Talking to Terry Schurmeier, co-owner of Cowboys & Indians Antiques, Inc., is like talking to an old friend. The conversation never lags, whether talking business strategies or design sensibility. This icon of the Western and Native American antiques business gets even more excited when I ask her about using the wares that her store sells in all kinds of environments.
“Ethnographic pieces complement any décor with their authenticity and history,” she says. “You’re taking a piece of cultural history and using it as a piece of art. It’s a better way to spend your money than buying a print to match your sofa. We let people take pieces home to try them out and see what works best and I love to help people warm up their surroundings that way.”
You bet it is a better way, especially, as she points out, when that print you bought isn’t going to increase in value like the antique Navajo rug, Apache basket or Pueblo pottery will. “These aren’t cookie cutter versions of style. They’re authentic and one-of-a-kind. There’s no duplication in another home. And the money you’ll spend buying an antique ethnographic piece is often no more than a brand new piece that loses value as soon as you hang it up. Society is so casual about disposing of things, but I see people really seeking out value these days.”
Affordable style is one of Schurmeier’s mantras. The store’s merchandise runs the gamut from affordable to pricey, but compares favorably to other art forms. At Cowboys & Indians, one can pick up a $40 turquoise ring, a $350 leather upholstered chair, or a $3500 100-year-old Zuni pot, knowing that the piece’s provenance has been authenticated and guaranteed by the dealer.
Schurmeier’s son, sister and brother-in-law co-own the 15-year-old Cowboys & Indians with her. The store’s national reputation for museum quality, mostly pre-1950 Native American and Western artwork, jewelry, memorabilia, books and other trinkets was made on offering the best items from the dealers to whom it rents display cases. At any one time, between 15 and 20 dealers sell from the store, including Schurmeier herself.
Schurmeier had a gallery in Los Angeles before relocating to Albuquerque. Her frequent visits convinced her that New Mexico was the place to be and that the Central Avenue location just east of Nob Hill was the location best suited for her business. “During the first six years, I made a living on sales and consignment only. I took no salary,” she says. Now two commissioned salespeople and her son man the store.
Her model of co-op leasing and taking a commission for sales was a first for galleries specializing in American Indian and Western Art. As a way to promote the shop and raise money for charity, eleven years ago Schurmeier established the Great Southwestern Antiques Show. The event now draws 200 dealers and thousands of patrons to Albuquerque each August. This May she’s scheduled what she hopes to be a new annual show. “This one will be smaller, only about 60 booths, but the top dealers in the Western U.S.,” she says.
To kick off the May event, Schurmeier’s invited three appraisers from the PBS series Antique’s Roadshow to join two others, all of them lending their skill to an Appraise-a-Thon. Participants can bring two items to be valued for a $25 donation to benefit The Antique Tribal Art Dealers Association’s scholarship fund.
She’s also added three more shows to her personal schedule of buying and selling around the country. She’s a busy woman with a big heart, especially for kids.
When her son was in high school, her own house became a neighborhood way station filled with the wares of her trade. “These pieces enrich all our lives,” she explains. “My son’s friends would say they loved our house because it was different from anyone else’s they’d seen. There’d be rugs on the walls, and baskets, and pottery, and other items. These kids grew up appreciating the antiques because they saw them incorporated into our everyday lives.”
This is the point that Schurmeier stresses often in our conversation – the quotidian nature of the experience of incorporating authentic antique pieces into any décor. “They have their own depth and their own essence. Just like in a museum where you’ll see different styles of artwork or sculpture or jewelry, I think people should just buy what they love and live with it. They’ll find that everything really will work together because it’ll be an expression of their personality. It’s a different way of thinking, though, than the mindset that says the couch must match the rug, which matches the painting, which matches the lamp.”
In today’s culture of work all the time, recent changes in the economy have people focusing more inward, taking the time to personalize their surrounding in ways they didn’t before. Sure, one could hire a decorator and send him or her off with instructions to adorn your home with authentic Western pieces. No doubt you’d get a great look. But decorating ones home or office should be like decorating onesself, Schurmeier offers. Your personal aesthetic comes through in a way that makes you unique from everyone else. It’s also what’s kept Western and American Indian style in front of designers since the beginning.
“Andy Warhol was a huge collector of Native American art and materials,” she says. “Native American jewelry has historically stayed in style and in vogue. Ralph Lauren made his reputation bringing the Western look to the urban environment, and his buyers still come to the Great Southwestern show to buy for the stores and his shows.”
Because ethnographic artifacts continue to influence designers of everything from jewelry to clothes to furniture to wall coverings, Schurmeier says it’s easy to slip a piece of authentic beadwork, pottery or furniture into any décor. “Customers come in and say how much the items they’ve purchased here enrich their lives in a real and authentic way. These items aren’t removed from everyday life. They are real, with real depth that often makes everything else look that much better. A home decorated with modern furniture and accessories looks fabulous with a piece of Spanish colonial tinwork or bright red Navajo rug.
“A house isn’t a home until you’ve put your own touch on it,” she adds. “The old makes the new look better, I think, and a Stickley table looks great with a Navajo rug under it in a way that a brand new rug wouldn’t.”
Cowboys & Indians also sells some contemporary artwork from artists like santero Maria Romero Cash and painter, sculptor and mixed-media artist Greg Lomayesva. Lomayesva draws on his Hopi and Hispanic heritage to create wildly colorful kachina-like wooden sculpture. “His stuff is so lighthearted and colorful that it really helps a modern décor pop,” Schurmeier says.
Photos by Dawn Allynn