My love affair with knives was born in my Italian grandmother’s kitchen, where dinner preparation was always a spectacle. The aromas! The chopping! The laughter! The yelling (always so much yelling in the kitchen of an Italian woman)! Hovering around the fringes of that sacred space as a child, I remember watching with anticipation as my grandfather carefully (if not obsessively) sharpened the knives that were then passed down the assembly line to my grandmother who expertly wielded them to prepare our most beloved family meals. This quiet, pre-cooking, pre-gorging moment was a tender ritual shared between the two of them, who often had so little time to themselves. From that early age, I had a sense that love and knives went hand-in-hand. (Side note: show your kitchen knives some TLC and always wash them by hand.)
At 8 years old, I made the very reasonable request to my parents for my first knife — a dainty, turquoise Swiss Army multi-tool that would really jump-start my whittling career, and solidify my role as a contributing member of our household. Marshmallow skewer, Mom? I’ve got you covered! Wobbly chair leg, Dad? Let me whittle the longer one to even it out! Need a last-minute birthday gift? Whittled bird to the rescue!
Well, I got the knife. I made pointed sticks exclusively. I cut my leg. The knife disappeared. But, I’ve always had a thing for knives, and I’ve always wanted to start a knife collection. It was mid-August, 20 years later, and I was recounting this story to PEM’s uber fabulous Native American Art Curator, Karen Kramer, as we walked around the plaza in Santa Fe.
Karen and I had flown in earlier that day for a week of Native Fashion Now research leading up to Santa Fe’s Indian Market — the incredible two-day art show hosted by the Southwestern Association of Indian Arts (SWAIA). I could barely contain my excitement over being in the southwest for the first time. On the walk home from dinner that first night — after a glorious introduction to the wonder that is green chile — we stopped so that I could press my face against the window of a cutlery store. From shop windows to the display cases in our hotel lobby, knives seemed to be everywhere in Santa Fe…and I wanted in on the action.
The week passed by in a flash, with Karen and I running from event to event, consumed by vibrant art and fashion. Whenever we found a free moment to relax in the shade or compare notes over chips and guac, I was back to the knife talk (thank you for putting up with me, Karen). In my ruminations on the subject, I had also deduced that adding “knife collector” to my match.com profile would be the best idea ever in the history of dating, and that those two little words would be the only litmus test I’d need to weed through potential suitors.
“For example, if they don’t like knives or are scared of me? We’ve probably got nothing in common anyway. Conversely, if they’re a little TOO enthusiastic about knives? Perhaps that’s all the background check I need. The right response (I’ll know it when I see it) will direct me to the woodsy, thoughtful, handy-man I’m looking for. Do you see what I’m saying? It’s foolproof!”
Karen and I joked about this half-baked idea, but as it turns out, I actually didn’t have to wait very long to test out my theory….The universe simultaneously delivered the possibility of romance and knife collection when insightful, artist extraordinaire Pat Pruitt asked if he could set me up with his friend from Albuquerque…wait for it…knifemaker Lucas Burnley.
On Sunday, as Indian Market came to a close, Lucas and I awkwardly met at Pat’s booth and set off for a late-afternoon lunch, ushered along by the whispers and giggling of Karen, Pat, and Pat’s fiancée, artist Marla Allison. I was immediately smitten, and nervously started asking questions not typically fit for conversation with relative strangers (“Do you have a knife on you now? Can I see it?!”), and ignored my own litmus test for suitors, talking incessantly about my interest in knives. What else is there to do when you know that the person sitting across from you isn’t yet aware that they’re an unwitting participant in this little master plan that you and the universe have cooked up?
Back home in Boston the next day, I got a call from Lucas asking me on an official first date — a road trip from Albuquerque to Las Vegas for Pat and Marla’s wedding a few weeks later. I booked the ticket, flew out there, and that was that. Through the power of technology and cheap flights, the long-distance hasn’t seemed so difficult. Traveling, road-tripping, and meeting wherever the next family vacation, wedding, or knife show takes us.
Back at the scene of the crime one year later, on the Sunday of Indian Market, Lucas and my parents walked around the Santa Fe plaza while I was at work with the Native Fashion Now crew, and he asked my parents if he could marry me. In October, he proposed. I said, “yes.”
The journey has been amazing and fun and I am in awe of it all. Every day, my eyes are opened a little more to the knife world and its tight-knit community of collectors and enthusiasts who support the talented makers working within to push the boundaries of a tradition that spans time and place.
And, slowly but surely, my knife collection has been growing — with pieces old and new, and even a few whittling knives (I think 8-year-old Maddie would be proud of my progress). Each one has a story. And the stories are really the reason why I like knives in the first place. What did this knife mean to someone? What did someone make with their knife? Who did they feed, and protect, and provide for? There’s an intimacy and a direct human connection in the patina, nicks and accumulated wear of the well-loved knife that reveal stories about that object’s owner, both past and present.
In my modest, somewhat unfocused collection, most special of all is a gift that Lucas sent me for my birthday after our first date. I eagerly ripped open the box, and pulled out the most beautiful, long-stemmed and fragrant…tomahawk. Oh, so much better than roses! Though it was not one of his widely-recognized designs, it was a big, bladed cutting implement all the same (I’m not splitting hairs here).
This was the very tomahawk — made by Cold Steel — that he taught me to throw on our epic first date/roadtrip from Albuquerque to Las Vegas. I admired its recently wood-burned handle, noticing 17 tiny vignettes, each representing a different part of our then brief story — from our introduction in Santa Fe, to each memorable stop we made on our way to Pat and Marla’s wedding. Here’s hoping our grandchildren one day appreciate the story behind this piece as much as I do.