Tsosie-Gaussoin Family

The Tsosie-Gaussoin family forges a path for the next generation of innovative artists

By Deborah Busemeyer

Connie Tsosie-Gaussoin never set out to break barriers in the art world. One of very few female Navajo metalsmiths in the 1970s, she was just being true to herself. She forged her own artistic path in a family rich with artists of all kinds — weavers, painters, silversmiths, sculptors, potters and singers. It wasn't easy. Men confronted her at Santa Fe Indian Market. They accused her of fraud, claiming that her husband must have made the laborious tufa-cast jewelry she was showing.

“When I expressed concern to my mom, she told me, ‘If you want to be in this, you got to get strong. You got to go back in there and take the hits. You can't give up,'” Gaussoin said.

Perseverance was in her bones as much as art flowed through her blood. She kept taking those hits, not knowing that one of her sons would experience the same backlash years later for making contemporary jewelry, or that her choice to defy genderbased norms in the Native art world would free her children from following anyone else's expectations.

The Gaussoin children — Jerry Jr., David, Wayne Nez and Tazbah — studied under their mother's tutelage, sought higher education, found inspiration in their world travels and followed their own artistic callings. Today they continue the family's long legacy of making high-quality art, melding tradition and innovation into their own unique creations and passing on their knowledge as much as they can.

“We weren't trying to change labels and stereotypes,” said Wayne Nez, Connie's youngest son, a full-time artist in Santa Fe. “We were just doing what we liked, doing what we felt was coming from us.”


Connie grew up in Santa Fe, absorbing the values of her family and their Navajo and Picuris Pueblo heritage: pursue education, share with others, prioritize community well-being and respect Mother Earth and the Creator. Her family created, taught and served. Hard work was a given. Art was infused in everything.

Her parents both taught at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her dad sang Navajo songs as he worked the land or crafted furniture. Her mom spent hours embroidering outfits for Pueblo dances. Her cousin R.C. Gorman painted huge masterpieces. Her uncle Thomas Tsosie demonstrated silversmithing techniques on the dirt floor of his hogan on the Navajo Reservation. Gaussoin and her sister spent summers there, chopping wood, herding and shearing sheep, spinning and dying wool and watching their family create art.

This rich past is reflected in Gaussoin's work. She incorporates the same Navajo designs in her rings, bracelets and necklaces that her aunts wove into their rugs. Her fastidious devotion to quality was imprinted by watching her dad, a master carpenter, nail together simple, elegant furniture built to endure.

Her late husband, Jerry Gaussoin Sr. — who was the family's backbone of support — encouraged her to further her career through metalsmithing classes at the College of Santa Fe in the 1960s. She learned stamping skills with jeweler Nino Padilla and then taught herself the traditional tufa-casting techniques her uncle had shown her as a child.

Her children grew up watching their mom work, just as she had observed her family years before. Connie taught them the fundamentals — squash blossom necklaces, concho belts and stamped pendants — all of which had to meet her high standards.

“I still hold myself accountable to how I grew up,” said Jerry E. Gaussoin Jr., 50, the oldest son, who recently retired from the Army. “She was my Inspector No. 12. She was quality control.

There were times I made stuff and she didn't allow it to be in the booth and sell because it didn't meet her standards. To this day, I maintain that standard.”

Wayne Nez remembers the days and nights his mother spent in her studio preparing for an upcoming art show, pausing only to make a family dinner. “I think a lot of that work ethic passed on to us,” he said.

Gaussoin and her husband also instilled their children with their ancestral traditions. Tazbah and David grew corn and various vegetables in a garden plot on the side of their house. Tazbah, the youngest child, valued that time of working the family land, when traditions, stories and songs were shared. Later she incorporated the memories into jewelry designs that include corn and feathers. “I like to share that story with other people,” said Tazbah, who turns 30 this year.

As Connie devoted her life to her art, family and community, her career flourished. She collected major awards at juried art shows, exhibited her custom-made jewelry at prominent Native American museums and galleries, and served as a judge at Indian

Market, the New Mexico State Fair and the Heard Museum in Phoenix. Throughout her journey, she taught her techniques to others, which her children have done also.

“I've had several students, as my mom has, who have gone on to become award-winning artists,” said David Gaussoin. “I'm happy about that. That is the legacy this family is leaving. And it's not just my mom passing it down to us and to the next generation. We're giving it to whoever wants to learn.”


The Gaussoin children have supported one another while exploring their own creative paths. Tazbah has joined David and Wayne in designing progressive Native fashion and jewelry. She has modeled some of her brothers' pieces, including their Postmodern Boa, featured at the Peabody Essex Museum and the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. Images show enamelpainted, stainless-steel boas adorned with feathers wrapped like a sculpture around Tazbah's neck and head.

It was that kind of work that put David through his “hell under fire,” as art show organizers and collectors criticized his use of nontraditional materials like steel. Even jewelers he admired publicly shamed him at Indian Market.

“Just like my mom, I used it as fuel to make my work louder and bolder and better, and to prove to people that you're not going to run me off,” he said. “If it wasn't for my mom, I probably wouldn't

be here as an artist today. She could have put a stop to it at an early age and told me to follow the rules, use the materials they say and do southwestern-style jewelry. But that wasn't me. That was never me.”

Native traditions sometimes play through his work, but the family also has French, German and Irish ancestry. “At the end of the day, I'm just an artist who has all of this in me, and I'm doing what I like,” David said. “I have a passion for getting my voice out there through my art. That's how it's evolved over the years, and it is still about that today.”

It took many years for David to get comfortable pursuing his own passion. The pressure he felt from traditionalists is best reflected in his piece Get Back in Your Box. A tiny plastic Indian, his arrow poised, stands inside a green box mounted on a sterling silver bracelet.


While David's painful trial helped him grow stronger, it also set the stage for the next generation. “I'm very glad to hear young artists being accepted with open arms into the Native American arena now, and they do very avant-garde work,” he said.

Tazbah works as a museum specialist at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. She doesn't have the resources to create jewelry, so she's shifted to custom leather bags. “I think our family's future will be what it has been: We have our own lives and paths to follow, but we'll still be collaborative and share our knowledge,” she said.

Jerry Jr. is devoting himself full-time to jewelry, adding modern twists to his traditional designs, with the goal of integrating more precious stones into his work. David continues to push his creativity while also working with the New Mexico Health Equity Partnership.

Wayne Nez, known for his popular license plate wrist cuffs, prefers making bigger, sculptural pieces that “you wouldn't wear every day to Sprouts,” he said. He balances the need to earn income with his desire to stay loyal to the artist within.

“I just hope we're able to give back to our communities locally and that it ripples out on a national and global level,” he said.

Connie is healing from torn rotator cuffs, so Wayne helps his mom solder her pieces as she did for him decades earlier. She embraces her family's history and her kids' future with equal passion.

“Change is coming, and I think that's good,” she said. “As artists, we're creating all this new energy for the world. We can't forget that, because we're all one people.”

Deborah Busemeyer loves writing stories about people and their passions. She is an award-winning journalist and communications consultant for health organizations.

David Gaussoin

Iceberg, collar

Sterling silver, Japanese fishing weights, shell 3 x 6.5 x 10 inches

Private collection






Santa Fe New Mexican