Hopi silversmith shares art at Watchtower

Artist Jonah Hill demonstrates his metalsmithing at Desert View Watchtower July 8.  Loretta Yerian/NHO and Jonah Hill

Artist Jonah Hill demonstrates his metalsmithing at Desert View Watchtower July 8. Loretta Yerian/NHO and Jonah Hill

GRAND CANYON, Ariz. - Jonah Hill is an artist with many talents. He recently demonstrated one of those, metalsmithing, at Desert View Watchtower in Grand Canyon National Park.

Hill is a Hopi-Quechen river guide, environmental educator, ethnobotanist and metalsmith. On July 8 - 9 Hill and his twin brother, woodcarver and toymaker Greg Hill, displayed and demonstrated how they make neo-traditional jewelry and children's tops as part of a cultural demonstration series at the Desert View Watchtower on the east entrance of Grand Canyon National Park (GCNP).

Jonah Hill has been an artist for around 18 years. His work has been exhibited in numerous shows and galleries but it wasn't until the last four years that Hill took up metalsmithing. He started as a wood carver and later went to the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico to study metalsmithing.

Hill calls his designs neo-traditional which means his work is not overlay but incorporates themes and imagery from the Hopi culture.

"When I first started doing metalsmithing I never wanted to be a traditional Hopi overlay artist," he said. "Overlay has a lot of really precise images from pottery."

For the last year Hill has learned how to do tufa casting. Tufa casting starts with the artist taking a design after it is sketched or conceptualized and transferring the design to stone where it is carved.

Hill uses dental picks and wooden skewers to help carve the mold. Each mold is different, allowing Hill to create truly unique designs. The tufa stone is then covered with a fine layer of volcanic ash to create a two piece mold. Hill mines the ash on the Hopi Reservation. The purpose of the ash is to prevent the metal from sticking to the mold. Hill then heats the silver and pours it into the mold to cool and harden.

"If I didn't heat it the stone would be room temperature and the chances are that if I poured the metal would stop and only go so far," he said. "If you heat it, it allows the metal to flow to the bottom of the mold."

When Hill carves the design into the mold he tries to incorporate Hopi imagery such as an ear of corn or hand to represent harvesting. Every time he uses the mold it loses some of its definition, eventually he will replace the mold with a fresh carving. With his skills as a woodcarver, carving a new mold only takes Hill about 10 minutes.

After he finishes pouring the metal into the mold he waits for it to cool before dipping into a bucket of water.

"When I do this at home, I have a whole bunch lined up and I do them one after another," he said.

Once it has cooled he pops the metal out of the mold and displays a perfectly molded pair of silver earrings. The last step will be to sand the piece to get rid of any unwanted blemishes before polishing it.

This is Hill's second year participating in Native American demonstrations at the Watchtower and his second demonstration this year.

Hill said demonstrations at the Watchtower have been a great opportunity to share his work and his culture with a national and international audience.

"There's a lot of people and educational opportunities," he said. "I get to educate people about where the art comes from and how you produce it."

Hill said generally people have lots of questions about the process and about him - how long he's been a silversmith, where he is from, which tribe and where they can order custom designs.

"A lot of times people buy jewelry but they've never seen it produced," Hill said. "This is cool because they can actually see someone making it and at the same time they're learning."

Greg Hill, Jonah's twin brother is also relatively new to the art world - starting as a butcher for many years before deciding to try his hand as a woodcarver specializing in toymaking, specifically wooden tops or riyanpi's, a traditional Hopi toy.

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