Gail Bird and Yazzie Johnson

Published on December 3, 2010 by John

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Gail Bird and Yazzie Johnson are Southwestern American Indian artists known for their innovative jewelry which uses varied stones and blends both contemporary and prehistoric design motifs. They have known each other since they were children and have collaborated in designing and fabricating jewelry since 1972.

To many, they are best known for the thematic belts they make each year (since 1979) for the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA) Santa Fe Indian Market, but they also design elegant earrings, bracelets, rings and necklaces which are shown in galleries and museums across the country. They are part of a generation of American Indian artists from the Southwest who have acknowledged and honored the traditions of their respective areas while pushing the creative boundaries and addressing contemporary concerns. Their work is characterized by an extensive knowledge of materials and by their technical skill and keen design sense… Bird and Johnson emphasize, “We see our jewelry as being very traditional in nature. But we carry the traditions further. The stones we use are of a wider variety than those usually associated with Indian jewelry. The symbols and narrative on our pieces are expansions of traditional symbols and stories”.

Art dealer Martha Hopkins Struever, who held the first gallery show for Bird and Johnson in Chicago in 1978, describes their work, “The jewelry they produce is distinct from the work of other American Indian jewelers. Their pieces are frequently dramatic and always wearable. By seeking out stones of unusual color and surface pattern or pearls of various shapes and hues, then juxtaposing them in original compositions, they have created a unique style. After years of visiting prehistoric pictograph and petroglyph sites, Gail and Yazzie realized that these ancient peoples had developed a distinctive set of designs, from which they have drawn much inspiration. Over their career of more than three decades, Gail and Yazzie have developed a body of work that is both distinctly their own and continuously evolving”.

In 1981, Bird and Johnson won Best of Show at the Santa Fe Indian Market. More recently, they have become famous for their necklaces which often carry designs on the reverse side of bezel-set stones which reflect symbols that are personalized to the intended wearer. They use an overlay technique, which they describe as “underlay”, that was inspired by Charles Loloma’s stone inlay designs on the interior sides of rings and bracelets.

The couple live and work in Ojo Caliente, New Mexico. The jewelry works of Bird and Johnson are included in the permanent collections of several museums, including the British Museum and the Smithsonian Institution.

Early life and education

Gail Bird

Gail Bird was born on March 30, 1949 at Oakland, California. Her father, Tony Bird, was from Santo Domingo Pueblo and her mother, Andrea, was from Laguna Pueblo. Tony worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad and her mother worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs Inter-Mountain Indian School in Brigham City, Utah. She met Yazzie Johnson at the school at age 12. After high school, Bird studied at University of California Berkeley and the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Yazzie Johnson

Yazzie Johnson was born October 25, 1946 in Winslow, Arizona. His father, Matthew Johnson, was from Sanostee, New Mexico and his mother, Marilyn, was from Leupp, Arizona, both from the Navajo Nation. Both his parents worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs Inter-Mountain Indian School in Brigham City, Utah where he met Gail Bird at age fourteen. He was influenced at an early age by one of the teachers at the School, Dooley D. Shorty, who was a silversmith (and had been a Navajo Code Talker in World War II). Johnson enlisted in the U. S. Army in 1966 and served in Germany and Vietnam. He studied at University of California Berkeley and the University of Colorado at Boulder.

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