"Hollywood fucked it up," says Chama's own renegade knife maker, Curtis Green.
I'm standing at the entrance of his 10'x10'x30' utility trailer parked in a dirt lot across from the Chevron station on Rte. 84. I've brought my polite and smiley friend Joe along for the visit. His face is frozen in a nervous grin as Green wields a 10-inch knife just above Joe's collarbone, the price tag still dangling from a deer antler handle. Green is demonstrating the proper technique of slashing someone with a "big-ass knife"—overhand in a downward motion across the body with a tennis racquet grip, not straight-on like you're stoking a fire, as they do in movies.
The trailer's plywood interior is lined with hanging meat cleavers, hunting knives and large and small utility blades—most of which are forged from old railroad ties and horseshoes. The rest of the dim space is adorned with iron hooks, hatchets, metal lampposts, cowboy figurines and other whimsical metal decorations.
Despite his gritty image as a soot-stained cowboy blacksmith, Green's background tells the story of a skilled artist who's found his way. He grew up in Okolona, Ark., where he spent Saturday mornings absorbing the craft of his grandpa's ironsmith friend, Mr. Duke. Green's mother decided he was artistic and encouraged him to pursue a BFA, which he obtained from Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis) in 1980.
After a few years working as an illustrator and art director in the corporate advertising world, Green retreated to his roots and started smithing sculptures in his garage. "The college experience helped me learn how to take my craft and make a living doing it. I went from two-dimensional art, primarily, to three-dimensional on my own," he recalls.
Vehemently opposed to showing in galleries, Green first displayed his work in empty Arizona shopping mall units condemned as "endangered properties" so that not just wealthy art collectors, but everyday folk could appreciate his work. He brought the same mindset with him when he set up shop in Chama 15 years ago.
"When I came here, I tried to make a business for middle America. Anybody can buy that $40 cowboy," he says, pointing to a horseshoe sculpture of a cowboy holding an American flag. "Not everybody can buy a $5,000 0r $6,000 sculpture." Green admits that his products are utilitarian. Their rustic design flair looks good on display, but they're made to be used, as he happily demonstrates by shaving beaver fur off the hide with his sharpest knives.
That said, his customers typically have a personal connection with each piece that qualifies it as art. People stop every day to take pictures of his trademark banner flapping in the wind, "MADE IN CHAMA! NOT IN CHINA!" "In the '70s, [the] United States led the world in producing everything, and now we produce virtually nothing," he says. "I think that hits a chord with people—that I'm here making something with pride."
This sentiment seems to have caught on and spread far beyond northern New Mexico. He sold almost 600 knives last year, each averaging $170; taking daily orders on the phone, Green also claims to have sold to every state in the US and almost every country in the world (with the exception of some communist bloc countries and a few in Africa).
And this is where his higher calling comes into play. Green's grandfather told him at a young age about a Cherokee proverb that says that when a man dies, he's judged on whether his life has made the Earth better or worse. "I've put a little part of me all over the world that's a part of everyone's life and makes them happy."
"When I'm dead and gone, I think it'll be better that I walked on this earth. That's why I love what I do. I gave back more than I took."