Rec­og­niz­ing loom­i­nar­ies

Pasatiempo - - Onstage This Week - James M. Keller The New Mex­i­can

To afi­ciona­dos of Na­javo rugs, place names in the Four Cor­ners re­gion evoke strik­ing di­ver­sity: the vi­brant reds of Ganado/Klage­toh, the or­nate col­oration of Burnt­wa­ter, the in­ven­tive aban­don of Teec Nos Pos, and so on. But even in such a cel­e­brated lineup, the tex­tiles cre­ated by weavers of the Toadlena/Two Grey Hills area, mid­way be­tween Gallup and Shiprock, of­ten elicit an ex­tra de­gree of awe from con­nois­seurs. On Satur­day, May 15, the Wheel­wright Mu­seum of the Amer­i­can In­dian un­veils an ex­hibit of 37 works that trace the re­gion’s style through the course of the past cen­tury and make a strong case for the pri­macy of the Toadlena/Two Grey Hills tra­di­tion.

All but two of the pieces come from the per­sonal col­lec­tion of Mark Win­ter, who serves as the show’s guest cu­ra­tor. As the pro­pri­etor of the Toadlena Trad­ing Post, he plays a cen­tral role in sup­port­ing and en­cour­ag­ing the area’s artists. He didn’t set out to run a trad­ing post, or, for that mat­ter, to live in a re­mote out­post lo­cated, as he put it in a re­cent in­ter­view, “at the end of a dirt road, where 25 per­cent of the weavers don’t speak any English.” He had al­ready spent nearly two decades as a dealer in South­west­ern tex­tiles when, 22 years ago, he found him­self ir­re­sistibly drawn in by the Toadlena/Two Grey Hills style. In 1997, he moved to the com­mu­nity and took over the op­er­a­tion of the trad­ing post, which had closed down the year be­fore.

When he ar­rived, his in­ter­est cen­tered on rugs pro­duced in the re­gion dur­ing the early decades of the 1900s. Al­though many ex­perts placed Toadlena/Two Grey Hills pieces of that era at the sum­mit of 20th-cen­tury Navajo weav­ing, Win­ter found that scant in­for­ma­tion was writ­ten down about even the finest of the weavers of that time. “In this field,” he said, “we know about cul­tures, but we don’t know about weavers. It seemed a shame that we could have a 75-year-old work that was ac­knowl­edged as a mas­ter­piece and yet it would be an anony­mous piece.” He set out to cor­rect that and is now within months of pub­lish­ing The Mas­ter Weavers, a 500-page com­pen­dium that doc­u­ments the tex­tiles of the Toadlena/Two Grey Hills area and, for the first time, sets down the ge­nealo­gies of the re­gion’s weav­ing fam­i­lies, many of whom he has traced back to the time of the Long Walk to Bosque Re­dondo in the 1860s. As the se­ri­ous­ness of his in­ter­est be­came clear, the com­mu­nity em­braced his work. “These grand­moth­ers cared that I cared,” he says, “and they started to par­tic­i­pate in the project be­cause they cared about what their tra­di­tion was.”

But he was shocked to find that the tra­di­tion was in per­ilous de­cline — “an ex­ceed­ingly dis­ap­pear­ing art that was slip­ping away at a faster rate than you can imag­ine.” Weavers had grad­u­ally given up the loom, un­able to earn enough from their rugs to jus­tify the time it took to cre­ate them. One of the grand­moth­ers who was still an ac­tive weaver con­vinced him to buy one of her rugs, and that opened the flood­gates. “Four thou­sand eight hun­dred rugs later, we’re in the mod­ern-rug busi­ness, and we sup­port about 175 weav­ing fam­i­lies,” Win­ter said. Even so, he is very se­lec­tive. “We only buy from weavers for whom we’ve done in-depth ge­nealo­gies,” he ex­plained. “That’s be­cause this is an art that is built on tra­di­tions that are passed down from mother to daugh­ter or from grand­mother to grand­daugh­ter. I’m in­ter­ested in artists whose an­ces­tors de­vel­oped the style. The en­tire tra­di­tion is con­tained within about a 12-mile ra­dius of the trad­ing post.” He takes spe­cial pride in the fact that, un­der his stew­ard­ship, the trad­ing post has bought 150 “first rugs,” the ini­tial ef­forts of emerg­ing artists aged 4 to 65. Some of the artists with whom he works dove­tail their weav­ing with un­re­lated ca­reers, but oth­ers de­vote them­selves to their looms full time or di­vide their work­ing hours be­tween weav­ing and tend­ing the sheep that fur­nish the wool.

Cheri Falken­stien-Doyle, the Wheel­wright’s cu­ra­tor, ob­serves that the churro sheep raised in the Navajo Nation have much to do with the qual­ity of Toadlena/Two Grey Hills tex­tiles. “That va­ri­ety of sheep,” she said, “has an un­usu­ally long sta­ple — mean­ing the clus­ters of wool in the fleece — and as a re­sult, the wool can be spun out into yarn that’s so fine we would think of it as thread.” Whereas most Navajo rugs have about 30 wefts (hor­i­zon­tal rows of yarn) per inch, Toadlena/Two Grey Hills rugs typ­i­cally have 40, 50, or more. Rugs by Daisy Taugelchee (1909-1990), the most cel­e­brated of the re­gion’s weavers, topped out at 115 wefts per inch, and a few con­tem­po­rary weavers have sur­passed even that. “Our av­er­age weaver spins as well as the best weavers on the rest of the reser­va­tion,” Win­ter in­sisted. The higher the weft count, the more pre­cise are the geo­met­ric de­signs, which in some of these weav­ings achieve ra­zor-sharp de­lin­eation. An­other con­se­quence of such finely spun yarns is that more time is re­quired to cre­ate a piece. A ta­pes­try with a weft of 150 takes three times

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