Leslie Ann Heath - Silversmith
Walk into Piñon Designs at certain Arts and Craft shows and you will be drawn to the many silver earrings, pendants and slides, intricately stamped and set with shell, turquoise and other minerals. These accompany an array of bead necklaces of superb quality. Leslie Heath is a true craftsman working in the old way out of her workshop in eastern Ohio. But she was not always operating from these Ohio woodlands. Her journey into silversmithing began many years ago in the sleepy New Mexico town of Taos in the mid-1970s, a place she still regards as her spiritual home.
Raised in western Pennsylvania, Leslie began her dream of living in the West by attending the University of Denver, from which she obtained a degree in fine arts education. She taught in Denver public schools for several years, but her thirst for adventure moved her to exploration. After wandering the American West, British Columbia, and Alaska, she settled on family land in the Sangre de Cristos Range above Taos.
Winter in the high country being a challenge, Leslie hand built a traditional adobe house down in Taos. From this base she made her living as a whitewater rafting guide throughout New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and Colorado during the summers and as a ski instructor in winter. And it was in Taos that she met the Taoseños silversmiths apprenticed at the old Mable Dodge House. Mable Dodge, a wealthy socialite and spokeswoman for the New York avant garde, migrated to Taos in the 1920s, married a Pueblo chief, Tony Lujan, built a sprawling adobe ranch, and sponsored an artist colony that supported, among others, DH Lawrence, Willa Cather and Georgia O’ Keefe. By the 1970 the house was owned by Dennis Hopper, who rented it to young artisans seeking to master the techniques of the early Navajo and Pueblo silversmiths. Within this friendly, competitive atmosphere, Leslie learned the basics of hand-stamped jewelry making within that tradition. Armed with bags full of stamped penny and silver dime buttons, Leslie would seek the galleries and tourist markets to sell them. But her first arts and craft show was in Tucson, where she discovered a new outlet for her creations. And a new business was born; one which gradually replaced her wanderlust with the need to exert her creativity.
In those early years her craft show circuit covered thousands of miles. But in 1989 she came back east to visit family. “I entered the Westmoreland Heritage Festival in Greensburg, PA just to cover the expense of the trip and sold much better that I had at the shows out west. There are few artists in the east who do what I do.” The time to move back east had come; the market was good and she was tired of the long distances between shows. Of the many eastern shows, Leslie soon sought out the ones with an historic angle where she could demonstrate her stamping techniques. As a former teacher she was at home talking about her craft, seeing it as a memorable way to communicate history.
Speaking of the look and feel of her jewelry pieces, “I learned the ways of the Navajo and Pueblo silversmiths, but I wouldn’t copy them, because I don’t believe that’s right. I have applied my own creativity.” And that’s exactly what she’s done. From her early western yearnings to today’s full time busy schedule of 25 weekends at shows, her journey has supplied her with the tools and experience to fashion unique miniature works of art with the flavor of the West. She still designs the jewelry, stamps each silver piece by hand and together with her partner, Christian, makes them into rich articles of self adornment.