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Home / Articles / Arts / Art Features /  Visit with a Bear
bear-by-matthew-irwin

Visit with a Bear

An out-of-town journalist on his encounter with a Santa Fe legend

May 1, 2012, 12:00 am

Looking to have a silver turquoise ring cut down to size, I found a rough-hewn silversmith nicknamed Bear tucked away in his den at the downtown Santa Fe Village, where he’s been for 27 years.  
Those who know ol’ Bear with his long wooly white beard, ruddy complexion and blue eyes, probably have never known him by his real name: RM Campbell.

Just “like the soup,” he says with a grin.

Bear has a color photograph of a bear taped to the walk-up counter where he conducts business, ensuring that customers remember his moniker. Just in case, there’s also the poster on his back wall that reads: “Bears are wild and can be dangerous. Do not feed!”

A Navy veteran and a POW during Vietnam, he eyeballs my ring for a few seconds, admiring the black tape that had kept it clinging to my undersized ring finger. Then he searches out his official ring sizer and selected the right one just from that glance at my right hand.

He says he began working with silver as a hobby when he was a kid. Today, at age 69, he’s fortunate enough to still be doing what he loves, and on his own terms. “One thing about Santa Fe is that you can make your own time here,” he says, “especially if you own your own business.”

Born in Colorado, the free spirit says he was an engineer in his past life. Today, his cluttered shop and workbench is packed wall-to-wall with tools and small machines for grinding, drilling and fashioning jewelry. Down there is an old pair of peacock western boots that I reckon at about size 8.

Just over there is a faded and dusty cowboy hat and, on a nearby counter sits a small Santa Claus doll paddling a canoe on a counter. Pieces of turquoise, metal and such are scattered across his workbench.  
His signs that list prices for various leatherworks and silver services are written with a black felt pen on gray cardboard. And business cards that advertise the store—called “Guns for Hire Leatherworks”—are done on yellow copy paper.

The array of posters and animal skulls hanging on his walls is interesting yet mind-boggling. Well, boggling to most organized minds, anyway.

“Sometimes I can’t find what I’m looking for around here,” he says, waving an open palm across the room.

“But I just kept on looking, and I’ll eventually find it.”

And when one can’t find the Bear, himself, one’s best bet is to check the lounge just across the street in the Del Charro Saloon. He says it’s where he routinely takes lunch or breaks from all the grinding, melting and polishing.

Bear looks every inch the part of an artisan, even down to his beautifully crafted bearclaw silver and turquoise belt buckle made for him as a gift. But with his embroidered black leather jacket and black Zia cap, he could also pass as the ringleader of a motorcycle gang. Fact is, he does have an old Harley that he seldom rides anymore. At this stage of life, he says he’d have a death wish to spend much highway time in the seat.
I wondered if he’s been married. The edges of his mouth turn ever so slightly upward.

“Well, not exactly married,” he said, “but Jane [Lujan, his longtime companion and business partner] has been my girl for about 30 years. I did ask her to marry me years back, and she said no. Later, she asked me to marry her and I said no. Then, not long ago she asked me again. I said, ‘Well, I’ll think about it.’”

It only took the colorful craftsman 10 minutes to size my ring. And his price was half of what I’d expected.

 

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