"I consider my people truly great artists, because each and every family in Zuni is very talented. This is how the Zuni people make a living."
—Veronica Poblano, Zuni carver and jeweler
Closer to the other western Pueblos of Acoma and Hopi than to the Rio Grande Pueblos, the Zunis are relatively isolated, and their language is unrelated to any other. Yet Zuni ceremonies—especially the spectacular Shalako in December—have attracted thousands of visitors, and Zuni artists have won worldwide acclaim. Over 1,000 artists have sprung from a population of less than 12,000, and most Zuni families earn some income from making and selling artwork.
The first Pueblo to learn silversmithing from the Navajos, Zuni is known as a "village of silversmiths." But it is even more famous for working stone, particularly carved fetishes—spiritually powerful animal figures—and inlaid mosaic jewelry. While Navajo silversmiths use mostly precut stones for jewelry, Zuni jewelers typically cut, shape, polish, and set their own stones. Unfortunately, their hand-crafted jewelry is today being undercut by a flood of cheap foreign imitations.
Featured Artist: Leo Poblano
At a time when most Zuni jewelers were content working with traditional themes and materials, Leo Poblano (1905–1959) experimented. Famed for his carved fetishes and inlaid jewelry, Poblano was one of the first to add decorative inlay to animal figures and to use "dot" inlay in his carvings. He also developed a technique to fill and smooth pitted coral using coral dust.
Like his friend Leekya Deyuse, Poblano worked for pioneering trader C. G. Wallace, to whom he sold almost all his work. A World War II veteran, Poblano died while working with Zuni's renowned firefighting crew in the 1950s.
Lyle Wilson sees his art as neither "contemporary" nor "traditional." He seeks to represent the tension between older Haisla values and the influences of present-day society. "I believe my best work takes account of the past, present and future tenses."
Jewelry offers Zunis a means to carry with them reminders of their culture and traditions. The detail of mosaic work, in particular, allows for evocative representations of Zuni gods, spirits, and other figures of ritual. Often, the characters depicted in Zuni jewelry are themselves adorned with turquoise necklaces, bracelets, and earrings.
Featured Artist: Leekya Deyuse
The fetish carvings of Leekya Deyuse (1889–1966) are considered the standard by all who followed him. Before beginning to carve a stone, Leekya would ponder it for hours until he could envision the spirit-figure inside. Much of his work was inspired by prehistoric animal and human carvings that he saw while working as a laborer on archaeological excavations of the ruins of Hawikuh, a Zuni town that was founded in the 1200s and abandoned in the aftermath of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.
In the 1920s, trader C. G. Wallace hired Leekya to make large turquoise and disk bead necklaces, jaclas (turquoise beads fixed in a string), and fetishes to sell to passengers on the Santa Fe Railroad. Soon many others, including Leo Poblano and Teddy Weahkee, joined Leekya as Wallace's employees. He encouraged Zuni artists to draw on the forms of their ancestors, and these designs were eagerly accepted by the tourist market.
The Zunis are perhaps best known for their fetishes—small stones, naturally shaped like animals and believed to embody spirits, which are carved to further resemble their living forms. When well fed and treated with respect, they can mediate with supernatural beings to endow their owners with the abilities of the animal represented. Most fetishes are intended to aid the hunt, heal the sick, or protect the wearer, depending on the creature they resemble.
Featured Artist: Veronica Poblano
Veronica Poblano's father, the influential artist Leo Poblano, died when she was 10. "The only thing that got me through the time when my father passed away was doing sculpture, doing fetishes," she recalls. Thirty years later, when her mother passed away, "I wanted a new direction. I wanted to leave the reservation." She had always dreamed about living near the water, so she moved to California. "I decided to give up hairdressing and be an artist full time. We started doing street fairs and people noticed that I was doing something different with my inlay."
"When I came back to Zuni with my new works of art, people asked me, 'Where did you go to train? Who taught you?' And there wasn't anybody who taught me. Sometimes you've got to leave an area to find yourself, to find out what you really want to be in life. I'm proud of myself for doing that...and to come home and show my people what I have done with my creativity."
Featured Artists: Dennis and Nancy Edaakie
Dennis and Nancy Edaakie's inlaid jewelry is remarkable for its precision. They use a difficult overlay-inlay technique that produces some of the most detailed handmade jewelry in the world: two pieces of silver, one with the design cut out, are welded together and then precisely cut stone and shell pieces are inset into the cutout area. Their jewelry depicts images of Southwestern life including cardinals, roadrunners, cacti, and Native ritual figures.