Native Art Comes to Campus

Unnamed photo
Sarah M Roberts

Ninety-two year old Irma Bailey displayed her finest Southwestern jewelry, baskets, ceramics, and rugs at the Native American arts and crafts show over the weekend at the Peabody Museum.

Ninety-two year old Irma Bailey returned to Cambridge—one of her “favorite places in the United States”—for her 28th annual Native American arts and crafts show this weekend.

The exhibit drew many returning visitors, as well as some first-time appreciators, to the Peabody Museum.

This year’s display, “The Best of the Best,” brought back specially requested pieces from previous shows, including some of Bailey’s finest Southwestern jewelry, baskets, ceramics, and rugs.

Bailey, a native of New Mexico, has collected and promoted Native American art for the last fifty years.

Bailey’s traveling show is designed to help give Native American artists national exposure. In an interview Friday, Bailey said her road trips enable these Native American artists to continue doing what they love.

As a young girl, Bailey said, someone told her that buying turquoise is like “owning a piece of the blue sky.”

Her collection of turquoise jewelry soon grew to include an array of rugs and pots as well, to the point that the only way she could continue buying art was to sell some of it.

After opening a gallery in Albuquerque’s historic district in the 1960s, Bailey and her late husband, Wayne, began traveling to museums across the country to display their artwork. The Peabody was one of their first stops.

Since then, Bailey has developed a following in Cambridge, according to Castle McLaughlin, the associate curator of Native American Ethnography at the Peabody Museum.

Bailey said her customers are a true “cross section” of the country. One of her friends, Joan Cok, traveled all the way from Albuquerque to see Bailey, whom she describes as “vivacious—just a wonderful lady.”

Bailey has likewise developed close relationships with the artists she works with. McLaughlin, who has visited Bailey in New Mexico, said her “doorbell is always ringing.”

Bailey has been working with some artists for so long that she now promotes the work of their children and grandchildren. Bailey said one artist even named her daughter “Irma.”

While Bailey may share her name, the art she sells is often totally unique.

Bailey said that one of the distinguishing features of Native American art is its lack of duplication. She said that the artists she works with do not even usually like to make earrings because it forces them to create two identical pieces. Bailey said that many Native Americans believe that nothing in nature is perfect, a sentiment that is reflected in their heterogeneous art.

Bailey sells a “nice” piece of art for an average of $320 to $500, but prices at the exhibit ranged from $7.00 to several thousand dollars, depending on their workmanship.

McLaughlin said that Navajo rugs are particularly expensive because they are made holistically—artists often raise sheep to obtain the wool for the rugs.

Bailey said she takes a small commission on her sales to pay costs such as her RV, which she uses to travel around the country. Her vehicle, which was parked outside of the Peabody Museum for the duration of her show, is fully equipped with a bedroom, kitchen, and bathroom, providing Bailey with what she calls a “nice, nice lifestyle.”

Bailey is currently on a three-month stint across the country. Her next stop: Dayton, Ohio.

And while some 92-year-olds might find such an itinerant existence tiring, McLaughlin said, “I think it makes her younger.”