For Navajo artist Verna Tahe, meeting her husband Franklin at Tohatchi High School was the beginning of a marriage not only of two people, but also of art. In spite of the fact that some of her family were silversmiths, she says she “didn’t really get into it” until she met Franklin Tahe in 1978. Today their collaborative artistry is well-known and their pieces coveted by customers all over. It’s been a long road, one which taught Verna many of the words of wisdom she offers today to new Native American artists.
Their collaboration afforded them the opportunity to be as creative as they wanted. Verna says Franklin does the soldering and bending on their signature twist bracelets while she does the stamping and polishing. Over the years, the couple traveled to shows at home and in the surrounding states, marketing their jewelry to those who came. Through these shows they picked up customers who continued to order their work. Verna says it takes a week or two to produce a custom order, depending on the amount of pieces the order requires. The pattern chosen depends on the customer’s preference. To her, each pattern and piece is a favorite. Today she and Franklin produce mostly custom orders from those who have long admired their work.
Most artists struggle with the business end of marketing their pieces, but sales have turned out to be the area Verna says she loves. It affords her the opportunity to meet new people, something she enjoys. Through the years, marketing their work gave her “the experience of how to do business, and to learn how to talk to people.” She finds it easier to sell one-on-one to a customer.
The journey has given her some sage advice for other artists, particularly those struggling to focus on the business aspect. One of the most important things she would tell them is not to undercut themselves when it comes to pricing their work. In her travels, she says she sees a lot of artists “trying to be cheap” in order to get their work into stores or create a customer base. To her, this is the wrong way to go about it. Her feeling is there are people out there who will pay more.
Artists need to remember the time and talent they put into a piece, and the fact that they put their heart into it. For Verna, it’s a matter of respect. Those who would persuade artists to put lower prices on their pieces aren’t showing them respect, in her opinion. She says people like that need to “be fair to the artist, to how much work and effort they put into a piece.” Handcrafted jewelry has a greater inherent value than those pieces produced on machines, something which doesn’t always get taken into consideration when it comes to pricing. Artists need to keep this fact in mind, and to price according to what they put into a piece. As Verna puts it, “that machine doesn’t have feelings. We put our mind, our effort, our heart into it, into how it looks and that people would want to wear it.” This is the true value of a handcrafted piece of jewelry.
Another bit of wisdom she’s gained over the years is the need to protect her designs. Putting her work out into the public arena brings with it the risk of its unique qualities being taken by others to use as their own. When asked about anything she would do differently looking back, she says she would have a copyright. It’s an additional protection for her creative work and one she finds she wishes she had had.
It’s been a long and interesting journey for Verna and Franklin Tahe. Together they have created a lasting legacy of art to leave their four children and the world. Their son is the one most interested in making jewelry, although he has not been able to focus on it full-time as they could. Still, their creativity and their passion has been passed to the next generation. It’s a good end for their journey.