Leslie O’Kelly is an original CONVICT. This past summer, the model-turned-art-curator undertook a mission to the Four Corners region to explore the aesthetic heritage of Native American art and culture. Along the way, she began weaving her own thread into the region’s cultural tapestry.
Hey Leslie. Tell us how you got interested in the southwestern aesthetic?
I came to New York when I was fifteen to model, but I took a hiatus from New York and went to Colorado to study business. I came back when i was twenty-two and have been here since.
Was there a moment when you knew you were going to get serious about curating jewelry?
What draws you to jewelry? Specifically, the aesthetically southwestern jewelry that you’ve been working on?
The story behind it. The funny thing is, is that I’m not really the type of girl who goes out and buys the trendiest jewelry. What really interests me is the culture and history and traditions that lie behind the jewelry making.
It’s one thing to be inspired by Native American art, but it’s another to copy it completely. Right now there’s a big southwestern, boho trend that embraces being country and being on the road. I get it, it’s cool-but these designs and techniques were made by the Native Americans and that should be credited to them. That’s a big part of why I’m trying to give back.
Do you consider jewelry art, or fashion, or somewhere in between?
To me, jewelry is art. I don’t look at it as a clothing accessory retail business. I look at it as an artform that i’m helping curate.
Tell me about the silver and turqouise you curate is there a traditional reason for that?
The Spanish came in and started trading with chunks of silver. So the Native Americans figured out how to melt it down and make use out of it. That evolved into jewelry making, and that evolved into a trade. I find it pretty interesting that a skilled trade developed out of something that was given to them as essentially trash. Turquoise is often seen in Native American cultures as a stone of the sky.
How important is jewelry making in terms of cultural history and storytelling?
It was a generational trade, historically. So even nowadays it’s often that you will find a son, a father and a grandfather all working together. Its important to my brand and the artists I work with that the art is being passed down through the generations and carried on in the families.
Tell me about the trip you went on? Where were you guys?
We started in Colorado and we went to Utah, Arizona and ended in New Mexico. Those four states hold the Navajo Nation which is the largest Native American reservation in the United States.
What did you hope to accomplish?
To find new artists and fully immerse myself in the culture. Just learn more, meet more people and build the relationships that I’ve been wanting to build.
Were there building relationships with these traditional jewelry smiths?
Ethnicity wise, I’m not Native American. They can be kind of bewildered when they find out I want to work with them. Also, that trust factor isn’t there. You have to build those relationships-just like any kind of business. I wanted to do this trip so I could start making those relationships credible.
How did that go?
Good. Every artist we met along the way was very supportive of what I’m trying to do. And vice versa.
icky was somebody who I met earlier in the summer in Cheyenne, Wyoming. He is an interesting character. Ricky does not believe in technology modern technology. He cancelled his email. He sees when people call him, but if he doesn’t know your number he wont pick it up. Even if you leave 7 voicemails. I don’t know if he quite liked me in the beginning, but he warmed up. His work is very traditional, which I love.
Was most of the art you encountered more traditional, or contemporary? Where is the intersection of those two modes in this field?
A lot of the artists we met on this trip leaned towards the contemporary side. That is something new to me, but something i’m open to because eventually everything does change.
What are you hoping for future?
The biggest thing for me is being authentic. That means working directly with the artists, working with a Native American artist who carries the same values that I do.
What are you taking away from this trip?
If you have good intentions, good will come your way. That was a big thing we learned on the road.