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  • Shared Images: The Innovative Jewelry of Yazzie Johnson & Gail Bird
  • Richard Gay
Diana F. Pardue. Shared Images: The Innovative Jewelry of Yazzie Johnson & Gail Bird. Photography by Craig Smith. Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 2007. 187 pp. Color and black-and-white illustrations. Cloth, $45.00.

Among the most well known and innovative Native American jewelers, Yazzi Johnson (Navajo) and Gail Bird (Santo Domingo/Laguna) are noted for their elegant designs that incorporate unusual stones, often resembling landscapes, and nontraditional materials like pearls, opals, and dinosaur bone. This sumptuously illustrated volume is a must for anyone (collector, scholar, or admirer) interested in their work. Written by Diana F. Pardue, curator of collections at the Heard Museum, Phoenix, and expert in southwestern Native jewelry, the book coincides with an exhibition of the same name held February through June 2007 at the museum. This is not, however, an exhibition catalog in the traditional sense, with contextual essays followed by numbered entries about each item on display, but rather a monograph exploring themes, techniques, and most often stylistic features of the artists' work.

In three chapters the author presents the life and stylistic development of the artists. The chapter titles suggest a clearly defined focus, but the material covered is so interconnected that the chapters are rather similar in that they all focus on the stylistic development and to a large extent the thematic belts for which the artists are known. The first chapter, "Developing an Individualistic Style," covers biographical material, the nature of the artists' collaboration, and the early stylistic development of the duo. Childhood friends and collaborators since 1972, Johnson is the largely self-taught silversmith and Bird the perceptive designer. Chapter 2, "Creative Explorations," briefly acknowledges the influence of Charles Loloma (Hopi), specifically, his use of nontraditional materials and his inspiring the overlay technique employed by Johnson and Bird. Since they often use the overlay technique on the reverse of buckles and clasps, they like to refer to it as underlay. The last chapter, "Redefining Direction," is the shortest of the three and addresses the whimsical themes found in their belts beginning around 1995. It also includes brief discussion of other productions, like spoons and bolo ties. The book concludes with an appendix describing most of the artists' thematic belts in chronological order, concho by concho, and reproducing in black and white the reverse of the buckles.

Throughout the book are useful sidebars that explain metalwork techniques and how elements like conchos, bezels, and bolo tips are fabricated. Techniques as diverse as pulling wire, tufa casting, and cutting and polishing stones are succinctly explained and often illustrated with photographs of Johnson at work. The sidebars demystify jewelry production for the novice, and the images of [End Page 405] Johnson at work personalize the fabrication process, making the connection between the artist and viewer more intimate.

Beautifully illustrated throughout with photographs by Craig Smith, the book also includes long sections of images and captions that make the book a delight to page through. These sections leave the reader acutely aware of the tactile physical properties of the fine jewelry, which cannot be reproduced in a book but rather must be experienced.

The reader is left with a good sense of the rich variety of jewelry produced (belts, rings, bracelets, necklaces, earrings, etc.) and the exceptional quality of the work in terms of both its sophisticated design and its fabrication. One is also left with an understanding of the innovative spirit of the artists. When they first entered a thematic belt in competition at the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts Market in Santa Fe in 1979, it was rejected because it did not fit a traditional jewelry category. The problem was rectified with the creation of new categories the next year. Because of preconceived notions about Indian jewelry, viewers often question whether the artists' work is Indian or not, a query that Bird admits she likes. One also gets a sense of the enthusiasm for life, nature, and tradition that inspires the work. Each thematic belt is titled, an indication that the artists are more interested in fine art jewelry than mass production, and the titles, like Before...


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pp. 405-406
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