Inspiration in fragments
Jeweler Mark D. Stevens
WHAT I DO IS HAND-TOOL THE SILVER TO CAPTURE THE SHAPE, THE SIZE, THE PATTERNS, CURVES OF THE SHERDS, ALL OF THOSE DETAILS.
ITis the fortunate artist who finds himself working in a truly distinctive niche — and when Mark D. Stevens first fashioned a piece of jewelry as a replica of a pottery sherd, it wasn’t long before he knew it was a hot idea. “The first one I made, from a favorite sherd I kept on my workbench, was in 2007,” he said. “I took it to an art show in San Francisco, and what was interesting is that a gentleman bought it almost immediately, but he wanted me to keep it on display for the weekend.
“It was a one-of-a-kind piece, and it had a huge response. After that, my wife and I had a show in Fort Worth, and I brought six of these sherd-replica pieces. They sold in the first couple of hours and we looked at each other and I said, ‘I guess this is what I’m supposed to be doing.’ It’s been nonstop, and I’ve reproduced over 5,000 sherds.”
One of the interesting points in his story is that the inspiration for the idea was apparently divine. As he tells it in an artist statement, he was sitting at his workbench one day, preparing to make some silver bracelets. He picked up a favorite potsherd from one of his hikes on Laguna Pueblo land and was wondering what the pot looked like when he heard a voice say, “Make it into jewelry.” “God the Creator was speaking to me,” he said.
Stevens (Laguna and Italian) grew up in Southern California, visiting the Pueblo every year until 1996, when he pulled up stakes and started a new life at Laguna. About 10 years later, he began traveling to Santa Fe once a week for a series of silversmithing classes. “We learned the basics of forming and chasing and filing and cutting and soldering to create our first project. Then after that I invested in all the equipment I needed — a bench, a torch, the tools, and silver — to set up my own shop.” He spent a year practicing and learning new techniques like overlaying silver. His early pieces were contemporized versions of traditional styles, including crescent-shaped naja pendants, and bracelets and rings with stones and stampwork (which he said is a special love).
He has wanted to learn more new techniques in jewelrymaking, but his time is very limited. He’s one of 18 owners in the Dough Mountain Cattle Association. “We manage a good 350 head of cattle. I have two completely different jobs, but my jewelry is my primary income.” Stevens and his wife, Shannon Carr-Stevens (Laguna/Hopi), are showing jewelry and landscape photography, respectively, at both the We Are the Seeds event and at Santa Fe Indian Market.
Each of the works he offers for sale is based on a sherd of pottery he has found at Laguna. Some have fragments of designs he recognizes, but others are “so abstract I can’t figure out what they were,” he said. His sherd-replica pendants, earrings, and other pieces are fairly pricey because of the labor involved. Several years ago, he tried to cut costs for his customers by developing a series of molds, which he used to cast five earring designs and five pendant designs in limited series. “The problem was, I couldn’t take those to all of the shows, because there are only a handful of shows that allow casting. You can’t show cast jewelry at Indian Market, for example.” Also in the early years, he tried replicating not only the design on the sherds but the chips and other flaws. However, that work wasn’t as popular because the finished pieces looked like they were damaged.
With each of his pieces, he improvises based on the pattern on the sherd, often carving in relief as opposed to the single-plane painted design on the original pottery. “What I do is hand-tool the silver to capture the shape, the size, the patterns, the curves of the sherds, all of those details, and I only make one piece for each design,” Stevens said. “If you come by my show booths, the sherds are on display with the finished piece of jewelry so the customers can see them, but once each item is purchased, I retain the sherd. Once a year, after the shows are done, I take them to that canyon in Laguna, and I bury them in the place where I found them.” — Paul Weideman