Follow Your Bliss
By Keri Ataumbi
I was raised on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming where my mother had a trading post and my father was a bronze sculptor. My childhood was steeped in the amazing handmade Native artwork (mostly adornment and moccasins) that my mother bought and sold. Most of it was Shoshone and Arapaho, but there were Natives from all over the country that would sell to her and/or that she collected from. My father was a very hands-on person, and his studio was a major part of our house. Being exposed to the bronze casting process and all the handmade things in my early years definitely influenced me. I ended up studying painting and art history in college, but didn't begin making jewelry until after college, about 18 years ago.
My jewelry is an expression of my creativity that is influenced by the aesthetic of my Native identity and the world around me. I'm interested in making work that combines elements we as indigenous people hold valuable (elk teeth, buffalo, feathers, etc.) with elements considered valuable in the popular culture (diamonds, high-carat gold, precious stones, etc.). There is a beauty that happens in combining different value systems through material that is inclusive. My work is a platform to educate and share my culture in a non-appropriated manner. I am very conscious of some elements of my culture that are inappropriate to share through my work and other elements of my culture that can be a tool to help create connections and honor our traditional aesthetics.
I do a lot of research by speaking with members of my Native and non-Native community, through museum collections and academic writing when I am developing pieces. How I was raised, along with my continued desire to be educated about my heritage and my participation within my communities, has given me a very deep sense of belonging, purpose, and place.
I have always said that I want my work to make people "feel more of themselves" when they put it on. I like the idea that they are wearing it because it enhances their connection to themselves and not just because it is a brand or label to show off. When I have doubt about a specific piece, the idea of this purpose of my work often shows me that the doubt is just that, doubt. I have always found that going for a trail run in the hills is almost always a failproof way of regaining my connection to myself and sorting out any disruptions that cause moments of my own self-doubt in the process.
My mother has been one of my biggest inspirations in my life. She was a huge influence, not only through her businesses, the numerous museum, educational, and other boards she was part of, but also through the very grassroots and personal expression of her own "look." I believe adornment and fashion is one of the most powerful tools we have. My mother, Jeri Ah-be-hill, started wearing her traditional clothes every day with her personal twist in the 1960s. She wore t-dresses and mocs to the grocery store, to work, to travel, and if she didn't have a t-dress on, her outfit and presentation of self was distinctly Native. Growing up with her as my role model, I watched her engage and educate ANYONE who interacted with her because of her appeal. She also influenced the younger Native population to embrace and be proud of who they were and where they came from, instead of buying into the mentality of the residential schools that so many natives, including my mother, were a product of. Fashion and adornment is an extraordinary tool not only to educate and engage the larger population, but to encourage our Indigenous youth to learn, embrace, respect, and share who and where we come from and how we want our communities to grow. Mom passed away three years ago, which has had an impact on me in ways that I couldn't have imagined. I didn't quite understand or spend as much time thinking about what she accomplished and who she was until she passed. The stages of grief and the transformation that takes place from losing a parent, particularly one that you are very close to, has impacted how I perceive and behave in the world. It has also opened something for me creatively that feels authentic and extraordinarily engaging, and is shifting the aesthetic of my work. I'm enjoying the process as it unfolds.
Being able to make a living from my art continues to be one of my greatest accomplishments. I've recently had an apprentice, Tania Larsson in my studio, and being able to share my knowledge with someone starting their career and then myself learn from her younger perspective has also been giving me a deep sense of accomplishment. There are, of course, challenges too, which include accepting my aesthetic and abilities without comparing them to the work of others. I once had a teacher tell me that my work "wasn't perfect, but it was alive." That simple statement allowed me to start thinking about my work for its own value instead of criticizing it. I also had a breakthrough when I began to ask for more help from a broader range of contemporaries. One of the things that I value most about being an artist and jeweler is that there is always a new technique to learn. Finding and learning the correct way to move raw materials to make a good piece is both a pleasure and a challenge at times.
The best piece of advice I was ever given was, "Follow your bliss," and I continue to share the same advice: Follow your bliss.
Raised on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, Keri Ataumbi was exposed to both traditional Native American aesthetics and contemporary art theory and practice from an early age. Her Kiowa mother ran a trading post and her Italian-American father is famous for his bronze sculptures. Ataumbi and her sister were encouraged to pursue their individual interests in art. Ataumbi attended Rhode Island School of Design before moving to Santa Fe in 1990. After moving to Santa Fe she worked as a landscape designer while attending the Institute of American Indian Arts and eventually received a BFA in painting with a minor in art history from the College of Santa Fe. She currently lives and works in the Cerrillos Hills outside Santa Fe. Follow @ataumbimetals. Read more about Keri's work here.
Cover image of Keri Ataumbi by Raechel Running
Words: Keri Ataumbi