"It's important to me to be at the Pueblo, because the creative spirit is easier to capture if you live and work within the village, neighbor to neighbor, house to house."
—Charles Lovato, Santo Domingo artist
One of the largest, most populous, and most prosperous of the Rio Grande Pueblos, Santo Domingo (or Ke-wha in the Keresan language, still widely spoken at the Pueblo) is admired for clinging to its traditions. Its pride, conservatism, and relatively large size (c. 3,200 people) have produced a solid core committed to maintaining traditional ceremonies and beliefs. This longstanding adherence to tradition can also be seen in its jewelry.
Santo Domingo today is the leading producer of the tiny handmade beads known as heishi. Some heishi necklaces contain over 10,000 miniscule beads and look like strands of hair. Its artists are also famous for inlaid pieces, often featuring turquoise on shell bases. Much Santo Domingo jewelry is strikingly similar to Ancestral Pueblo, or Anasazi, jewelry unearthed at Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde's—some of it more than a thousand years old.
Shell mosaic is a trademark style of Santo Domingo jewelry, drawing on a tradition dating back many centuries. Many modern Pueblo artists consciously style their inlaid jewelry after styles and patterns unearthed by archaeological research, found in rock art or on display in museums.
Not all Santo Domingo inlay is based on ancient traditions. Modern inlay artists break from the past by using nontraditional colors such as green and purple, materials such as plastic and imagery such the U.S. flag.
Heishi, from the Santo Domingo word meaning "shell," traditionally referred to shell beads. Today, however, it describes tiny, handmade beads of any material. In the ancient necklaces made by Ancestral Pueblo people, many containing thousands of beads, each hole was drilled with a cactus needle and sand. Modern innovations include power tools and large beads featuring inlaid patterns of other stones.
Featured Artist: Angie Reano Owen
Angie Reano Owen is credited with reviving the tradition of inlaid jewelry in the 1970s, when the market had shifted to heishi beads and silver-and-turquoise jewelry. "I told my dad I wanted to do something different because everyone was doing heishi," she said. She was fascinated by her mother's inlay work, including "Depression jewelry" made from plastic and car batteries. In her twenties, she studied Ancestral Pueblo jewelry in museums and private collections, consciously modeling her work after ancient styles.
"I began doing the actual traditional patterns of the prehistoric things," she says. "Later on, the more I refined it, I decided I should have my own style. I shouldn't just be copying what the ancestors did." Owen's distinctive touches include using black glue to outline and emphasize her mosaic patterns. Yet her style remains grounded in traditional mosaic designs created from turquoise and other stones on a shell base.
Featured Artists: Joe B. and Terry Reano
The husband-and-wife team of Joe B. and Terry Reano are among the few Pueblo artists who still make beads completely by hand, without using power tools. Both learned these techniques from their parents and have passed the tradition on to their children.
To make their handmade beads, they start by rubbing a piece of shell or turquoise against a large, course slab of sandstone to flatten it. Then, using a hand-powered pump drill, they drill a hole. Thicker pieces require drilling from both sides. To make the beads round, the beads are strung on a wire and then rolled against sandstone, or pulled through a groove in a rough stone. The circular beads are smoothed with finer and finer sandstone, and then finally polished with buckskin.
It can take two or three months to finish one strand, and in the process, roughly half of the original bead material is ground away into dust.
Charles Lovato (1937-1987) revolutionized Santo Domingo beadwork. By arranging strands of beads with slight variations in color, he created necklaces that gradually shift from one color to another. Lovato also departed from tradition by adding bright splashes of gold, purple (sugilite), red (coral) and blue (lapis lazuli) as well as the traditional olivella shell.
Lovato's technique was unmatched; he could create heishi beads so fine that his necklaces were likened to strands of silk. To string his tiniest beads, he explained, "I take a nylon strand and split it into four to string beads on."
Also one of Santo Domingo's most highly regarded painters, Lovato was a multitalented artist who often paired his paintings with original poems. "I resent wasting time sleeping," Lovato once said. "I feel as though I am always near the boiling point, needing to release something."