I first started to research Sally Wagner Lippincott several years ago. She was the legendary owner of the Wide Ruins Trading Post. Her sense of what made a beautiful weaving was striking. She was not impressed with many of the intricate and detailed designs that were winning ribbons at various fairs.
She said, "Unfortunately, the judging of crafts work is based on technical difficulty more than aesthetic quality. Handsome simplicity in design is often more pleasing.
”This is an example of one of the simple Wide Ruins weavings from Lippincott’s personal collection. A beautifully woven rug made with vegetal dyes, hand-spun wool, and stripes.
Another example of simplicity in weaving is this Storm Pattern by Bessie Yazzie which won a second-place award at the 1963 Arizona State Fair. The judges were impressed with the classic beauty of her work.
Lippincott's opinion resonated with me and while I love all kinds of artistic Native American work, I am drawn to the simple patterns and designs, not only in weavings but in jewelry.
Back in the mid-1900s, before Indian jewelry became the rage, artists worked with simple tools. Lapidary skills were limited, at least for the Navajo, to cutting larger turquoise stones and working the silver around those stones.
The Zuni were in a little different space. They lived in permanent houses in the Pueblo, rather than the Hogans and summer camps most Navajo people occupied. They had workbenches, and tools like grinding wheels, that most Navajo smiths did not have. Their jewelry featured stones, while silver served as background to the piece. My dad used to say, “If the silver is made to fit the stone, it’s generally Navajo. If the stones are shaped to fit the silver, it is probably Zuni."
Navajo silverwork tended to be heavier and simpler. That doesn’t mean it was easier to make! Smiths who fashioned hand-shaped cones for squash blossoms, hand-pounded silver disks, and soldered them together to make beads or rolled out silver wire to make chains worked as hard as any other silversmiths and were just as talented. An artist who created an impression in sand, poured molten silver into it, and filed it to a smooth finish to create a simple sand cast bracelet spent years perfecting their technique. The results were often pleasing, simple designs.
One of the most beautiful and simple necklaces we have had in years came from a collection in Estes Park, Colorado. This necklace is made with hand-crafted silver beads with silver cones attached between them. On the bottom of the necklaces, three silver cones are separated. It took an artist to add that little touch of design.
And what could stand out more than this necklace from the 1970s made with silver beads and beautifully matched Morenci turquoise, not cut to matching sizes, but left to reflect their natural shapes. It is a lovely necklace that looks just as good with a denim shirt as it does with an evening gown.
It is important to remember that simple and clean is not boring. We recently received an elegant pair of Santo Domingo turquoise heishi earrings. The heishi is interspersed with hand-made silver beads and the cones are 14k gold. Beautiful and not over the top.
"Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” according to Leonardo de Vinci. I believe Sally Lippincott would agree.