When I was growing up and learning the Indian Arts and Crafts business, there were three Hopi artists that I remember the best. The first was Lawrence Saufkie, a traditional Hopi jeweler who made overlay jewelry, the second was Charles Loloma, who created contemporary pieces that were collected all over the world, and the third was Preston Monongye who called what he was doing, “the new Indian art.”
Preston was a very interesting man with opinions about art and jewelry that let him step out of the box of traditional art. He carved kachinas in relief on wood boards, he etched kachina faces on aluminum plates, he used the sand cast method in creating jewelry and, unlike most Hopi artists of the time, he worked with stones in his jewelry.
He was the son of a Mexican father and a Mission Indian woman who were living in Los Angeles. At the age of seven, for some reason no one seems to know, the woman took Preston to the Hopi mesas. Some biographies say he was abandoned there, but it seems more likely that he was intentionally left with a Hopi Wutsim Priest, David Monongye, and his wife Nora. The Monongye took him into their family and raised him in the traditional Hopi way. He was taught the religion and he was initiated into the Hopi Katsina Society when he came of age. He learned to weave traditional Hopi dance clothing from hand spun cotton and to carve Katsina dolls by watching the priests.
He came to the Hopi in 1934, during the Great Depression. The families survived by growing most of their own food and were not as affected as much as most of the country by the economic conditions. At the age of nine, Preston began to work with his uncle, Gene Pooyama, a master silversmith, and painter. He learned to make traditional jewelry from ingots, using stamp work and twisted wire to create designs.
He left the villages to serve as a paratrooper in World War II. He was also a medic in the South Pacific and later served in the Korean War. When he returned to the Hopi Mesas, he served as a law enforcement officer for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In the 1960s he quit his job to concentrate on his artwork, primarily jewelry, although he continued to paint and make prints. He collaborated with other artists, including his friend, award winning Navajo jeweler, Lee Yazzie, as he continued to stretch his creativity.
Until his death at 60, Monongye continued to craft beautiful art. He won many awards and shared his knowledge by lecturing at schools across the country. He also had mental struggles, probably the result of his war years, but in the end, he will always be remembered as a great artist who helped to create individual freedom and innovation in design.
One of the beneficiaries of his groundbreaking work is his son, Jessie, who began by cutting stones for his father and is now considered to be one of the finest of contemporary silversmiths.