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#TBT: Place and Path

Lapis Hand Pin Resized

In many of our cultures, there is a place held sacred by the people, one revered above all others. In some, such places are the ones that the old stories identify as the place of emergence, or where the First People otherwise entered this plane of existence for the first time. In others, they are places of pilgrimage that may have other connections to the sacred, sometimes places of prophecy or sites seen in visions and dreams.

Here, one of the most important such sites is Blue Lake, held sacred by the people and recovered fewer than a half-century ago — and then only after long effort by a delegation led by the Cacique of the time, Juan de Jesus Romero, and by Wings’s own uncle, Paul Bernal.

One characteristic many of these sites share, even across indigenous cultures, is their fundamental connection to the natural world, to our Mother Earth.Whether they are mountain peaks or bodies of water, harsh deserts or fertile green lands, they link each generation, in a tangible and elemental way, with the Earth, with the ancestors, and with the world of the spirits.

About a dozen years ago, Wings created a small series of pins and pendants (and sometimes a combination of the two, pieces that possessed both pin assembly on the back and small bail on the top) in the form of a hand. There is, in recent years, a movement afoot in the so-called Native art market (in other words, by the non-Native dealers, collectors, and self-styled “experts”) to pronounce meaning with regard to certain indigenous symbols, and one such is the hand: The [non-Native] “experts” have decided that it is, forever and always, “The Healing Hand,” and have decreed that it be defined and explained accordingly.

Of course, it’s never that simple, and such assertions manage to erase artist, meaning, culture, and people.

There are times when Wings uses the hand as a signifier of healing. It may also represent identity, association, and other qualities or purposes. Sometimes, it reflects more than one meaning, given, as our ways so often are, to multiple uses and interpretations. In this particular instance, it functioned as a signifier of perhaps all of these.

This piece began with form and shape, cut freehand out of sterling silver in a stylized representation of the human hand, all four fingers and thumb extended, with an extension at the opposition for the wrist. Wings kept the ornamentation to a minimum, choosing spare and simple stampwork in repeating patterns: two separate Morning Star symbols on the palm (or back) of the hand, one with spokes to the cardinal directions, the other turned ninety degrees so that the spokes aimed to the ordinal points; a pair of directional arrows opposing each other along the crease between thumb and hand, with one pointing toward the end of the fingers and the second, whose fletched “feathers” abutted those of the other, aimed back toward the body; and four simple arrowhead points nested in a row along the ring finger, their points aimed toward the fingertip.

The choice of symbols was no accident; all represent powerful concepts in various indigenous cosmologies. All can be interpreted as signifiers of direction and guidance. The pair of Morning Stars are linked to the illumination of the dawn, with the placement of the spokes representing the Sacred Directions and/or the winds; the diamond-like shape of each spoke likewise evokes the Eye of Spirit, representing wisdom, medicine, and the powers of visions and dreams. The paired arrows next to the thumb likewise can symbolize guidance, the connection between oneself and the outer world, and even motifs of peacemaking, with arrows pointed away from each other — all in all, a collection of potential meanings that add up to what our peoples would call medicine, and powerfully, too. The nested arrowheads, all pointing in the same direction, also often symbolize guidance, the pointing of the way along a particular path; repeated, they can tell a story of migration, or simply of following the road as given to us by the ancestors and the spirits.

In this instance, it was also perhaps no accident that Wings chose one final adornment for the piece: a round cabochon of deep-blue lapis to anchor the wrist end of the hand. The stone was stunning, particularly for a smaller calibrated cabochon: Very often, such cabochons are plain, single-color stones, with little to no matrix and a flat, opaque appearance. This one was highly domed, and the color was nothing short of spectacular, a swirl of dark blues that ranged from cobalt to violet, and seemingly rippled with flecks of metallic pyrite. It looked the deepest of blue waters, gold and silver light reflecting off the ripples and waves of their surface. He set it into a saw-toothed bezel soldered securely onto the “wrist.” Before setting the stone, of course, came the soldering of the pin assembly on the reverse, oxidizing of the stampwork, and buffing of the whole piece to a medium sheen, about halfway between a true Florentine and a high polish. Once the stone was set, the piece was ready to join the others in this small collection.

This iteration sold some ten years ago. Since that time, I think he’s added perhaps one such pin to his inventory; it’s been a while. Seeing the image over my shoulder today, he announced that he planned to restart the series, and I suspect they will encompass a wide variety of earth imagery and precious gems. Of all of his previous versions, however, this one always struck me as perhaps the most powerful: one with a stone that spoke firmly to his own sense of place, and imagery that evoked, in similar fashion, the path he walks.

In our way, place and path are inextricably intertwined, because we are peoples of this Earth.

~ Aji











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