For Reginald Mitchell, “it’s something magical when you see the person who buys your work.” It’s been a long path to get to where he is today, with some twists and turns along the way, so he finds knowing that person will cherish his work and perhaps pass it down through their family very satisfying.
A fifth-generation silversmith who specializes in sand and tufa casting, Mitchell grew up watching his own father, Eugene Mitchell, create beautiful pieces of silver jewelry. He says he “wasn’t really taken by the work part” as a child but it allowed him to see the process and understand it. And he got paid for the work he did in “white bread and bologna sandwiches”. It wasn’t until he was older that he would come to understand some of the obstacles Native artists face in trying to make a living off their work.
When he got older, Mitchell taught martial arts, something he thought would be his work for the rest of his life. After a move to Albuquerque, however, he found life had something else in mind for him. As Mitchell puts it, “life became like the Creator said, here, you’re going to go back to something that’s beautiful, to working with silver and stones.” This epiphany led to his return to the world of a silversmith.
That world had some challenges to it. One was that getting paid in bologna sandwiches didn’t cut it. Now that it was his own time, money and resources being invested in his work, Mitchell came to understand that often his father had been forced to sell the beautiful pieces he created for little more than he’d paid for the materials. He began to see how Native artists faced great difficulty in selling their work for what it was worth thanks to the way in which the business end of the industry was structured. The long history of oppression and exploitation of Native peoples continued in the galleries and markets where indigenous artists sought to sell their work. There was an attitude that these business owners held all the power. “Come and see me when you’re hurting,” one gallery owner told him, when he attempted to get a fair price for his pieces.
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Finding a path around that exploitation wasn’t easy. Together with his son, Bronson, he founded Dark Horse Navajo Jewelry, a company that works directly with customers to sell his fine handcrafted pieces. Internet and online sales have made it somewhat easier to bypass the galleries to sell his work.
And for Mitchell, this allows for more personal contact with those who purchase his pieces. It’s his hope that more Native artists will band together to change the structure of the market, and to let people know how much of the artist themselves goes into the making of Native jewelry. His hope is that artists will “refuse to hurt one another, to talk bad about each other. We must be supportive, we must band together and demand respect.”
His own silver work lets him know that Native artists will never fully recoup the investment they make in their art because of the value of their time and skill. Putting that sort of a price on each piece would mean no one could afford them. They can, however, make a better living at it by selling their work at a fair price themselves. He has learned how to do this through dealing with honest people, who helped him understand how to price his pieces so that he gets a fair return on his work. It’s important information, for, as he puts it, “if you’re not knowledgeable, you’ll always settle for less.” Ensuring the ability of Native artists to make a living with their work is an important pathway to ensuring this traditional expression continues to engage and inform people about Native culture.
The cultural connection is important to artists like Reginald Mitchell. He sees his art as a way of expressing the stories and values of the Navajo people, a way of showing “dignity, honor, walking that tranquil path, that beauty way.” For him, putting that kind of energy into his art is everything.
He sees his own work as traditional, but feels he is continuing to learn and grow with his art. And he feels tremendous respect for those artists who are taking the traditional way and making it a modern expression. For him, it’s important to “let go of the ego, the pride and open yourself up to everything. Learn about jewelry in the world, be open to ideas and to criticism.” With this belief, he works to raise his own work to the highest caliber, and to pass on his skills to his children.
For more information about Reginald Mitchell and to see his pieces, you can visit his website at: ~ https://www.darkhorsenavajojewelry.com/about
or his Instagram. ~ https://www.instagram.com/darkhorsenavajojewelry/