- Hide menu

#ThrowbackThursday: In the Cold Breath of Winter, the Warmth of a Strong Heart

Yesterday’s much-ballyhooed snow never materialized here; at day’s end, the winds sent the storm southeast of us, and any chance of precipitation with it. This morning dawned much colder than yesterday, although with enough residual heat to have trapped low-lying clouds into bands of icy fog around the mountain slopes and peaks. We have a bit more wind today, too, just enough to hear it whistle and moan through the crack of the doorjamb — a reminder there is much greater cold yet to come.

We have prepared for winter as best we can: weatherizing for house and animals; stockpiling both hay and firewood early, before scarcity sends the prices skyrocketing; preparing ourselves for the long haul of deep snows and deeper cold and the need to ride it out to the other side. Now, it becomes mostly a question of management, which sounds easy to the modern ear, most of which are attached to humans whose existences are utterly contemporary. Here, though, old ways still govern in many contexts, often because there is no other, better way of doing things. And a life lived much upon the land necessitates engagement with the seasons and the elements, however fierce or dark.

In this season, we take our lessons, and our cues, from the spirits of winter, relatives better-equipped and more experienced than humanity at survival. And if we are fortunate, occasionally, they give us the gifts of their bodies, of food and clothing, shelter and medicine, even ceremony and art.

Here, such spirits include the elk and the buffalo, our relatives since the dawn of time. Elk visited us in this space on Tuesday, and we will see more of his gifts here tomorrow. Buffalo appeared yesterday, in company with Turtle, and today our elder brother returns on his own in a throwback piece from ten years ago and more. Buffalo is naturally suited to this season, with his heavy hide and curly mane, a spirit of solidity and substance unmoved by wind or storm. He embodies, in the cold breath of winter, the warmth of a strong heart.

This particular iteration of the great animal was one in Wings’s long-running yet informal signature series of buffalo pins, mostly, although he sometimes assumed the form of a pendant, too. This one, if memory serves, was indeed a pin, the assembly placed strategically on the reverse to avoid showing through the ajouré heartline that traced a path across his body.

This series is consistently free of extraneous adornment, beginning and ending, always, with the silver. Wings does have a template for it, one he drew himself, freehand, but his use of it usually consists of a few quick strokes along the edges. He’s been creating Buffalo in this series of incarnations for decades now, and the lines are as familiar to him as his own hands.

Generally speaking, Wings sketches the outlines, then stamps the detail work freehand before cutting the piece out of the surrounding silver. There are exceptions, of course, but doing it in this order gives him a solid, stable bases upon which to work while he designs and creates the buffalo’s specific features. And each one is unique: The stamps chosen for such features as eyes, horns, and tail vary; some have a lush and extravagant mane while others are more muted; each has a heartline, but its form and shape and path differ on each one, some nearly straight, others flowing gently like a river, still others with the stark definition of a lightning bolt.

In this instance, Wings used the same lodge-like symbol to create Buffalo’s beard and the fetlocks above his hooves. A radiant motif with a deep arc formed his tail. His horn was defined with a vaguely triangular geometric pattern. And his eye, only one visible in semi-profile, was formed of one-half of an Eye of Spirit symbol.

Those were the easy parts.

Sometimes Wings creates a “curly” mane by way of a little hammer work, or a small ruff formed of repetitive stampwork. In this incarnation, Buffalo’s mane is as full and luxurious as that of an adult male in real life, the curls extending from back of head to mid-torso, and all the way down the tops of both forelegs. And Wings created all of it with a single tiny stamp with a blunt-point end, sharp enough to form a tiny indented dot but not so sharp as to pierce the silver. And he struck this stamp with a jeweler’s hammer over and over and over, hundreds of times, to create the “curly” texture. And it did indeed cause the silver to “curl,” in a manner of speaking, the deeper or repeatedly-stamped indentations displacing the silver into [relatively] high, rolling, waving sides. It gave Buffalo texture and depth, the kind readily perceptible to the touch.

Stampwork complete, Wings turned his attention to the animal’s heartline. I’ve written about the heartline motif in Southwest Indigenous artwork here before, noting that it’s sometimes called, especially by the non-Native dealers that most of the so-called “market” comprises, a “breathline” or, more often, a “lifeline.” None of those is inaccurate, and yet, they fail to capture the deeply symbolic aspects of the motif in the way that the word “heartline” does. In Wings’s work, it’s always a heartline, one which by very definition encompasses the act of respiration and the fact of life itself.

And Wing’s heartlines are unique in that they are almost always double-terminated. That term is not as final as it sounds, by the way; it simply refers to the “arrowhead point” shape that ends each line. Symbolically, they signify nothing remotely approaching an end, but rather, the path of blood and breath and life. And virtually everyone fashions them going one way, toward the back of the being’s body.

“Everyone” except Wings.

I don’t know now whether it was strictly a stylistic choice initially, or whether it was always a creative rebellion against the notion of life flowing only in one direction, but after all these decades, it now falls as squarely into the latter camp as the former. As a traditional man, his spiritual beliefs align with those of his ancestors (as do mine and those of my ancestors), a worldview that is confined neither to this world nor to this understanding of “life” or “living.” Wings’s heartline encompasses the reality of multiple planes of existence, multiple worlds, multiple paths in which Spirit travels and does its work.

In this iteration, it traveled a path much like our rivers here, long, gently flowing, its direction changing occasionally to accommodate the landscape but never derailing or dying out. And that is true of our rivers even in the depths of winter, where the ice on the surface does not hinder the flow of the medicine or the spirit beneath its surface.

And so, Wings began by piercing the piece at one end where the “arrowhead point” would rest, just enough to insert the blade of a tiny jeweler’s saw. Then, he excised the silver slowly, moving around it in a freehand triangle, then moving toward the center of its base where he gently and carefully cut into the body. He sawed a masterfully slender line across Buffalo’s body, keeping it consistently thin, yet ensuring that it cut all the way through the silver, even as he directed it gently into the sinuous pattern of movement shown here. At its other end, he carefully excised another connected triangle for the second terminus, the gently withdrew the saw and put it to work on the outline of the animal. It’s much more difficult than it appears at first; even the longest, “straightest” expanse, that along the buffalo’s back, flows in a gentle, asymmetrical arc. Horns, beard, tail, fetlocks, and hooves required careful attention, lest the saw blade slip and cut through their short, slender extrusions.

Once Buffalo was freed from the silver from which he as born, Wings filed the edges smooth, then turned it over and domed it slightly, repoussé-fashion, from the reverse. This permits pins to lie properly o the surface of one’s clothing even as it prevents the sharper points from snagging on the fabric. As a practical matter, he does likewise with the pendants, too; in addition to its more practical uses, it lends a feeling of dimension and depth to the piece. Once domed to the proper curvature, he soldered the pin assembly into place on the reverse, taking care to avoid the heartline. Then he oxidized the stampwork, paying particular attention to the animal’s “mane,” and buffed to slightly more than a medium-high polish.

I no longer recall when this one sold, or to whom; it was finished in late May of 2009, and likely found a home shortly thereafter. Buffalo mostly tended not to languish in inventory very long. It’s been a while since Wings created a new one.

Now that winter is here, perhaps he will have occasion to add to their numbers. After all, the cold breath of winter is already here. We all can use a reminder of the value and warmth of a strong heart.

~ Aji








All content, including photos and text, are copyright Wings and Aji, 2019; all rights reserved. Nothing herein may used or reproduced in any form without the express written permission of the owner.

Comments are closed.

error: All content copyright Wings & Aji; all rights reserved. Copying or any other use prohibited without the express written consent of the owners.