Native American jewelry has a long history in the Southwest, but few people truly appreciate the significance of this art form. The Heard Museum, a Phoenix-based museum dedicated to advancing Native American jewelry and arts, has been trying to change that since 1929. Diana Pardue, chief curator at the Heard Museum, joined the Jewelry Journey Podcast to talk about how Native American jewelry has changed over the years, the innovative techniques that Native American jewelers have used, and which indigenous jewelers you should be paying attention to today. Read the episode transcript below.
Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. Today, my guest is Diana Pardue, chief curator at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona, and the author of several books on contemporary southwestern jewelry, one of which was written in conjunction with the Heard Museum. Today, Diana will help us expand both our knowledge of and appreciation for contemporary southwestern jewelry. Diana, welcome to the program.
Diana: Sharon, it’s so nice to join you today. Thank you for having me.
Sharon: Thank you for being here. I’m so excited, because being in the Southwest, we know about southwestern jewelry, but I don’t know how much the rest of the world knows. It’s great to be talking about it today. Can you tell us about your jewelry journey? Did it start with southwestern jewelry or Native American jewelry, or did you come to it by a more circuitous route?
Diana: My interest in Native American jewelry really developed at the Heard Museum. When I began working here in 1978, one of the first exhibits we had was a retrospective exhibit for Charles Loloma, who was perhaps the one jeweler who changed contemporary Native American jewelry more than any other. With the opportunity to work with the incredible jewelry collection here at the Heard, it opened so many doors for me. The collection is enriched by those examples that Maie and Dwight Heard collected, and by the wonderful and significant additions that came throughout the 90 years of the museum.
Sharon: Was your path to the museum through museum studies? Did you come to the museum and then get involved in jewelry, or did you just want to be at a museum?
Diana: I went to Arizona to go graduate school and I was interested in museums, and it was really fortunate for me. I did a little volunteer work, but graduate school was so demanding, I didn’t have much time for that. As I completed my courses of study for that two-year period, the summer I completed studies, I was offered a position to do some cataloguing at the Heard Museum, and I never left. I was then offered a permanent position after a year.
Sharon: Can you tell us about the Heard? Maybe people out here know it, but a lot of people have probably never heard of the Heard. You mentioned who founded it. I don’t know that story. I’d love to hear it.
Diana: Yes, Maie and Dwight Heard moved to Arizona in the winter of 1894 to 95, and they moved here for the dry climate. Dwight Heard was involved in real estate and crop production, particularly cotton; he raised cattle and at one point, he owned a newspaper. Maie Heard was very active in different civic duties. She eventually donated the land that became the Phoenix Public Library, the Phoenix Art Museum and the Phoenix Little Theater. They were so fascinated by the artworks here in the Southwest that they began collecting, and their collection outgrew their home, or so the story goes. So, they began planning a museum specifically for the collection. They increased their collecting for that purpose, and the museum opened in December of 1929.
Sharon: And it focuses on Native American jewelry—more than jewelry, but also the arts?
Diana: Native American arts across the U.S. Also, we do have a lot of Canadian artists represented here. There’s somewhat of an emphasis on the Southwest, but not exclusively. More recently we’ve been looking at how Native American art fits into a more global discussion, and we’ve had some exhibits. Our recent one was David Hockney and California basketry, and prior to that, Henri Matisse and Yup’ik masks. We’re looking at this interchange or exchange of cultures.
Sharon: Wow! It sounds very interesting. You didn’t study art history, so is this something where you’re researching and learning for each exhibit? How did that go?
Diana: Actually, I did study art history. My graduate degree was in anthropology, but after working here for a period of time, I went back to school at ASU and took about 18 graduate hours in art history, just to have a different perspective. There have been a lot of opportunities to meet artists, to meet other scholars, to work with different people from indigenous cultures while working here. It’s been a very enriching experience to work at the Heard Museum.
Sharon: It sounds like it. Enriching sounds like a good word for it. You’re an expert on contemporary southwestern jewelry, and that involves Native American or indigenous cultures across North America. Can you give us an overview of the timeline as to how it changed from what is considered traditional turquoise—that tourist-bought, pawn stuff in the 40s? How did it change?
Diana: I think it began to dramatically change around mid-century. The person who had the greatest impact on contemporary jewelry was Charles Loloma, who I mentioned previously. He studied ceramics at Alfred University and moved to the Southwest. He began working at the Kiva Crafts Center with Lloyd Kiva in Scottsdale in the late 50s, and it was around that time he began making jewelry. Some of the changes he made were so dramatic, not only with materials he used, but also his design concepts were really unique. A lot of southwestern jewelry is formed by a type of casting where you take a volcanic stone or rock, slice it into two pieces, and you carve out the design you want. Then you melt silver or gold and pour it into the cast. Prior to Loloma, the form was thin, polished and very smooth, but one of the things Loloma did was leave the surfaces rough with the texture of the cast. Another he did that was different at the time was use unusual materials, like lapis lazuli, which is a blue stone, or turolight, which is a purply, white stone. He used pearls on occasion, and he also used wood, including ironwood, which is indigenous to the area. He used fossilized ivory, too. He combined all of these in complex inlays.
Another thing he did that dramatically changed contemporary jewelry was in the early 60s, he was asked by a colleague at the Institute of American Indian Arts, where Charles Loloma was teaching, to make a ring. He made a ring for the colleague, but he also lined the interior with inlay. He began to use that concept. He would line the interior of bracelets; he also lined the reverse of side of buckles. His design sense was so incredible that he opened the doors for other artists who followed him. Because his work was so accepted, they could experiment and do different things as well.
Sharon: You would call it the dividing line, in a sense.
Diana: His work is a change in point in Native American jewelry, yes. It was so dramatic. If you think about the traditional and beautiful work we all still appreciate, like traditional contra belts or squash blossom necklaces and bracelets, his work was such a divergence from that, yet so well done and beautifully executed in concept and in technique. It really made a difference.
Sharon: And today the pricing is astronomical, too, if you can even find a piece. In our email exchanges, you mentioned Kenneth Begay and the Hogan House. Can you tell us about that?
Diana: This is another mid-century artist who was quite remarkable. The White Hogan opened in Scottsdale in 1950. They relocated their business from northern Arizona. Kenneth Begay was one of the silversmiths who worked there into the 1970s. Again, he was not only an expert with technical skills, but also beautiful designs, and he made a lot of different things. He made teapots and service ware; he made a chess set. The experimentation and diversity of objects was quite remarkable. His technical skill was impeccable and his design sense, again, so beautiful.
Sharon: You’re the author of several books, and your recent one focused on two artists. Can you tell us about that?
Diana: I was quite honored in 2007 to work with Yazzie Johnson and Gail Bird for a retrospective of their jewelry. Their work is unique on many levels. One of the things we wanted to highlight and feature was their thematic belts. The traditional contra belt, the buckle and each section of the belt are unique and different, and it plays to the theme of the belt. I think they’re approaching 60 belts now in their career. They made their first one in the 1970s. Some years they would make two, and some years one. They’ve taken one of the concepts that Loloma started. The reverse of their buckles usually has a design that’s an overlay. Overlay is taking one sheet of metal, cutting out a design and placing it over another. But they’ve also made extraordinary necklaces, sometimes out of pearls, sometimes out of gemstones. They will insert bezel-set stones they call “satellites” into the necklaces, and the reverse side of the bezel, which is the piece that holds the stone, usually has a design also in overlay. They’re remarkable jewelers, and I was so pleased and honored to have a chance to work with him.
Sharon: It sounds so intricate what they’re doing. Was this the catalogue for the exhibit that grew into the book? How did that happen?
Diana: We planned the book to accompany the exhibit that opened at the same time.
Sharon: Wow! Are you working on anything now?
Diana: We’re going to open an exhibit in March called “Small Wonders,” and we’re drawing in jewelry the same way. I’m working with assistant curator Bill McCray on this project. We’re using the Heard Collection, and everything will be a small format. There are things you would anticipate, like rings and brooches, but there are some wonderful, whimsical things. There’s a small, miniature teapot. There’s a little table and chairs by Shawn Bluejacket; the table is less than two inches in size. There’s another tree house she made with a slide, and everything is made out of metal. There’s real beauty to the work, and also parts of it that are very whimsical. For example, a lot of artists have made brooches in the shape of butterflies, so we’ll have a whole collection of art displayed showing those things. That opens in March this year. That’s what we’re working on currently.
Sharon: Is the museum open now? Did you have to close for a while?
Diana: We closed for a short period. We closed St. Patrick’s Day and then we opened June 1. We’re open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 until 4, so our hours are a little shorter. We have a lot of safety precautions in place. We ask all of our visitors to wear a mask. We have hand sanitizer stations. We have directional arrows on the floor to help people move comfortably. We also have audio tours for two of our main exhibits, our permanent exhibit “HOME: Native People in the Southwest” and the boarding school exhibit called “Away From Home: American Indian Boarding School Stories.” For each of those, our visitors can download an app for an audio tour.
Sharon: They both sound interesting, but I’m intrigued by the boarding school stories, because we’ve heard such horror stories. I feel for the people who, from what I’ve heard, were yanked from their homes and their families and put in boarding schools and had to learn a new culture. Maybe that’s my preconception.
Diana: Well, that’s a part of the story. Boarding schools have had a long history, and we try to present an objective view of those.
Sharon: I’m sure my viewpoint is not that objective. It sounds like a fascinating exhibit. The museum also does an Indian market. Can you tell us about that? I’ve heard so much about that.
Diana: It’s always the first weekend in March, and we’re looking forward to it this year. It may be a bit different than in the past because of the pandemic, but we will have the event, and we’ll have information about it on our website available soon. We will be hosting it this year as in past years; it’s just that it will be a different format.
Sharon: But you will still have it?
Diana: We’ll have it. We probably won’t have the artists here as in the past, so I’ll have to change the format. Some of it will be virtual.
Sharon: I’m out in Los Angeles. With so much happening in New York and other places, virtual stuff has been fabulous for me, because I don’t have to jump on a plane. Wherever this is virtually, I’d love to see that. Who should we follow now in contemporary Southwest jewelry? Who’s on the horizon, or who’s ascending? What should we keep our eyes on?
Diana: There are so many amazing artists. Yazzie Johnson and Gail Bird are still very active. Richard Chavez, Jessie Mondy—if I say anything else, I’ll leave out someone. There are some amazing artists. We had an exhibit in 2007 called “Young Jewelers.” At the time, there were several jewelers who were starting their careers. Some were pretty well established: Richard Chavez’ son, Jared, Dylan Pokmano, Keri Ataumbi, Maria Samora, Liz Wallace—I’m going to leave out a whole bunch of people—the Keshaun brothers. There’s so much talent. It’s an amazing spectrum. You mentioned the 2007 book “Contemporary Southwestern Jewelry.” On the cover of that book is a reversible necklace by Charlene Briano, a complex inlay. Her work is amazing. I apologize to everybody I didn’t mention.
Sharon: It sounds like a world we need to know more about. I haven’t seen your other books, but I have to say the necklace on the cover of “Contemporary Southwestern Jewelry” is fabulous. And the photography—for those listening, if you get a chance to look at the book, it’s amazing and beautiful. I’m sure the others are just as nice. What’s on your wish list for the museum? Have you been acquiring, or do people donate? How do you expand your collection?
Diana: Both of those options. Some of our best donors are close constituents or trustees. We have the Heard Museum Guild, which is a volunteer organization of members, but then we have people who visit the Heard and have a good experience and like the exhibits and programs we do, and they will donate. We’ve had wonderful support from different individuals: Bill and Kathy Howard, Norman Sandfield and others who’ve contributed funds so we can purchase items. We tend to purchase a range of things, mostly contemporary works. One of our efforts is to show the continuum in Native American art. We’ve got a good strength in early works, and there’s such talent. There are so many contemporary artists we tend to purchase.
Sharon: I’ve learned a lot listening to you. You mentioned Liz Wallace. Where is she?
Diana: She’s in Santa Fe.
Sharon: O.K., I keep confusing her with somebody else. Anyway, I have learned a lot. I was thinking this was more regional, whereas you’re looking globally, it sounds like.
Diana: Pretty much the U.S. and Canada is our primary focus. So yes, outside of the Southwest.
Sharon: This is the last question: do you have overlap with the Phoenix Art Museum? Because you’re located in the same area, is there overlap in terms of what you’re both exhibiting or collecting?
Diana: We talk with them about different partnerships we can do. Their collection is very different from ours. Sometimes our programs or interests overlap, but their collections are American art rather than Native American art, although they do have some Native American artists in their collection. Certainly, we have good colleagues there and are in communication with them.
Sharon: I hope everybody gets a chance to visit both museums the next time they’re in Arizona. The Heard Museum, no pun intended, is a gem of a museum. It’s not that well-known, but its collection is amazing because of the artists you’ve mentioned today as well as the others doing not just jewelry, but art. Diana, thank you so much for being here today. We all appreciate it. I think we’ve learned a lot. For those listening, thanks so much for being a listener of the Jewelry Journey. You can download the podcast wherever you find your podcasts, and please rate us. We’ll be back next time with another jewelry-related professional. Thank you so much for listening.