The Thin Green Line
Recently I have been thinking a lot about the trading post and its place in the larger scheme of things. At times, I feel it is simply a brokerage, nothing more than a buyer and seller of local arts and crafts.
On other occasions, however, I believe it may be helping the local craftspeople improve their lives and introducing their art to a larger world.
It may be my arrival at this stage of life, or just an ongoing search to find meaning in what I have been doing for the past several years that has raised the concern.
In either case, I have begun to search for relevance in this life beneath the sandstone towers.
I remember seeing a movie long ago called “The Thin Blue Line.” The film was about police officers and the separation they maintain between law-abiding citizens and those lawless individuals in-tent on doing harm to the general population.
The troopers create that narrow barrier, a thin blue line, that facilitates order and helps keep us safe.
I have begun to think of Twin Rocks as The Thin Green Line, a financial buffer that helps local artists rise above the subsistence level and stop worrying so much about how to pay the bills.
In many ways we are like the old-time traders; if we do our jobs properly, the local economy be-comes more vibrant and artists begin to create, rather than just replicate.
Since this area is chronically one of the poorest in the nation, it is always difficult for Navajo peo-ple, or anyone else for that matter, to become successful.
The unemployment rate is staggering, and job opportunities are rare. As a result of this difficult economic climate, many Navajo people rely on traditional crafts to sustain their families.
Under these circumstances, the craftspeople must be assured their work will sell, and if it doesn’t, the outgo exceeds the income.
As a result, artists frequently become conservative, and simply reproduce what they have been successful making and selling in the past.
This conservatism stifles the artistry that may otherwise be found in the fingers of the weaver or the hands of the silversmith.
In essence, the economic circumstances act as a barrier to innovation. The artists simply cannot bear the risk of making innovative items which may not sell.
Even though the rewards can be higher for a new style or inventive pattern, the investment of time and materials simply cannot be justified. The question is always, “What if it doesn’t sell?”
From the beginning we were dedicated to the idea that Twin Rocks would be a catalyst for change. The process started simply; we just ask the people who brought their crafts into the store to make something different.
To say we were naive would be a gross understatement. We had no idea what would be required to make the project work for us, our customers and the artists, and we had no feel for the financial commitment we were making to these people and their art.
Sure, there were the mistakes and misfires that had to be purchased. Since we had asked for something extraordinary, we felt obligated to buy the piece, even if it was not really what we had in mind.
Turning away the work left the artist with no other outlet, and the creative force immediately ended. That meant the project had failed, and the artists were required to fall back on the old standards, or the repo man might begin circling the hogan.
By purchasing the mistake, progress was maintained. If the process continued, the next piece might be interesting enough to merit the overall investment.
For over 30 years we have continued to ask for the unusual and have been rewarded with some of the most remarkable work produced in this part of the world.
As the artists have become more independent, they seem to feel greater freedom to experiment with new colors, shapes and designs.
By acting as that thin green line, and shifting some of the financial risk to ourselves, we have ac-tually set them free to be true artists, rather than simply subsistence craftspeople.
The excitement of seeing the latest creation unveiled can be extremely rewarding for us. At this point, we cannot even begin to predict what will be brought into the trading post, which makes this a great place.
From time to time, we still find ourselves groaning over something that didn’t turn out exactly right, but the successes far outweigh the failures.
That, I guess, is what trading posts were meant to be: a thin green line, a liberator, a catalyst for change and a means of helping local artists grow and progress in their own unique ways.