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Veronica Poblano sculpts life from turquoise and alabaster

BERKLEY, Calif. - They sit in front of her and they have been transformed. Polished and carefully placed in artful settings, the stones that Veronica Poblano uses in her jewelry are now magnets, attracting others to the force and beauty of her work.

Her stone sculptures have been called ''outstanding'' by The New York Times, and a single necklace can fetch more than $3,000 in a Sedona, Ariz., art gallery.

But the road to success has not always been an easy one for this Zuni artist, who began her work, like others in the Zuni Pueblo, as a way to climb out of poverty.

''It took discipline and many years of hard work,'' she said at a recent show of her work at Gathering Tribes gallery in Berkeley.

Her father, Leo Poblano, was one of the first Zuni artists to expand upon traditional fetish carvings and develop his own innovative style.

''Stonework and sculpting was a way of survival for us. My father had a ranch where he used to go pick up rocks for carvings because he couldn't afford to buy any materials from the local trading posts.''

Leo, a firefighter and tribal policeman, would collect jet, orange alabaster and maple syrup-colored stones, bring them home and ''create beautiful swirls of design,'' using turquoise and shell as inlay.

His daughter watched, studied and admired him as he worked.

Then, when Poblano was 10, her father died fighting a fire in Altadena.

Though her devastated mother tried to support the family with stonework and odd jobs, income was sporadic. But Poblano kept watching and learning. Eventually, like her father, she began carving life from the stones.

''It was hard,'' she said of those early years. When she sold something, she was paid by the local trading post not with cash but with a due bill, worth maybe 50 cents, maybe a dollar, and redeemable only for groceries at the store.

Some neighbors saw that the family was struggling and took Poblano under their wing, teaching her more advanced techniques.

In the 1970s, visitors began flocking to the Zuni Pueblo to buy artwork.

But Poblano was still frustrated, working most of the time as a hairdresser.

Eventually she settled with her family in Rancho Cordova.

''We were surrounded by water. That's what moved me: just the presence of every living plant, and the people who were so kind and gracious.''

In her new home, Poblano's designs took off, coming to her in her dreams, her thoughts and her travels.

Her pieces moved quickly and the clients began coming. The Native trading organizations she joined fought to sell their own work directly to customers without middlemen.

After several years in California, she returned to Zuni Pueblo, N.M.

Her children have become stone sculptors in their own right, and Poblano is now able to give back to and expand her community. Her gallery in Zuni helps other artists showcase their work. In March, she gave a seminar over the internet to Native art students and others in Canada about the Zuni Pueblo.

Despite her success, she said the challenges for her and other Zuni artists have not gone away.

''Because 90 percent of the community there depends on their silversmithing skills or some sort of art, and right now it's defeating because the traders are not paying enough money to live for the local artisans. There's just a handful of us that have gone beyond.''

Though she may have ''gone beyond'' what her father was able to achieve in his lifetime, she feels his spirit has continued to inspire her work.

It is the words spoken by her father that she offers as advice to other Native artists:

''Never give up hope; never give up your dreams. It doesn't matter if you don't have a dime or a cent to your name; never ever, ever, give up. And always remember where you come from.''