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Stone Diaries

Boyd Walker's Consummate Collection of Zuni Fetishes Is Helping Preserve the Carvers' Magic for All Time

January 25, 1998|CELESTE FREMON | Celeste Fremon last wrote for the magazine on her son's purchase of a BB gun

For three decades, Boyd Walker invited a steady stream of friends and acquaintances into his Pacific Palisades home to view his collection of fetishes--miniature stone sculptures of animals carved by the Zuni tribe of southwestern New Mexico. Walker, a longtime professor of zoology at UCLA who retired in 1980, had begun collecting the carvings in the mid-'60s. To pay for his hobby, he would offer some fetishes for sale, always holding the best pieces back for himself. "Can't sell that one," he'd tell a wheedling customer who had spotted his latest prize acquisition, an exquisitely shaped amber wildcat carved in a squarish style reminiscent of Henry Moore, or a quizzical-looking bear standing upright, fashioned from dark red pipestone.

Friends found that a 20-minute visit to Walker's garage inevitably stretched into hours as he regaled listeners with folksy tales of his favorite carvers. Walker is a tall man, and although at age 80 he walks with a slight shuffle, his body has an athletic ease born of strenuous field expeditions. When telling a story, he speaks in the patient, humorous rhythms of a well-liked teacher.

"Now you'll notice, all Sol Yusela's bears seem to be glancing off to one side," he would say. He might then point to a piece by Leonard Halate--a current darling of collectors--who carves his animals with slightly leering expressions. "Old Leonard pays the local kids to bring dead birds from the road," Walker would explain. "Then he uses the bird claws for horns on his animals." Walker is also partial to Herbert Halate, Leonard's son, who typically portrays his animals in motion; Rick Laahty, who carves bug-eyed frogs; and Max and Pernell Laate, brothers who sculpted a quirky series of deep-sea fishes they found pictured in an old National Geographic magazine. One of his favorite--and most valuable--pieces is a bear on all fours by Deyuse Leekya, the famed festish carver of the 1920s and '30s.

Although archeological finds indicate that many of the tribes of the Southwest made animal fetishes from pre-Columbian times onward, the Zuni have the reputation of being the most skilled carvers. Traditionally, the Zuni made fetishes to engage the aid of animal spirits for such activities as hunting, healing, initiations, war and procreation. But as time passed, a few were carved for sale to outsiders, particularly after World War I, when, at the request of jewelry dealers, carvers began making tiny animals to be set as stones in bracelets and strung bead-like on necklaces.

Indian basketry, pottery and weaving have been collected as refined examples of Native American art for more than a century. However, it wasn't until the 1960s that private collectors began to look seriously toward the Zuni carvings. When the New Age movement burgeoned in the '70s and '80s, people in search of "magical" objects further opened the market for fetishes. In response to the commercial demand, fetish carving experienced a dramatic renaissance. The use of materials expanded from local rocks such as jet and travertine to imports such as alabaster, amber and exotic marbles. Styles also grew more varied, from ultra-naturalistic to abstract.

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When Walker started purchasing zuni fetishes in 1968, the new explosion in this art form had just begun. As an academic and a scientist, it was natural for him to catalog as he collected. He systematically compiled ledgers on the individual carvers and their work, tracking how each developed a style over time. "I couldn't see that there was any museum recording this event, this resurgence of the carving," he says, "so I decided I would do it."

The result is a 4,000-piece collection, the bulk of which Walker donated to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County last year. Just before Walker called the museum, Margaret Hardin, curator of anthropology, had been trying to squeeze a few extra dollars out of her acquisition budget to purchase some new carvings. At that time, the museum's fetishes consisted of two dozen pieces. Then came Walker's offer to donate what Hardin now believes to be the single most comprehensive and well-documented collection of contemporary Zuni fetishes in the world. "Boyd Walker has done a remarkable thing," says Hardin of the collection, highlights of which may be put on display later this year. "He has assured that the Zuni fetish carvers of the late 20th century will have their proper place in history."

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