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Leon Martinez
NAVAJO SILVERSMITH

Leon Martinez started young. In 1970, he was 8 years-old and doing the buffing and soldering for his parents, Leo and Edith. He learned fast and his skills grew. And he was helping the family. With five older brothers and two sisters, he says, “It was tough. We were poor.”

Before he was 20, Leon was on his own, supporting himself with his silverwork. When asked what drove him to keep at it in those early years, he says “Money to support myself.”

“When you're learning something new, it is hard. It can make you tense and upset and resistant and you want to quit. But no, I say, I have to do it. And once you have it right, you can relax and be excited to do it again.” Soon, Leon was making a name for himself with pieces evocative of old-style Navajo designs.

He also found a mentor outside his family with the late Kirk Smith, a renowned Navajo also from Crownpoint, also raised in a traditional family, and also with strong values of hard work and forging your own way. From Kirk, Leon learned stampwork and precision soldering. And he became known for his work in ingot sterling silver, deep stampwork, and antique-polishing.

When asked how his culture inspired him, Leon answered “It's in the bloodline. It's what I do. And I need to try to be perfect. Don't slack. And eventually, you get used to doing it right.”

But then about ten years ago he almost quit. He saw silversmiths he thought of as good selling more, and he felt like he couldn't keep up. He was judging himself, and finding himself lacking. He was stuck. He couldn't move. He had driven himself to be perfect because he knew how precarious life is. To survive, to not be poor, he needed to be perfect. But others were better. How could he keep going?

It was his brother, Terry, who helped him move. He said, “Relax. Think. Think about what you want. And if it's to be a silversmith, then keep trying.”

And what Leon did was remember one of the first lessons. “It's hard to push forward, but once you have it right, you are excited to do it again. And you can relax.”

One gets the sense that it's not about relaxing so much as a relief that he got it right. And plenty of others think he's got it right. He has won several first place awards at the Navajo Nation Fair and Gallup Intertribal Ceremonial. And now he has a son, Jesse, working on his own pieces. And Leon is working to build his first home. And still pushing himself to be perfect at what he does.