of the field. In 1995 he was able to negotionate  the donation and management of the archive of John Adair (1913-1997) an anthropologist who  was the first to research the origins and early history of Native American silversmithing.  He wrote the seminal book on “Navajo and Pueblo Silversmiths” in 1944.  The museum has continued to acquire documentation about early Southwest silversmiths and even some of their original tools making  the Center a must place to go for in depth study in the field.

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