Introducing Larry “Bear” Upshaw, Diné Artist
For Larry “Bear” Upshaw, the story of his journey to becoming a silversmith is reflective of his journey in life. It’s the story of the landscape around him, the stories of his people and the years spent herding sheep for his grandparents. These things have shaped him into a man willing to take on the challenges life sends his way. He laughs as he remembers what someone said about him once, warning another to “don’t ever argue with that man. Whatever he says, he’ll do it.”
Growing up in Bluff, Utah, Bear herded his grandparents’ sheep in the summers. His grandmother was a medicine lady and a weaver, and his grandfather was a crystal gazer, a man who prayed for help and healing for the people who came to him. They taught him “all about what life is.” His grandfather taught him about herbs and how to use them and how to pray to the spirits for help and guidance. Bear says he “used to get me up early in the morning” to take him to the rock formation that was beside their house. There, his grandfather taught him how to understand his dreams and how to communicate with the spirits. From his grandfather, Bear learned that “if you’re awake early in the morning praying, the spirits know you want something and they’ll give it.” It was a lesson about life that would carry him through the challenges he later faced.
As an adult, Bear went into the contracting business, building homes all over the area. After a while, he became sick and doctors told him his kidneys were failing. Bear started dialysis. Staying home, however, didn’t suit him. “I’m a person that can’t quit. I have to do something.” To begin with, Bear started walking, forcing himself to walk further and further each day. The challenge paid off and, though he still did needed to do dialysis, he went back to work.
The frustration of finding places to do his dialysis wherever he might be working soon taught him another life lesson: how to trust in when it was time to walk away. Bear’s wife had gotten a job at Pojoaque Pueblo so they had moved there. Bear was doing dialysis in a clinic nearby, a place he felt lacked in both cleanliness and concern for the patients. During one session he walked out, saying he would not be back. Immediately after that, he got a 2:30am call from the Mayo Clinic, telling him he had twelve hours to get there because they had a kidney for him.
The transplant freed Bear from dialysis but life wasn’t done putting new ideas in his path. He had gone to the Indian Market where he noticed a painter whose work he liked. During his conversation with the artist, the man told him to go and draw his own paintings. It was a challenge that Bear accepted. He created ten paintings, then took them to another artist from Cochiti for feedback. This man talked to him about shadowing and other techniques. Bear went back over his paintings using these new skills before taking them back to his friend for another evaluation. While he was there, buyers came in. He was able to sell two of his paintings to them. Thanks to his friend’s input on what the prices should be, Bear was able to sell them for far higher prices than he would have put on them himself.
While he worked on his painting skills, another friend signed him up for a silversmithing class. This opened another door for Bear’s artistic skills. Today he works to create not only pieces of beauty, but items that reflect the world as he sees it. He uses some of his grandmother’s weaving designs along with his visions of the landscape to create the jewelry he sells. The pieces are tangible representations of the long journey life has taken him on. Through his art, Bear is leaving his story for the world to remember, a story of strength and spirituality that the world today needs.