“Every time I feel down, I always think about my place in life, and I feel that I have something to give into this world…”
A Navajo born in Tuba City, Arizona, Ric Charlie is of Tsi’naa’jinii’ (Black-Streaked-Wood-People) and Ta’baahi’ (Edgewater) Clans. Raised by his grandparents, Charlie learned the traditional ways of his people and began experimenting with jewelry making while still in high school. He had learned the basic techniques by the time he attended Arizona State University in Tempe and the University of Arizona in Tucson (with sports scholarships). It was at university that he formally studied jewelry making and design.
The process of tufa casting, however, was not part of his studio art curriculum – and that is the technique that truly captured Ric Charlie’s imagination. To learn those skills the budding goldsmith apprenticed himself to the jewelers he most admired and committed himself to perfecting this meticulous and challenging technique.
In tufa casting, a tufa stone (compressed volcanic rock found on the Navajo reservation) is cut in half, the two halves rubbed together and smoothed until they create a perfectly flush surface. A cone-shaped “sprue hole” is carved at the top to allow silver or gold to be poured in and additional holes are carved into the sides to allow air to escape. The artist then carves their design onto the flat surfaces on the inside of the mold; the negative space created is what will be filled with the silver or gold. This is where the skill and precision of incising the tufa stone comes in. After the two halves are secured back together and the chosen metal poured in then cooled, the hardened metal is removed from the mold, the metal in the sprue hole is removed and the jewelry piece is carefully sanded and cleaned, leaving the distinctive texture of the tufa stone in place. The metal is then formed into its final shape (e.g. curved into a cuff).
“Sandcasting is a pretty difficult medium,” Ric Charlie says. “But for me it’s second nature. Everything I do is cast, and 99 percent of them are one-of-a-kind.” He uses the same dental tools he has used for decades to achieve the extremely detailed imagery that he is now celebrated for. Navajo landscape scenes of the Monument Valley area, Yei Bi’Chei’ spiritual figures and sand painting designs – all imagery with great meaning to Ric Charlie – find their way into his pieces. At times, he adds liver of sulphur to the silver he works with to create colorful patinas of golds, rusts, blues, greens or purples. His wide range of techniques also include mosaic, channel inlay and set natural stones.
Ric Charlie has received numerous awards from competitions at the Heard Museum and Santa Fe Indian Market, including Best of Show, Best of Class, and the Raymond Dewey Memorial Award for Excellence in Tufa Stone Casting.