10 Hand-Painted Hats by Navajo Hatmaker Melissa Barnes [22 Pictures]

10 Hand-Painted Hats by Navajo Hatmaker Melissa Barnes [22 Pictures]

Dominique Godreche

From her Navajo background, Melissa Barnes inherited a gift for transforming cowboy hats into unique art pieces. Born in Farmington New Mexico, and based in Durango, Colorado, she's been creating handmade cowboy hats "with a Native American twist," often in the form of beading and hand-painting, for 21 years. Her hats are shown at the Heard museum, galleries, and Santa Fe Indian Market.

Where did you learn to create such awesome hats -- any particular source of inspiration?

I am self-taught. I took an older hat apart, and figured out how to work with it. It was like a puzzle. But now I have 100 models of hats. For the beadwork, I do research in books when I want to embellish the hats with a Native design.

Why did you choose to work only with hats -- do Navajos wear a lot of hats?

Typically they do. Navajo men -- ranchers, shepherds -- wear hats, often with silver headbands. We are cowboys! And during auctions, when they bring their animals, every Navajo man is dressed up, with his hat on. My clients were usually regular working cowboys, since it's mostly men who wear cowboy hats. But now I do a lot of custom hats for women; they love my floral designs.

There's that phrase "cowboys and Indians" -- as if these two categories are opposites. But a cowboy hat is now part of the Navajo aesthetic, isn't it?

It is absolutely part of the Navajo esthetic. And it's part of my heritage. I remember my grandfather, and his hat. When I create a hat, I think of it as a blank canvas. We have seen cowboy hats for a long time, but there is so much more to do. We can create tastefully embellished cowboy hats, with paintings and beadings. My hats take about 10 weeks to produce, and each one is unique: I saw, sculpt, paint, and bead my headbands. My clients tell me what they want in terms of colors and beads -- I take the information, do the sketches, and decide on something special. I am the only Native American woman creating cowboy hats, and I am proud of it since it's a man’s job. But I bring my artistic touch! 

To see more of Melissa Barnes' work, visit the Durango Custom Hats and Saddles website and Facebook page.

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