Pittsburgh photographer honors little-known Native American art form with new book | Pittsburgh City Paper

Pittsburgh photographer honors little-known Native American art form with new book

click to enlarge Man sits in a chair flipping through a book
Photo: Evan Sanders
Evan Sander

The evolution of Evan Sanders’ photography comes full circle, and out of the box, with his new project.

Sanders released Elegant Vessels: A Century of Southwest Silver Boxes, a book that memorializes a collection of 171 Native American-crafted silver boxes. The work, now for sale at Four Winds Gallery in Shadyside and online, was produced in conjunction with a similarly titled exhibit at the Heard Museum, a nonprofit institution in Phoenix, Ariz. with the stated mission of presenting, interpreting, and advancing Native American art.

Sanders, now creative director at Four Winds Gallery, garnered images of silver boxes from the collection of shop owner John Krena, who first took interest in Native American jewelry in the 1970s as a steelworker looking for a way out of the mill. Krena and his wife, Carol, often traveled southwest to camp, where they visited reservations, bought jewelry, and brought it back to customers in Pittsburgh. 

“We fell in love with it. We started meeting the artists,” says Krena, who has run the shop on Walnut Street for nearly five decades. In 1978, he purchased his first silver box, an item often made for artists to show off skills or woo tourists. 

Today, Krena’s box collection, which still includes that first purchase, totals around 150. The collection increases and ebbs as Krena sells some and purchases others.

In addition to Krena’s collection, Elegant Vessels documents more than 20 boxes from other collectors. 

The bulk of the boxes are part of the Heard’s exhibit, which runs through March 5, 2023. The Heard, since 1929, has shared works by Native American artists. “Silver jewelry and metalworks are part of the very earliest items collected,” says Diana Pardue, chief curator at the museum. “An exhibition of silver boxes is a perfect thematic fit.”

If you can’t make it to Arizona, Krena welcomes the public to Four Winds, where a portion of the collection is displayed.

“This book is years of work … to celebrate that these boxes exist,” Sanders says. “This is an art form that I didn’t know about until I found it. It found me. John and I’s worlds collided. He had this collection that needed to be brought to life, and I was like, ‘Let’s do this.’”

click to enlarge A man wear a turquoise bracelet
Photo: Cary Shaffer
John Krena

Sanders says the work culminates the history of the craft as well as his personal history. “My camera has always been my vehicle to open new doors.” 

Sanders, 41, first recognized the power of photography while growing up in Westmoreland County. His dad was a Navy man active in Desert Storm, and communications were limited. So, Sanders leaned heavily on the likes of National Geographic and Time magazine to gain glimpses into his father’s world. He was blown away.

“Someone was there … across the world. And somehow those images ended up in my hands. That blew my mind,” he says. “I studied those photos. I was obsessed.”

Beginning his photographic journey humbly, doing school projects with a light-leaking box camera, Sanders later shadowed a friend who photographed snowboarding. “I learned that the camera is such an effective tool,” he says.

Sanders attended the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and later obtained a staff position at a Greensburg-based newspaper, where he did more than a decade of photojournalism. “Every photo was my favorite assignment, and yet I believe I’ve yet to take my favorite assignment,” he says.

As a photojournalist, Sanders memorialized moments “in a community that was relying on me to be their eyes.”

“No matter where I was, that’s where I needed to be,” he says. “Little League championships, car accidents … I had an important role. I was supposed to be there.” 

click to enlarge Silver boxes with intricate gemstone designs
Photo: Evan Sanders

Still, he says, he believed there was “something greater out there” for him. He left his full-time gig in 2016 to photograph personal interests, like “rally racing and the human condition. I’m just interested in beautiful things … sunsets, landscapes, my neighborhood.”

Sanders says he’s drawn to Native American metal art because “all this work has a soul,” and because silver is challenging to photograph. The knife wings and thunderbirds; the stamp work and inlays; the shiny silver and vibrant hues of turquoise inherent to Native American jewelry appealed to Sanders’ aesthetics.

Sanders says he’s never surprised by the path photography leads him on, and everything he’s done previously prepared him for this project. “It’s full circle.”  

He has ideas for future photographic adventures and would like to catalog and present images to historical societies of the communities he covered as a photojournalist. He might document artist workspaces “to preserve that legacy, that moment in time.”

And he definitely will continue involvement at Four Winds.

“Wait,” says Sanders, quickly flipping the Elegant Vessels’ glossy pages. He pauses on a page to thump a finger onto a corner, ironically, with no photo. Instead, there’s a text excerpt of a traditional Navajo blessing: “It is finished in beauty.”

Four Winds Gallery. 5512 Walnut St., Shadyside. fourwindsgallery.com

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