In­ter­wo­ven Dreams


Native American Art - - COLUMNS/FEATURES - By Michael Claw­son

A stun­ning new bas­ketry col­lec­tion gift is un­veiled at the Eiteljorg Mu­seum in In­di­anapo­lis.

Part of the al­lure of Na­tive Amer­i­can arts is the process in which raw ma­te­ri­als leave the earth to be­gin their jour­ney into fin­ished works of art. There is a ro­man­tic no­tion re­lated to the ori­gin of these ma­te­ri­als—sa­cred moun­tains, an­cient clay de­posits, an­ces­tral mines passed down from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion—but, as is of­ten the case, these ma­te­ri­als come from hum­ble, non-de­script places. Holes in the ground for turquoise, rocky out­crop­pings carved into hill­sides for clay, cot­ton­wood roots for katsina carv­ings.

It’s no dif­fer­ent for bas­ket weavers, who har­vest their ma­te­ri­als from trees, bushes and grasses you’ve seen hun­dreds of time with­out bat­ting an eye, places that are tucked back within dry riverbeds or con­cealed from high­ways and ma­jor thor­ough­fares, not out of se­crecy but sim­ply be­cause they grow in out-of-the-way places. And the plants them­selves are unas­sum­ing, al­most av­er­age in color, size and shape—noth­ing that would in­di­cate their un­locked po­ten­tial as an art medium.

These hum­ble be­gin­nings are some of the rea­sons that in­trigued col­lec­tors Mel and Joan Perel­man, who were mes­mer­ized with the trans­for­ma­tion of raw ma­te­ri­als into mag­nif­i­cent works of art. “It was al­ways for the beauty of these ob­jects, the sym­me­try, the tight­ness of the weave, the ex­cel­lent de­gree of skill it took…to see the artists take reeds and other growth ma­te­rial, much of which they go out and find and pick them­selves, has been in­cred­i­ble,” Mel Perel­man says. “I’m not artistically cre­ative. If I were in the Olympics I wouldn’t clear the start­ing line, let alone go on to ex­cel in this way. But I do know what I see and fall in love with, and to me these bas­kets are magic and watch­ing them come to­gether is watch­ing magic take place be­fore your eyes.”

Mel, who was the ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of Eli Lilly and Com­pany and head of Lilly re­search, re­tired in 1994, and shortly af­ter he mar­ried Joan. The cou­ple— who re­side in Davis, Cal­i­for­nia, and In­di­anapo­lis, where Eli Lilly is based—are fond of trav­el­ing and early in their mar­riage took a trip to the South­west, which Joan was very fa­mil­iar with while her hus­band was not. Mel was in­stantly trans­fixed by what he saw. The man who worked in phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals joked that he was so smit­ten by the art of the South­west that he should look for a cure, “…but I have con­cluded it’s hope­less,” he said later.

Decades later, the col­lec­tion has grown to in­clude bas­kets, pot­tery, katsina carv­ings, bronzes, paint­ings, weav­ings, jewelry and more. They’ve en­joyed it im­mensely, even as they’ve added to it and watched their in­ter­ests and tastes evolve with the work. As with many col­lec­tors, though, the Perel­mans had to pre­pare for the col­lec­tion’s fu­ture. The choice was ob­vi­ous to them, and to their chil­dren who en­cour­aged them to keep por­tions of the col­lec­tion to­gether, so they be­gan do­nat­ing works to mu­se­ums they loved. One of the re­cip­i­ents is In­di­anapo­lis’ Eiteljorg Mu­seum of Amer­i­can In­di­ans and Western Art, where they have be­come prom­i­nent pa­trons and donors—mel is also on the board of direc­tors at the in­sti­tu­tion.

The Perel­man’s gift to the Eiteljorg Mu­seum is their ex­cep­tional bas­ketry col­lec­tion, which in­cludes 147 bas­kets, cra­dles and bags from through­out North Amer­ica, in ad­di­tion to a num­ber of Kla­math River bas­ketry hats and other items. The mu­seum will show a por­tion of the Perel­man’s bas­kets in In­ter­wo­ven: Na­tive Amer­i­can Bas­ketry from the Mel and Joan Perel­man Col­lec­tion, open­ing April 14. The ex­hi­bi­tion will not only high­light the col­lec­tors’ ex­quis­ite eyes for bas­ketry, it will also show the bril­liant tech­ni­cal abil­ity in both his­toric bas­kets by un­known artists and con­tem­po­rary bas­kets by the top es­tab­lished bas­ket mak­ers to­day.

Works in the ex­hi­bi­tion in­clude two sedge Pomo bas­kets with glass beads, one from around 1890 by an un­known artist and the other from Pomo bas­ket­maker Ethel Ste­wart. The weav­ing of the glass beads into the sedge or sedge root is in­tri­cate and pre­cise, creat­ing a step-like ar­range­ment in white and yel­low in the older bas­ket and yel­low and navy blue in the Ste­wart bas­ket. In a work from the early-19th cen­tury, del­i­cate de­sign can be seen in Tu­bat­u­la­bal bas­ket made of plant fiber with a wreath-like crown of wool and sev­eral dozen quail top­knots, each bun­dle of feath­ers rep­re­sent­ing a sin­gle quail. Other works, in­clud­ing an Apache olla bas­ket from 1918, are not only finely made with fas­ci­nat­ing zig-zag mo­tifs on the body, but are also im­mense, which con­veys its own kind of power and au­thor­ity. The skill re­quired for these pieces is mag­nif­i­cent, which is what brought the col­lec­tors to them orig­i­nally.

“I wasn’t in­ter­ested in the bas­kets at the be­gin­ning, but then all of the sud­den and all at once I was in­ter­ested,” Joan says, re­call­ing that a turn­ing point

came when she saw women mak­ing bas­kets first­hand. “We were at Lake Ta­hoe and these Ara­paho women would come down to the south end of the lake with their reeds and pine boughs and weave bas­kets and trays. They had these tubs of wa­ter and were soak­ing the ma­te­ri­als and then split­ting them with a knife, or even some­times with their teeth. I couldn’t be­lieve how they were do­ing it. It was re­mark­able and fas­ci­nat­ing to watch.”

Mel adds that he and his wife are con­tin­u­ously as­ton­ished at the in­ven­tive­ness of the artists they col­lect, bas­ket mak­ers like Louisa Keyser (Washoe), Lena Dick (Washoe), El­iz­a­beth Juan (To­hono O’odham), Lucy Telles (Paiute), Magde­lena Au­gus­tine (Che­me­huevi) and many oth­ers. “They re­ally are quite in­fec­tious. The cre­ativ­ity and qual­ity of the bas­kets is just won­der­ful,” he says. “I have such tremen­dous ad­mi­ra­tion for these bas­ket­mak­ers, both male and fe­male, and to see them take their ma­te­ri­als and make these bas­kets…i’m just awestruck every time.”

Scott Shoe­maker, the Thomas G. & Su­san C. Hoback Cu­ra­tor of Na­tive Amer­i­can Art, His­tory & Cul­ture at the mu­seum, says he’s thrilled to be show­ing the Perel­man col­lec­tion, par­tic­u­larly since the col­lec­tors have played a large role at the mu­seum as de­voted pa­trons and sup­port­ers. “They have been very gen­er­ous donors on nu­mer­ous projects over the years and we’re hon­ored to have their col­lec­tion,” he says. “They re­ally had an eye for qual­ity and in­no­va­tion, and not just his­toric in­no­va­tion but con­tem­po­rary as well, as their col­lec­tion brought in works from liv­ing artists. They were very in­ten­tional in what they ac­quired.”

Ad­di­tional works in the ex­hi­bi­tion in­clude two minia­ture works: a feather bas­ket from Pomo artist Rose An­der­son and quilled con­tainer from Burt Lake Ot­tawa and Chippewa artist Bernard Par­ley. The An­der­son bas­ket is ex­cep­tion­ally so­phis­ti­cated with al­ter­nat­ing rings of white and brown ring-necked pheas­ant feath­ers. Its size, along with the dainty feath­ers, make this work a lit­tle gem. The Par­ley bas­ket is equally sub­stan­tial, with sun­bursts of quills that ra­di­ate from the top of the bas­ket out­ward across the lid.

“The tip of a por­cu­pine quill has a brown color that then fades to the white. The artist chose quills that were of con­sis­tent size and shape and then was very in­ten­tional about us­ing the nat­u­ral chang­ing color to their ad­van­tage,” Shoe­maker says. “And then if you look at the [Tu­bat­u­la­bal bas­ket] you can see these tiny lit­tle quail feath­ers. The thought and care that went into these works, the abil­ity to ac­cu­mu­late the

ma­te­ri­als and to put it all to­gether is just as­ton­ish­ing.”

Eiteljorg pres­i­dent and CEO John Vanaus­dall re­it­er­ated the mu­seum’s en­thu­si­asm for the Perel­man col­lec­tion and en­cour­aged vis­i­tors to come see it first­hand. “The Eiteljorg Mu­seum has ben­e­fit­ted pro­foundly from the gen­eros­ity of Mel and Joan Perel­man over the past two decades,” Vanaus­dall says. “Their ex­quis­ite judg­ment in col­lect­ing fine art of Na­tive Amer­ica and the West is re­flected in this out­stand­ing col­lec­tion, rep­re­sent­ing many cul­tures, that the pub­lic will be fas­ci­nated to see. In light of the ex­tra­or­di­nary qual­ity of this bas­ket col­lec­tion in par­tic­u­lar, it’s ap­pro­pri­ate that we share it with the pub­lic.”

In­ter­wo­ven: Na­tive Amer­i­can Bas­ketry from the Mel and Joan Perel­man Col­lec­tion con­tin­ues at the Eiteljorg Mu­seum through Au­gust 5.

Bas­kets from the Mel and Joan Perel­man Col­lec­tion, in­clud­ing Tu­bat­u­la­bal bas­ket, Apache olla, Rose An­der­son feather bas­ket, Bernard Par­ley quilled con­tainer and beaded Pomo bas­ket. Gift of Mel and Joan Perel­man.

1. Un­known Pomo Artist, Bas­ket, ca. 1890, sedge, glass beads. Gift of Mel and Joan Perel­man 2. 1890s Pomo bas­ket by an un­known artist, left, with Ethel Ste­wart (Pomo) bas­ket, ca. 1950-1960. Gift of Mel and Joan Perel­man.

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