Amid the current COVID-19 crisis, Taos Plaza resembles the quiet cobblestone center of a dusty ole sagebrush town. Smoke Signals, one of the few beacons of commerce still available to the dwindling number of visitors, reluctantly opened its doors for a few hours to conduct this interview.
Owner Dean Johnson is spooked. "People are holding onto their money; art isn't a necessity to most people." He sighed. To Johnson, however, art, is essential.
"Little Lake View," as Johnson is known to his family, moved to Taos Pueblo in 1995. The young man, who grew up in sunny California, pined for the juniper hills of home. His father, the late Bob Johnson, had instilled in him a passion for Taos Pueblo tradition. "He talked to me in Tiwa, and would often ask if I was happy being an Indian," Johnson said. "I would always answer yes, and that I wanted to learn more."
Like many Native Americans who grow up outside their reservations, Johnson experienced some "opposition" when he returned home, but his trademark charisma eventually won over those who questioned his place in the tribe.
Johnson first learned to make a peace pipe from his cousin Matthew Montoya. Montoya was to craft a pipe for Dean's birthday, but instead of making one for him, he took some materials to the home studio Johnson worked in. He took to crafting peace pipes like Taos Pueblo children take to the creek on a hot summer day.
Taking only two hours to create his first pipe, Johnson immediately tried his hand at selling his artwork. His first pipe was purchased by Taos Drum for $55. The success he had right out of the gate pushed him to rethink his occupation which at that point was working for Intel in Albuquerque. With his father's guidance and the blessing of his people, Johnson made the decision to stay in Taos.
Smoke Signals has been the single Native-owned and -operated gallery on the historic Taos Plaza for 18 years now. Smoke Signals specializes in custom peace pipes, but also stocks other locally crafted Native American artwork. Johnson attributes his success to determination, and in part, to the training he received as a sales rep.
"I was a top [sales] rep," Johnson said. "I learned how to turn a question into an interest into a need into a must-have." Johnson began building his legacy not only selling his own work from shop to shop, but by also buying other Taos Pueblo artists work. "Every time I would sell a pipe, I would invest a portion of the profit into other forms of art from other Taos Pueblo artists. Eventually I stockpiled enough art from other artists to open Smoke Signals - ready to represent multiple artists," he said.
Johnson was invited to show by local museums, which led to higher-end shows and exhibits including one at the prestigious Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona. His peace pipes have since been shown in museums around the world.
His early success prompted him to open his shop in a county-owned building on Taos Plaza. Johnson applied through Taos County. He won over the commission and Smoke Signals was approved to open December 27, 2001.
"Because of how I started, I had to put in the legwork and I ran into a lot of resistance," he said. He opened his gallery with the intention of representing as many Taos Pueblo artists as possible. "For emerging artists, young and old, it's important to have a shop to back them up," he explained. Currently, Smoke Signals represents the artwork of 28 different Taos Pueblo artists and two non-Native artists. "It's my way of helping my people."
Sadly time is short for the only Taos Pueblo-owned gallery on the plaza. According to Johnson, Smoke Signals' landlord, Taos County, will be installing elevators and a through-way to the public restrooms, where Smoke Signals now stands. Johnson is trying to work with the county to secure another location for the shop, but has yet to hear back from anyone with answers.
So what's the next move for Smoke Signals? "I can't afford another place on the plaza, the rent is too high," he said.
By dedicating Smoke Signals to representing multiple Taos Pueblo artists, by purchasing artwork from other Taos Pueblo artists, and by utilizing some of those pieces alongside his own work in various exhibits, Johnson has generated myriad opportunities for artists. "I keep my prices considerably low to move more work. Customers win, artists win and I get to keep this shop open."
Smoke Signals was set to close its doors this April, but in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Johnson, like many other business owners in Taos, decided to close up shop early. "I want to continue representing Taos Pueblo artists here on Taos Plaza," he said. The fate of Smoke Signals, however, hinges on what county officials have to say.
"I might have to relocate, possibly even out of town," he mused, adding optimistically, "my online business is still open though."