The ring I bought during my first visit to Santa Fe remains a fixture on my right hand, though the bird tracks have long since disappeared after decades of wear. But this isn't the only jewelry I bought from a vendor with the Native American Artisans Portal Program, at the Palace of the Governors.
During a later visit, I purchased a pair of hammered silver earrings. I happily wore them numerous times, in the next several months, until one disappeared. Another few months passed as I retraced all of my steps in search of the missing earring, with no luck.
That's when a bit of New Mexico magic kicked in again. A business card told me the name of the jewelry vendor, but provided no contact information. On a whim, I got in touch with the Portal Program office, provided the name of the vendor and sent them a photo of my remaining earring. Within a few weeks, Miriam contacted me, and sent a matching earring alongside a small bill. I was thrilled!
Open daily, most vendors sell at the portal from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Customers can purchase Native American items here, handcrafted by dozens of artisans or their family members.
Items for sale include pottery to textiles, and silver jewelry decorated with turquoise to coral. Prices are good and there's no tax. Portal artists must also sign every piece of work. Although many vendors now take credit cards, others still do not.
Somewhat shy, Gloria Goldtooth, of the Navajo/Diné tribe, began coming to the portal in the early 1980s. When we met, she sold at the portal once or twice a month. Selling the jewelry and beading that she and her mother made supplemented her full-time job.
"We must use natural stones – not stabilized – and no plastic beads, just glass," she said. "We have to label our work to inform people what they are buying. Most vendors talk about their artwork and say, ‘Hello. If you have questions, ask us.’ It’s interesting to meet people from all over the world. Some people buy again and you develop a friendship."
From the Zuni tribe, Phyllis Coonsis sold sterling jewelry with multiple stones and colors, under the business name, Swirl of Colors. "My grandmother taught me and my brother is a master jeweler. I joined the program about one year ago. This is my primary income and I can make $500 on some days. I also do major art shows. I help my mother financially and support my son."
A Pueblo of Laguna tribe member, Edward Platero started coming to the portal in 1990, at age 18. On the day we met, he was selling jewelry with his girlfriend. His sole source of income, Platero typically sold items at the portal 3-4 times per week.
‘It can be difficult because we don’t take credit cards," he said. "But some people make as much as $1,000 on a good day. Summertime is better for sales."
Fran Loretto had brought her pottery, sculpture, drawings and paintings to the portal for decades, from Jemez Pueblo. "I helped my grandmother when I was very young, and sold drums for my grandfather on the portal."
Loretto also studied traditional pottery making and two-dimensional drawing at the Institute of American Indian Arts, a local four-year fine arts college. A 9-inch-tall female sculpture took two days to sculpt, 1-1/2 weeks to dry, a day to sand, and an hour to fire, over wood; kiln firing was forbidden for sales at the portal.
A member of the Navajo tribe, Ronald Toledo had learned sand painting from his parents, selling at the portal for more than 20 years and two to three days per week. Toledo often described the sand painting process to customers.
"Each item has two to four layers of sand and all of the sand color is natural," he said. "For instance turquoise stone is ground down to make the sand. The only non-natural feature allowed is a clear acrylic spray to help maintain set of the sand. We can create 6, 8 x 8 tiles or 20-30 magnets per day."
For anyone who wants an exquisite artistic souvenir of their Santa Fe visit, the Native American Artisans Portal Program is a must do. Just be sure to carry plenty of cash!
Please note: Photos in this story do not necessarily reflect artist profiles offered immediately before or after an image. They provide a general look at the variety of artistic expression available.
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