Turtles by nature aren’t especially pretty things- interesting perhaps, what with God’s inherent skill in detail and nuance, but hardly a creature many artists strive to capture in their medium of choice. Enter Danny Jackson, a forty-five year old Navajo silversmith from Chinle, Arizona, who will tell you flat out and upfront that he loves this particular reptile. “Desert turtles are known for good luck and long life—this is a universal belief in all tribal cultures— and they’re rare to see,” he says. Danny works in what is known as the ‘shadowbox’ style (two layers of silver are joined: the back piece is acid washed, creating a black background; the piece in the forefront is curved, cut and stamped) and the resulting jewelry pieces—turtles included—glow with a deep, ethereal calm. “I wanted to make something others didn’t— everyone else was doing flat pieces, or adding stones.”
He comes from a long line of silversmiths, dating from the 1800’s, and his is the fourth generation. His three brothers and one sister make them the Jackson 5 and yes, one of his brothers is named Michael. When he was six years old he began making plain silver rings, some with bezels and stones. After a year or so, with his parents keeping half of the proceeds for supplies and letting him keep the rest (“I didn’t like that part of it.”) he became a buffer. Erasing minute imperfections in the silver— buffing out the hammer marks, scratches, and solder lines— taught him a lot about the art of jewelry making. It was his brother Tommy who told him, ‘My name is going on each piece and it has to be perfect’. Because the Jackson family designs are considered ‘museum/gallery’ quality, Danny kept at it until each piece shone.
“Every little corner is checked. I learned this because of him.” He continued his buffing through high school. Marriage then took him to Globe and Phoenix. He returned to his parents’ home in Chinle one day while they were out of town. Their tools and silver were where they left it; he began to ‘work’ the metal and created a few small pieces. His efforts were rewarded when they returned and thought his work was theirs. “If it was good enough for them to think that, then I’ll start doing my own,” he remembers thinking.
That was in 1994. Since then, he’s been designing and executing his own work and attends NAU towards a degree in Art Education.
The Navajo nation, with a population of 300,000, is second only to the Cherokee in size. An abundance of artists dwell in the Navajo community, such as weavers, sand painters, silversmiths, and woodworkers. A 2004 study found approximately 60 percent of all families have at least one member making arts and crafts. Learning how to do so is strongly encouraged; jewelry making is taught in the schools and in fact Danny’s father and older brother (Gene and Tommy Jackson, both well-known silversmiths) were former artists-in-residence.
”You need to pass this on for the culture to survive,” Danny stresses. “The younger generation has to learn and the older generation has to teach.” The Navajo are a tight group, with family members living in very close proximity to each other. Referencing the axiom, ‘it takes a village to raise a child’, he continues. “Up here, the village is the family. You need your grandparents and uncles. In Navajo culture, Father doesn’t instruct children to behave and learn—it’s the Mother’s brothers—it’s a matriarchal system.”
It was through this intensive tradition of learning that Danny developed his craft. While buffing finished silver all those years taught him to look for imperfections and to strive for seamless perfection, the actual creation of a piece is critical and painstaking. A commissioned piece he did a while back– a large sterling turtle with four smaller turtles cut into it— was created as a table centerpiece which measured 5X6 inches. Each turtle had a Blue Gem turquoise stone mounted into it, and Danny counted 540 individual stamps by the time he completed the piece. The stamping is done with a chisel, at room temperature— and not a machine. “It freaks people out!” he says, laughing. In the shadowbox process, Danny cuts designs into the silver with a tiny jeweler’s saw; the delicate cutouts of horses and hands, in one particular piece, are miniscule. Some of his tools are custom made by his father-in-law, a former machinist. “[In my work] you burn your fingers, you cut your fingers. If someone tells you they do their own stuff, I always say, check their hands.”
Currently, Danny is creating gradient sterling bead necklaces. They are as lustrous as pearls and as timeless, but don’t be fooled by the simplicity. Each bead is actually a hollow half, hammered into a circular shape and then joined seamlessly. Danny’s buffing experience comes into full play here, and the resulting pieces are exquisite. If gold would be sunshine, then silver is slumber— quietly satisfying and pleasing.
“There’s a feeling of gratification knowing you’ve created a piece that wasn’t there before,” Danny explains. “My Mother used to say a part of us goes into each piece—literally! When I’d burn myself buffing, [everything] combines on an atomic level. We get cut, we bleed—it all goes into a piece.” Despite this, the jewelry he creates aren’t simply shiny baubles—they are exuberant, fluid; they move with a life of their own, like rushing water or molten glass. Bright and quick, but soothing as well. How best to describe his work are the words of a woman who admired a sterling turtle necklace he had created.
“She said, ‘Danny, that piece was talking to me. I had to come back for it’. It became a part of her, which is pretty neat—it called her back, because she had dreamed about it.”
Current work by Danny Jackson can be found at the on line store at Pickle Barrel Trading Post in Globe