Clarence Lee was born in 1952 and raised in Twin Lakes, N.M. He learned his silver smithing craft from his father Tom Lee, who built and owned a trading post and taught himself jewelry making to supplement the family income. Tom fought in the Pacific during World War II and was a survivor of the infamous “Bataan Death March.” He later became New Mexico’s first Native American senator. Clarence’s mother, Emma Rose Lee, was recognized in her own right as maker of the first Navajo Nation flag.
Clarence began making jewelry while still in high school. His first pieces were traditional hammered and stamped work. He developed his own unique ‘storyteller” style almost by accident when he shaped a piece of silver resembling a dog. Since then he has concentrated on whimsical figures of animals, dancers, children, and other images inspired by his childhood memories of summers spent with his great grandmother in the mountains. Some of his cowboy and animal images come from his interest in rodeo and his participation in calf and team roping events.
In 1976, Clarence married and later that year his son Russell was born. “When Russell was about ten or so he wanted a toy he saw at the mall,” relates Clarence. “I told him you have to earn it by selling something first. From there Russell was encouraged to try his hand as a silversmith.” Now as an adult, Russell woks full time with the family jewelry business. He does most of the design cutting and fashions most of the tiny figures his father incorporates into his storyteller pieces. Clarence continues to do the stone cutting and stamp work, and then turns the pieces back to Russell to add findings and do finish buffing. Russell also acts as manager for the business.
The father and son team makes bracelets, rings, pendants, pins, boxes, and bolo ties from silver, gold, brass, copper, and stones. They use fine saw blades to create intricate appliqué work. Clarence designs his own stamps using old drill bits to create a variety of textures and surfaces. He incorporates several methods of casting including steam casting, spin casting, and old traditional tufa stone casting.
The designs of these artists are well known for their lively and amusing depictions of scenes from reservation life. Clarence explains, “There are no influences on my art. I like it that way. Each is a new sensation. I’ve got it by the horns and I’m running with it as best I can.”