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#ThrowbackThursday: What the Winds Bring

The smoke returned yesterday, the pall marring what was otherwise a perfect fall day. It was here again with the dawn, hovering just off to the west over the horizon, waiting for a shift in the wind to carry it forward to settle here.

Still, even that was far better than last week. On this morning, it’s been possible to see color beyond a dirty yellow-gray haze, and now, at mid-morning, the winds have indeed shifted, sufficiently to carry it away from us for once.

We take our blessings where we can find them these days.

In this most awful of years, sometimes the blessings have seemed precious few and far between, indeed. But this is the season, at least in an ordinary year, when the winds deliver pure magic, all the mystery and medicine of fall. And while this is the furthest thing from an ordinary year, at least by our reckoning, we are profoundly grateful for what the winds bring now.

In a great many Indigenous traditions, the cardinal directions are not merely a place or space, not merely a means of orientation or site of habitation, but fully actualized and animated spirits themselves, forces and beings with powers all their own. In some traditions, this is likewise true of the ordinal points; and for many, the sacred directions include such concepts as up and down, inward and outward. And in some, related directly to the spirits of the directions are the spirits of the winds associated with them.

Both winds and directions have long played major roles in Wings’s creative process. Indeed, how could it be otherwise in this place, at such an elevation as to grant us views of ancient mountains bounding us on all sides, this place where the wind is its own Trickster force? Not all inspirations need be positive in and of themselves; sometimes a force that seems positively pestilential is needed to remind us of the persistence and power of our world and its spirits. This is perhaps more true than ever in this year of all years, when the results of humanity’s collective hubris, thinking that it can control such powers, is on dangerous, deadly, and deeply personal display for all to see now.

Whenever I think of the winds and the sacred directions, it reminds me of today’s featured work, one from my own private collection that Wings created around this time two years ago. Originally, they were intended a bit differently on a couple of fronts, but Spirit sometimes has other ideas.

These are, fundamentally, an old design, a motif commonly held by many peoples in this region and beyond. I alluded to it yesterday in discussing Wings’s preferences when it comes to creating “crosses.” These are the very embodiment of the traditional Indigenous symbol for the Four Sacred Directions: a cross, yes, but not at all cruciform; this type cross is, in a sense, a more perfect shape, in which all four spokes are of the same size and length, each stretching to its own cardinal point of the compass. Wings has used this motif throughout his life as an artist, in every conceivable variation and across multiple categories of work.

This particular pair of earrings, though, has an even more complex history, and in a sense an old one, too. It’s a very old traditional shape and style that dates back to the earliest days of silversmithing here. Variants of this style sit in the collections of Indigenous elders all across the area, and in those of not a few of the old Hispanic families, too, the pieces passed down from generation to generation. And it was precisely this scenario that led to the creation of this pair — in fact, to two separate pairs. The other pair I’ve already featured in this space, not quite two years ago, but in fact it was the second of the two pairs that Wings created around that time. As I wrote then:

These are throwback to [October, 2018], a pair of earrings that Wings created for a local friend of ours. She had given him a photo of a very old earring, one wrought in vintage style (and no doubt of similar age), and asked whether he could recreate the general style. He does not copy other artists’ works, even those whose identities are lost to the passage of time; they are entitled to have their designs respected, not appropriated. But in a situation like this, where the earrings in question were very old and crafted in what was a once-common and very traditional style, and where the earrings themselves had been lost, he will go so far as to design something that adheres to the spirit, if not the specifics, of the original.

And so it was with these. It’s an ancient Four Directions pattern, one popular long ago. It was also common to edge such earrings with rows of stampwork, all around a stamped radiant center, producing an effect not unlike that of a sun radiating light to the cardinal points. And so, Wings set about comparing stamps in his collection to those in the photo, seeking patterns that would evoke a similar feel without copying the original design.

The original pair were old, and the silversmith’s name was long since lost to memory and time. Wings couldn’t even search for a hallmark to identify the artist, because the earrings were missing; it’s entirely possible that they were made by a non-Native artist copying Indigenous styles, too. But he recognized the look as one common to a great many different Indigenous artists of generations past, and was intimately familiar with how to create the style while still infusing it with his own unique sense of the spirit of the work.

The first step, of course, was to cut out the silver, which he did, as always, entirely freehand. If you look at the photo, you’ll see that the center portion of the cross on the left is wider than the one on the right. That’s what happens when all the work is by hand, no power tools or lasers or even stencils involved. It’s also how I tell the left from the right when I wear them (I wear the narrower one on the left).

Wings chose a grand total of four stamps, and only two basic shapes, for the stampwork: one tiny hoop to be used exactly once, placed at the very center; and three separate triangular stamps of graduated sizes, a shape that can be used to represent mountains or arrowheads of the shelter of a tipi or lodge. He began with the smallest of the three, a basic but very tiny triangle, and arrayed it all around the edge of the first earring, spokes and corners alike. Chased in a repeating pattern, it produced a serrated look, or, as it’s often expressed in silverwork, saw-toothed. This created the border. He then selected the triangular stamp of medium size, one that was a simple peak, open-ended at the base, no other adornment to the shape at all. This he chased around the inside of the first border, creating a nested effect in a gradient of sizes. Then he moved on to the largest of the triangles, one with, again, an open base, but a barred, radiant design along each side. He used these to create a circle of sorts, like a central sun, the apex of each pointed toward the very center of the earring so that the triangles’ sides flared out like rays: one at, roughly, north; one at south; then one each at northeast and southeast; and one each at southwest and northwest. Lastly, he placed the image of the tiny circular stamp, the hoop, at the very center.

Then he moved on to the other earring, repeating the process. Stampwork complete, he turned each earring over to stamp his hallmark, attach the tiny silver jump rings at the top that would hold the earring wires, and then dome the earrings slightly, repoussé-fashion, to give them the classic concha shaping. It’s not only a traditional effect; it also helps the earrings to hang better.

Then he turned them over to oxidize the stampwork prior to buffing them to a velvety Florentine finish . . . and stopped in his tracks. Scroll up to the photo and look closely: What do you see?

On the second earring, the two nested borders are reversed.

He had been so wrapped up in the stampwork that he had failed to notice that when he began the second earring, he started with the medium-sized triangles on the outer border, moving to the smallest ones for the inner ring.

They were beautiful, and most certainly unique — but he knew that they would not be what our friend wanted. And so he began again, choosing slightly different stampwork for the borders of that pair, ensuring that the order of the borders matched.

And this pair became mine.

Truth be told, as beautiful as the commissioned pair turned out to be, I far prefer this pair. They have a bit of the same Trickster spirit as the winds themselves. They’ve become, in fact, one of my favorite pairs for everyday wear, bold, dancing, eminently traditional and possessed of their own singular spirit. And they remind me that what the winds bring may not always be orderly, may not always be what humanity tends to regard as a perfect alignment . . . but sometimes, it’s far more beautiful and powerful because of it.

~ Aji








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