This photo was taken after a day of collecting shells on the Sea Of Cortez beach in Mexico for an upcoming class, pictured are (l-r): Jacob Butler, Daniel Garcia, Amson Collins, and Art Wilson.

Artist Jacob Butler Teaches Shell Etching With Help From The Artist Leadership Program

By Jacob Butler
and Denelle Prieto

Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community member Jacob Butler is a local artist, potter and gardener. Butler is Onk Akimel O’odham and works for the SRPMIC Cultural Resources Department as the Community garden coordinator.

One art medium that Butler works in is shell etching. Currently there are only a few O’odham individuals who carry on the tradition of shell etching. With this in mind, Butler was encouraged to write a proposal to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) to apply for inclusion in the NMAI’s Artist Leadership Program, which provides tribal artists the opportunity to visit Washington, D.C., to explore the Smithsonian collections and research the cultural history of their art form. Afterward, artists go back to their home communities to share what they’ve learned.

According to NMAI, the focus is to, “rebuild cultural self-confidence, challenge personal boundaries, and foster cultural continuity while reflecting artistic diversity”. The Selection into the ALP is based on artists’ proposed research, proposed workshops or public-art projects, digital portfolios, résumés, artist statements and letters of community support.

Butler was selected to participate in the program, chosen from a very long list of talented artists who represented not only national but international cultures. When questioned about how he felt after being notified that he had been selected for the ALP, Butler stated, “I was beyond belief.” Butler’s surprise was understandable, considering the ALP project was his first proposal ever. In the process of writing the proposal, he needed to include, along with the project outline and supporting information, a résumé, artist bio and a PowerPoint presentation. “I really didn’t expect to be selected; I was just happy to finally create a résumé,” Butler said.

Butler’s inspiration and encouragement to apply came from fellow Community member Royce Manuel, who participated in last year’s ALP. Butler recalled the events that led up to Manuel suggesting he make the proposal:

“I was very interested in the opportunity to teach a shell class to my fellow Community members and to be a part of this amazing experience with the Smithsonian. This interest was sparked after Royce had given me, in my opinion, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to come with him to Washington, D.C., and shadow him as he conducted his research and presented his project at the NMAI. The night before it was time to come home, we were having dinner. Royce asked, ‘Do you think you could do this after seeing what it involves? You know how to do it; you can do it. You just need to try.’ Over dinner, Manuel and ALP Artist Liaison Keevin Lewis kept repeating the Nike motto, ‘Just Do It.’ So I did.”

Butler said he learned a lot from that initial trip and credits Manuel with his own involvement in the ALP. “He encouraged me to apply and showed me how he did it.”

A large part of Butler’s time with the ALP was dedicated to classes. The program utilizes artists as well as Smithsonian staff to educate participating artists on the importance of networking, marketing, pricing, selling, presenting, copyright laws and many other aspects of being a full-time artist that we might not think of. The education of what it takes to be a successful working artist is a big part of the program, and one aspect Butler is very grateful for. But his primary interest was with the Smithsonian collections and having time to study tribal artifacts.

Butler had an idea of what he wanted to focus on when he arrived in Washington. “My original goal for my trip to Washington, D.C., was to see any and all shell related to the Hohokam, specifically any etched shell.” But as the NMAI website says, “The NMAI is a very special place caring for the material culture of many First Nations tribes. The collections are vast and extend far beyond the exhibits in the museum. The collections are a priceless resource to assist in preservation, perpetuation and revitalization of the combined rich, diverse, and beautiful heritages.” So very quickly Butler realized what a tremendous opportunity he actually had. He didn’t have to limit himself to a single collection; he had the opportunity to take influence from a variety of sources, both in the Smithsonian archives and on display at the many museums the Smithsonian operates. These ideas and newly formed concepts could be expressed in his own work. This is exactly what he did.

“Once I arrived, I was able to see much more than I ever thought possible related to my tribe and culture, not just the shell I had come to see,” Butler said. “I also took the opportunity to visit many museums, looked at collections not specific to my culture, and saw many contemporary expressions of traditional values and design in other artists’ work. The experience has helped me understand my craft much more. I now have many new ideas I want to pursue with my work in new and contemporary forms.”

Upon Butler’s arrival to the Smithsonian, he witnessed artifacts created without modern tools that were beyond belief. Pyrite mirrors, pottery, shell work, stone carvings, inlay, overlay, beading—one can only imagine how such perfection was utilized to create the precise holes within the tiny cylindrical beads. The technique applied back then puzzles Butler today. He explained how he has created designs or patterns and thought they were original and of his own creation, however; the designs and patterns he witnessed at the Smithsonian were similar to, if not exactly like, some of his work today.

As a potter, a special moment for Butler came when he had the opportunity to handle a piece of pottery. The delicate piece of pottery contained fingerprints on the interior of the vessel. Butler’s experience was enlightening as he placed his own fingers over the prints of his ancestors who had created the vessel over a thousand years ago. It helped him understand with great clarity the importance of continuing traditions tribes have practiced for time immemorial.

But he also learned that “Although many art forms’ content stayed generally consistent throughout time within a single cultural group, the artifacts also showed steady progression of refinement and change in design and skill level; at times even a regression in quality appeared evident toward the end.”

Butler now believes that “As time passes, sometimes older knowledge is lost, new ideas are introduced, and contemporary expressions of traditional design are presented.” This understanding is the basis for Butler’s belief that “Any culture alive and well will inevitably change or evolve over time. The only cultures that will never change are the dead and forgotten cultures of the ancient past. Cultural art forms can be expressed in contemporary ways that reflect as well as honor the traditions of our ancestors, but they will not be identical to those created by our Huhugam, for we are from a different time and understanding.”

Butler’s understanding of shell etching has grown as a result of his participation in the Smithsonian ALP program, and in the near future he will present the process to the members of his upcoming shell-etching class. Butler said he now has even more questions to contemplate. One question involves the resist that was once used to protect the shell from the saguaro wine. Butler mentioned that the samples of pitch from the O’odham could have possibly been utilized as a resist in the etching process of the Hohokam (a name given to our Huhugam that lived during a certain time in our history). He noticed that the resist was primarily sap or lac and appeared to include other organic inclusions within the resin. Currently, Butler continues researching various ingredients to combine with the resin to create a better resist. Butler went above and beyond in seeking the actual shell-etching ingredients for the shell designs. He has grasped a specific method of creating the fermented cactus juice. This process produces the acid used to etch the shells.

Butler expressed, “[The Artist Leadership Program] was truly an experience of a lifetime.” He encourages other Community artists to apply for it, adding, “As an artist, my values have been reaffirmed during my time at NMAI. It is vital to work with integrity; do not compromise [your art] for monetary gain. Our work creates a legacy that will exist after we’re gone. As a teacher, integrity is needed to … create future artists that will honor and respect the traditions that have come before them. The role we play is just a part of a legacy that has existed for over a thousand years and hopefully will continue for a thousand more.”

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