A birthday card inspired one of jeweler Tonya June Rafael’s most popular creations, a purse made of sterling silver.
Painter Brent Greenwood sometimes finds intriguing color combinations while delivering mail in rural Oklahoma.
They are two of three dozen or so artists and craftsmen who will show and sell their work at the American Indian Festival on July 14 and 15 at Century II.
Rafael was raised by her grandparents, both of whom were silversmiths. She remembers that her first foray into that art form, at the age of 11, was not too successful. She snuck into her grandfather’s shop and figured out how to start the torch.
“I melted all his silver into one big ball,” she said.
After studying to be a teacher in college and working at various jobs, she turned to jewelry making as a career and started showing her work at juried art shows in 2003. She lives and works in the same Prewitt, N.M., house and shop as her grandparents did.
“Today, this is what I do to support my family,” the mother of three said. “I love it.”
Rafael loves it when people remember her grandparents.
“They always tell me, ‘Your jewelry looks like your grandparents’ designs.’ ”
Rafael said she’s been able to make a living as an artist partly because she tries to keep her prices reasonable.
“I saw artists whose pieces are stuck in the thousands and they weren’t selling, and they were hurting,” she said. “I said, ‘I’m not going to do that.’ Regardless of what people say about the economy, I’ve survived it.”
She also shares expenses with a fellow artist, Jolene Bird, who’s become her best friend and who also will be at the Wichita festival. They met at a show in Indianapolis four years ago.
“She does a lot of pretty inlay necklaces,” Rafael said. “She liked my silver work. She goes, ‘Do you want to trade?’ That’s how we hit it off.”
Rafael produces everything from rings and earrings to necklaces and belts. She studs her silver work with turquoise and bright natural stones. Some of her best-selling items are small silver purses. Women use them for keys, cellphones and special nights out on the town, Rafael said.
Greenwood isn’t a full-time painter, and not just because of his day job as a U.S. postal carrier.
“I’m also a singer” for drum circles, he said. “My kids dance. It’s a busy, active, productive life. It’s part of who we are, so we’re very involved that way.”
His son, Me-Way-Seh, 16, and daughter, Anyvay, 12, will accompany him to Wichita, along with his wife, Tennisa, who’s a graphic artist.
As for delivering mail, Greenwood said it actually frees him to do the kind of art he likes.
“I don’t feel pigeon-holed to do a certain style to make ends meet,” he said. “I have a full-time job that gives me the flexibility to go to certain art shows and events. If I sell something, it’s like icing on the cake.”
Greenwood gets his subject matter from current and historical events. His paintings sometimes carry humorous titles. One called “There Goes the Neighborhood” depicts Native Americans watching white settlers crossing the Plains.
“I don’t want to be ‘in-your-face,’ ” he said. “The plight of the Indian is well-documented. I don’t want people to feel guilty or bad. It’s more of an educational concept depicting a very real situation that happened. But it also comes with a witty title. I want people to be able to enjoy it.”
Greenwood is known for leaving the faces of the people in his paintings blank or unfinished.
“I just leave it open for individual interpretation is the way I describe it,” he said. “I want the viewer to see whoever they want to see.”
Greenwood also uses vivid colors “to evoke emotion. I got that idea from one of my Western artists, (Russian-American painter) Mark Rothko. That’s what he was all about. My palette’s very colorful.”
A third artist who will be at the festival, Paul Hacker, also does multi-dimensional work. Hacker makes knives, flutes and replicas of ancient Native American pottery. He just returned from a show at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.
Hacker, 63, remembers when the Wichita Indian Center’s festival “used to be a great show,” then disappeared for a number of years before being revived last year.
“I think it was a big success,” he said. “It was hot, but it was worth it. I think people were glad to see it come back.”
In addition to making flutes, Hacker is an expert performer on the instrument, having recorded seven CDs of traditional and original music.
“I’ll be playing in the booth,” he said. “I’ll pick one up and try to show (festival goers) what it’s all about. Man, I love it.”