Contemporary Spotlight: Tonya June Rafael
Welcome to another Contemporary Spotlight – This series was created to celebrate the Contemporary Navajo artist, and get to know a little bit about their thought process when it comes to design, inspiration, and execution. These events will allow the viewer an inside look at the artist, and interact with them in a respectful manner. We hope you enjoy our time together.
Hello Tonya June Rafael, Thank you for being here today – We are very excited to have you in the group. Since we are new to your work, please give us a short Bio about your life prior to becoming a working artist.
TJR: Hello everyone!!! My name is Tonya June a Rafael. I am Navajo and live east of Gallup, New Mexico. I was raised by my maternal grandparents Tom and Mary Rafael. They were both silversmiths. I remember as a young girl probably around 8 years old… out of curiosity, I wanted to try to solder. So, I turned on my grandfather’s acetylene torch while he was away taking a lunch break. I lit up the torch and smelted my grandfather’s work into a glob of silver. I got scared and threw it under the table because I knew my grandfather would not be happy. So, in my early childhood.. I’ve always been around Jewelry- silversmiths. When I turned 18, a year after high school.. I worked as a “peace-worker” for a Jewelry manufacturing company in Gallup. I barely knew the basics of silversmithing.
I remember I use to make two-stone rings for 1.25 cents each labor price. I got the hang of it and I would finish a 100 Rings per week, I made $125.00. I worked there for about 2 years.
Then I moved to the “big city” of Albuquerque to continue my education. I attended the University of New Mexico. As a poor college student, I worked at a few retail shops in Old Town. Because of my little experience in silversmithing, I was good at making sales in jewelry.
After about a couple years, I had to put school aside, and concentrate on making a living. I began to work at jewelry manufacturing companies as a production laborer. After about seven years, I acquired enough knowledge of jewelry making and retail, I decided to go in my own.
While I was in college, I use to sell other jewelry at Pueblo Feast Days, local fairs,, and flea markets. I went to college to be an elementary school teacher., so when I needed to do student teaching, I applied at Wingate school. I was denied a job. I was disappointed, and that’s when I decided to make and sell jewelry full time .. then I started to apply for juried art shows. Like the Santa Fe Indian market , Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis, Autry in Los Angeles.. I was soooo thrilled, my first time applying to SWAIA, Santa Fe Indian market.. I got accepted. That was in 2004!
DY: ha ha ha, what was your G’fathers reaction to you melting his work?! and using his torch while he was gone?!
TJR: He looked and looked.. but I never told .. I’m sure he later discovered when he swept the shop floors. Yes, I still feel bad to this day.. Sorry Chei..
DY: That is quite the story, how old were you when you left school to go out on your own?
TJR: Right after High school, 17 or so.
DY: We are going to ask you a series of questions that we ask all our artists, to allow us a look into your life as an artist. Please feel free to share images of your work, and projects underway as you answer these questions.
DY: Where did you learn to fine-tune your Silversmithing & What attracted you stick with it, even through the tough times?
TJR: Well… after so many hours, days, weeks, YEARS.. of mishaps, goof-ups, mistakes.. PRACTICE.
DY: Did you have a mentor that guided you?
TJR: I always give my grandparents full credit for my silversmithing career. I say my work is not “fine-tuned” . I still have blemishes here and there. My late brother Lynol Yellowhorse, renowned jeweler was an artist at the Santa Fe Indian market. He was the one who told me to to join the “big leagues”
DY: that is wonderful, it sounds like family is a big inspiration for you – do you have any images of you and your grandparents? or of your earlier work?
TJR: My grandparents Tom and Mary Rafael, from Blackwater/Prewitt, New Mexico. My grandparents raised me from infancy.. so my first language was Navajo. They taught me my culture and the basics of silversmithing.
Member: what are your clans?
TJR: Yes, I’m sorry as a Diné, we are suppose to introduce ourselves by giving our clans. My maternal clan is Naakaii Diné – Born for (my Dad’s clan) Kiinyaanii, My Chei’s (grandfather) clan is Dees’ chiinii and my Naalis are the Irish biliagana
TJR: (..on earlier work images..) Not really.. I didn’t have much confidence in myself.. I never thought of taking photos of my work.
DY: Do you work on any other creative projects outside of silversmithing?
TJR: Not really. My grandmother was a rig weaver. I use to help her with carding and spinning wool. But I never really had any interest in weaving.
DY: Fair enough – we all have our own paths.
TJR: I made my first piece in 2001 that I sold at the Gathering of Nations pow wow. I made a turquoise pin with drops around it , and sold it for a $100. I was so ecstatic!!
DY: ha ha ha, that was going to be my next question! So this was about the time you were out on your own steam?
TJR: Yes, when I wanted to make another piece. I was always drawn to jewelry with bright colored stones..
DY: What/Where do you look for inspiration before beginning a project?
TJR: When I see natural turquoise, corals, lapis, spiny oyster shells, semi precious stones.. I get mesmerized!! I loooove. And cannot wait to get in my shop and start creating. .Usually it begins with stones, I see the designs in my thoughts.
DY: What was the inspiration behind the purses?
TJR: I had a close friend from New York. I remember I bought a birthday card.. 5×7 size. One day, I came home and I was sitting at my desk in “deep thoughts” with that birthday card in my hand.. not realizing that birthday card I was bending it a “U” shape. Then, that “U” shaped bent card.. was my first idea to make a purse.. that’s where it first began. Then the rest is history..
DY: that is awesome! So literally came to you organically? i love this.
DY: One of the most challenging things for me when I design is, How do i make it fresh – What is the most challenging part of your creative process for you? And why?
TJR: The process of making Jewelry with any metals.. can be a dangerous task. You work many types of hazardous chemicals, heat temperatures, back-breaking from sitting on your behind long hours, and takes a toll on your eyes. I say the most challenging part of making jewelry is making jewelry.
DY: What part of the silversmithing process do you enjoy most?
TJR: My favorite part.. is selecting the stones.. the beginning stage- design.Soldering can be challenging, too much heat can result to crystallizing the bezels. Then you saw out the piece after soldering and acid-cleaned. Then if it’s a ring, solder on the shank, etc. My least favorite task in jewelry making is buffing and polishing. UGH! Sometimes, my cousin Greg will help me with buffing. Here’s My favorite part!! Setting stones!!! Why? Because I love to see the final stage, all polished and almost complete.
DY: In your opinion, how do silversmiths of the past inspire what the contemporary artists create today? And why?
TJR: There are so many great awesome artists /silversmiths of the past, no question. We artists of today get our inspirations from our history, culture and nature.. all acquire into our art work today! My inspirations come from my grandparents, and many other artists.
DY: In your opinion, what part has social media played in the NA business whether positive or negative?
TJR: A very big part!! I have made many new contacts through Facebook and Instagram. (I deleted my Instagram acct). For the big part, social media has been positive in building my jewelry business. But there are also the down side too. There are “copy cats” out there. And yes, I’ve had some negative remarks and criticisms.
DY: How do you handle the copy-cats, and keep your brand moving forward?
TJR: Well, at first it was hurtful. It bothered me. Then master artist like Arland Ben, Elizabeth Whitethorne, and other friends told me to “carry on” and not to worry so much. Like an original Piccaso painting vs his “knock-offs” are not the same. True Art speak through it’s originality.
DY: In your opinion, what role does an artist play in society, and how do you use your work to achieve this?
TJR: Society needs art! Art needs society! This world would be so boring without art. I wear jewelry everyday, it’s who I am and what I represent. So, as an artist… we make the world a little more “happier.” That is why I love to make jewelry.
DY: Finally, what are your future plans, and where do you hope to see yourself in 5 years?
TJR: Remain a healthy lifestyle.. detox from metals and chemicals every so often.. so, I can help, teach and share with others how to make and sell jewelry. Making jewelry’s one thing,,, how to sell jewelry is a whole other subject. Anyway, I would like to continue my career making new designs. Maybe do less shows. Spend more time creating one master piece instead making a bunch of rings or bracelets in a week..etc. I would like to attend other art classes, not only jewelry.. but other classifications. And I would love to travel the world.
DY: Thank you for being here today Tonya, and taking time out of your busy schedule to share with the group a little about yourself & work. We will be posting the full interview to our website, along with the pictures you shared to archive your story. I wish you the best of luck, and look forward to seeing more from you in the future.
TJR: Thank you all for reading my comments!! Thank you David Ybarra for this awesome group page! Thank you for allowing me to introduce myself and tell about my work. If you have any other questions.. please feel free to ask me anything. A couple years ago, I was a guest speaker to a fifth grade class. I talked about my jewelry career, and during q&a, a student asked how old I am. Lol. I’m 49 years old. I’ll be the big five-O in June!! Thank you all!!
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