With every line etched into soft pottery and each bead set into sterling silver, Jess and Freida Lansing are telling the story of their Navajo ancestors.
The Cortez couple, originally from Aneth, Utah, are the embodiment of the artisan life, surviving by the works of their hands, continuing a trade they came to naturally. For both Jess and Freida, the arts they now practice came from their families, handed down from generation to generation. Jess the potter, Freida the silversmith.
My daddy was a medicine man and was involved in everything, Jess said while etching a design into a large jug. He did sand paintings and kachinas and pottery. My mom made rugs. This was always part of our family.
Despite the family background, Jess followed his own artistic path until he was 20, after a stint in the oil fields, chasing the elusive American Dream. The dream he settled on, however, was much closer to home.
Once I started, it came easy, he said. I had to figure it out for myself and figure out what it meant for me to do pottery. It couldnt be anyone elses style. It had to be mine. It took me a while to get it right. I still have my first piece; the lines are crooked. Im better now.
Jess designs are intricate, some passed to him by his father, some traditional Navajo designs. Each tells a story, and each has a meaning. The designs are marked in the clay with the tool Jess has come to believe is the best for the job, a sewing machine needle taped to the end of a toothbrush handle.
On the silversmithing side of the family, Freida learned her arts from her father and grandmother.
I have seen these (arts) all my life, she said. I was raised for the beginning of my life by my grandmother, and I learned how to shear sheep and brush the wool and work the wool on the frame and spin the yarn. When I was 8 years old, I came back to my mother and father and then I learned how to do jewelry.
Freidas patterns are intricate and beautiful. They speak to the designers experience.
I am the fifth generation of my family to do this work, she said, slipping a bead on the string of a necklace. That is a long time. It is just part of me and our family.
Freida learned pottery making from her husband, and says she splits her time between the potters wheel and the jewelers soldering iron.
Both Jess and Freida say they recognize the importance of passing their artistic skills to their six children, who range in age from 11 to early 20s. But beyond the straightforward ability of placing turquoise on a ring or tracing a line in clay, the couple hopes their work in the traditional arts will encourage their children to hold tightly to their heritage.
I want to be able to explain these skills to them and have them pick these things up and continue this tradition, Jess said. I want them to pick up their past and pick up their language and remember who they are.
Freida agreed, noting it is important that she pass her skills to her children in the same way her father and grandmother imparted their knowledge to her.
The Lansings can be found most summer days at Holiday Inn Express, where they work on their pieces and sell completed work to interested buyers, most of whom are from places other than Cortez.
Weve had a lot of people who have come back to get new pots or designs, Jess said. People seem to like the work, so we keep making it. It is who we are.
Reach Kimberly Benedict at [email protected]