To realize Robert Taylor’s childhood, one has only to study his art. Robert was born and raised on the Navajo Reservation near Winslow, Arizona. He spent much of his childhood on horseback herding sheep, chasing coyotes, or simply absorbing the scenery. Robert eloquently expresses that upbringing along with his mother’s textile patterns through his outstanding skills. With a tiny coping saw, miniature jeweler’s files, and an acetylene torch, Robert has captured and impressed time and place into this substantial sterling silver neckpiece.
Robert Taylor - Silversmith "Cluster, channel, leaf, inlay, casting... I've done about everything," Robert Taylor talks about his silver and goldsmithing, "There's a lot of artists that do it." And then he confides the reason he has set himself apart from other craftsmen. "I didn't really get anywhere until I decided to design my own style."
Robert's "own style" is often based on stories, greatly influenced by his traditional Navajo upbringing. It has brought him much recognition, but when asked about commendations he shrugs. "I have a lot of awards and ribbons at home," he says. He does remember receiving Best of Division awards at the Santa Fe Indian Market and the Heard Museum. Some of his best pieces, including one of his favorites - a concho belt where each segment illustrates a different Navajo rug design - have been featured in the acclaimed book Enduring Traditions.
"Back in 1970, when I was small, my dad bought a few tools," Robert Taylor begins his story of how he grew into silversmithing. "I watched him make rings and bracelets. Then, a couple of years later, my brothers and sister started. I just watched them. Then they started me as a jewelry buffer. I became a good buffer and they liked my work. So one of my older brothers took me on in Farmington."
The first piece of jewelry Robert made he traded for a turquoise necklace. Silversmithing for him began more as a hobby, a summer job, something sandwiched in between sessions of school. Because of the distance to schools from his reservation home in Arizona, he attended a variety of schools at Dilcon and Toyie, Arizona; and then Wingate and Farmington, New Mexico.
When Robert graduated from high school he found employment in construction, as an iron worker. This seemed satisfactory until he met his wife and they started a family. Robert was traveling from job to job and didn't get to see his family except on weekends. And then, in his words, "I found out making jewelry's better. I can stay home with my kids. That's what I like about it."
Now Robert's brother-in-law is the one who does buffing for him - ("That's the dirty work", Robert confides) - and his young son is the one who stands and watches them. "He wants to learn the jewels," Robert comments, seemingly pleased.
"My mother and wife are both rug weavers," he comments, speaking of his sources of inspiration. He also relies on the Navajo Storyteller, Flute Player, Yeis, lizards, and sand painting symbols to fuel his creativity. With a positive tone he adds, "Right now I'm coming up with more designs."
Robert not only features unusual original designs, his techniques are also unusual. "I don't do a lot of stamping," he says, referring to a standard silversmithing technique. "Mine is mostly overlay. I don't carry any patterns- I've got it all in my head. I sketch out the design - (using a scribe to etch it)- then cut out the silver top plate and then the bottom, so it looks like a picture frame. Then I solder the two pieces together."
His main tools are saw blades, a torch for soldering, and a hammer.
Robert and his family live on the vast Arizona desert part of the Navajo reservation, the same place Robert was born. They have electricity, but no running water. They are grateful to have electricity - many reservation residents do not. They have grown up with the routine of hauling water so it isn't considered a hardship. Right now Robert's workshop is in the laundry room. They take their clothes to a laundromat in town.
In addition to silversmithing, Robert's other talents include being a musician. "I get tired of sitting in the same place," he says of his work, "and I feel like playing music." He belongs to a band and plays either lead guitar or drums, enjoying both country music and rock 'n roll. "When I get back then I'm fresh and can start again."
Robert's father - who was 62 years old when Robert was born - is still living and a vital force in his life. He is a Medicine Man and he records the Navajo traditional stories, songs, and prayers on cassette tapes so Robert can learn them as he drives long stretches to market his work.
"I'm very proud of my Navajo culture," Robert says. Then he quietly sums up the essence of his life's work, "What's important is to keep up good work, do it right, and teach it to the young people."