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#TBT: A Drop of Blood, a Flame, the Spark of Life

Bear Pendant Coral B2

Breath of life.

Fire in the belly.

Hearts aflame.

Our metaphors for life and love and the simple fact of existence often revolve around the body, as though it provides a model for all else in our world. Whether it does or not, it certainly informs how we understand the nature of cosmos, of our place in it, of the places occupied by the spirits and by our fellow beings. It’s part of why, in our way, animal spirits are our equals, our brothers.

And it’s one of the reasons that, in the art indigenous to this region in particular, the heartline plays such a prominent role.

Some dealers refer to it as the breathline or the lifeline, but neither of us has ever heard an actual Native way of describing it other than “heartline,” and it’s the word Wings and I both use. It’s become a bit of a “thing” in Southwestern Native art, seen not only in paintings, fetishes, sculpture, pottery, or jewelry, but in knock-off faux-Native depictions on non-Indian art and on things as sundry as dishes and linens and wall murals and the sides of trashcans. Most of those images are fairly consistent, portraying an animal (usually a bear or a wolf) with a line entering through the mouth in a slight arc and stopping a short distance inward, terminating in an arrow.

As always, Wings follows his own path.

He has created a fairly substantial assortment of jewelry featuring “heartline” animals over the years, mostly pendants and pins. Sometimes, his inspiration is Bear; at other times, more unusually, Buffalo. But the lines are very different from the usual short slight arc or basic zigzag, instead seeming to take the form of lightning, or of a long and winding river.

Today’s featured work differs on several counts.

This piece dates back, if memory serves, to 2006, or perhaps a year or so earlier. I believe it sold in early 2008, after a couple of years of attracting significant interest (and that is the way with his work; a piece may be extremely popular, but it’s always waiting for the right person to find it). It was a simple pendant in the form of a heartline bear, but it also represented a significant departure from the other heartline bears out there.

Perhaps the first thing one noticed about it was its size. The photo doesn’t provide any frame of reference, but this was a sizeable piece, about four inches wide by about three inches high, excluding the bail. It doesn’t sound like much on paper, but hold a ruler below your collarbone, and you’ll see that the size is substantial (and thus, the weight, too). This was made with sterling silver of a relatively lightweight gauge, but its sheer size ensured a certain weight and feeling of solidity and substance.

Second, it was not your average bear, so to speak. Over the last 30 years or so, the humpbacked bear has become a virtual mascot for its kind among Southwestern-style Native art. It’s not surprising; it’s a classic vintage style, one that harks back to when carving tools were more basic, and when the stone’s voice held greater weight than that of the limited detail work. But in this instance, Wings decided that Bear deserved a more realistic depiction, and opted instead for the design shown here, cut freehand out of sheet silver.

Once the bear emerged from the metal to assume form and shape, it was time for the detail work. The mouth had already been formed via saw-work; a single tiny hoop created a solitary eye. A sunrise symbol, repeated, evoked the tufts of the great creature’s ears, and he turned a different kind of sunrise motif, one stretching high and triangular, upside-down to create the animal’s small beard beneath the neck. A couple of lightly curved lines brought his tail into focus. Then Wings drew, freehand, an unusual heartline across Bear’s body: one that began at the neck and stretched to the flanks, curving and winding like the flow of some great river, terminating at either end in an elegant arrowhead. He then scored the winding line firmly and deeply into the silver’s surface, enough to throw the design into sharp relief but not so much that it pierced the silver. At either end of the line, he used a tiny jeweler’s saw to excise the silver so the the “arrowheads” were formed of “negative” space. The effect was to bring the heartline into contact with the wearer’s skin, a reminder that life’s road is long and winding, but if the path is followed properly, it is also complete. He then turned the bear over and hammered it lightly from the inside, repoussé-fashion, to give it the slightest hint of a domed surface, thereby adding shaping, depth, and a realistic three-dimensional effect to the animal.

Then it came time to turn the piece, until now a sculpture in sterling, into a functional pendant. He cut a tab out of sterling silver, perhaps a quarter of an inch across and probably something less than an inch or so in length, and filed the corners into softly rounded edges. He then chose a single tiny round cabochon of brilliant natural coral, the sort of old coral that manifests in a deep scarlet shade; this he set into a saw-toothed bezel soldered into the lower half of the tab. Then, using a small bench-top jeweler’s vise, he carefully bent the tab in half, and soldered either end of it to the two sides of the bear. Last, he buffed the silver to a medium-high polish, not quite a mirror sheen, but one that would reflect and refract the light nonetheless.

This was one of my favorite works of that period, not least because of the realism of the bear, but also because of the imagery Wings chose and the addition of the tiny coral cabochon. The stone was not placed at the bear’s heart, and yet it felt as though it resided there, a drop of blood, a flame, the spark of life itself.

For a being that represents not merely protection but medicine, and for a piece that would be worn, essentially, over the wearer’s heart, it’s hard to imagine a more fitting metaphor — for life and love and the simple fact of existence.

~ Aji













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