"I don't believe any Hopi could describe the beauty from here, we are just so used to it. It is a part of us, we are a part of it."
—Fred Kabotie, Hopi artist
For over 1,500 years, Hopis and their ancestors have lived at the tips of three long, fingerlike mesas that jut out over the arid Arizona landscape. One Hopi village, Orayvi, is the oldest continuously occupied town in North America. Surrounded on all sides by the Navajo reservation, and 85 miles from the nearest city, Hopis have been buffered somewhat from outside influences. Eighty percent of Hopis still live on the reservation, and most who work elsewhere return for important ceremonies or to retire.
Hopis have been working silver for over 100 years, but a unique Hopi style did not emerge until the late 1930s, when curators from the Museum of Northern Arizona urged Hopi artists to differentiate themselves from Navajo and Zuni jewelers by using designs from Hopi pottery, baskets and weaving. After World War II, returning veterans were trained in the new style. Hopi jewelry often features overlay, in which designs are cut from a sheet of silver. This sheet is soldered to a second sheet and the exposed areas are oxidized black.
Paul Saufkie (1898–1993) was perhaps the foremost artist and teacher in the development of Hopi overlay jewelry. He learned silversmithing from his father in the 1920s, and after World War II taught returning veterans in a program sponsored by the G. I. Bill of Rights. With renowned painter Fred Kabotie, he helped create the Hopi Silvercraft Cooperative Guild in 1949, which offered training, materials, financing, work space and marketing for Hopi silversmiths.
Working with curators from the Museum of Northern Arizona, Saufkie created designs based on images from Pueblo pottery and other ancient sources. The snow cloud bracelet, for example, is a classic Hopi motif, and the belt buckle features a bird design found on Hopi pottery. Saufkie's influence helped give Hopi jewelry a distinct identity.
One of the pioneering masters of Hopi jewelry, Victor Coochwytewa served in World War II, returning in 1946 with a Purple Heart. He was among the first to enroll in the training program taught by Paul Saufkie and Fred Kabotie and became one of its most successful graduates. To increase the contrast between the shiny top layer and the dark lower of his overlay patterns, he developed a new technique for oxidizing and texturing the background layer-an approach still used today.
Coochwytewa did not let becoming a renowned jeweler change him. "I work in the field during the morning and do silversmithing in the afternoon. Then I work again in the field in the evening. I have corn every year," he says. "If you're a man you have to have your corn. When you're married, you have to work in the fields." Coochwytewa remains as proud of his success as a farmer as he is of his art. "I've lived here all my life," he says. "Corn is my work. Jewelry is my hobby."
The son of famed Hopi painter Fred Kabotie, Michael Kabotie draws inspiration from murals discovered in the historic Hopi village of Awat'ovi. Painted between the 1300s and 1600s, these murals have been called "America's Sistine Chapel."
"Initially, the source of my art was based on the kiva mural paintings," he says, but he also blends other influences such as Cubism into his abstract painting and jewelry designs. "Kiva mural style has hard outlines, so it translates very well into Hopi overlay jewelry," he explains.
In 1967, Kabotie undertook initiation into the Hopi men's society, Wuwtsim, earning his adult Hopi name, Lomawywesa (Antelopes Walking in Harmony), which he uses to sign all his work. "It was the beginning of my spiritual journey, seeking myself through art," he says. "In 1973, I helped found an art group called Artists Hopid. It was one of the first Native American art movements that was reservation-based, not city-based."
Gary and Elsie Yoyokie
Gary Yoyokie and his wife, Elsie, a Navajo who married into Hopi, produce intricate and innovative designs grounded in traditional patterns. Their work is so precise, Elsie reports, that "we were invited to Japan to show our technique. People think we cut out the designs by machine because the cutting is so perfect."
To create his designs, Gary makes templates based on Hopi symbols for water, clouds, and rain, which he arranges in original patterns. In recent years the two have been incorporating gold and precious stones into their designs. Gary explains, "All the years I have been focusing toward the traditional Hopi overlay, I have been trying to arrange it to a contemporary look."