Basket weaver Sally Black
Sally Black wanted to weave baskets when she was little girl, but her mother, Mary Holiday Black, told her that she was too small to learn how. Black watched her mother closely in the evenings and sometimes, when she left the house, Black would take out the supplies and play around with them. “When she came back, I put it away the way it is,” Black said. “She never found out, but I practiced, practiced. Finally, I talked to her about it and then she just went ahead and showed me everything, how to go about it. I was about eight years old at that time.”
Black’s fingers were not yet big enough to hold the rods that are made from sumac twigs, or to pull the threads to hold them together. She developed her strength and skills as she honed her sense of design. In the 1970s, when she came of age, most Navajo weavers were making traditional ceremonial baskets — but Black had something else in mind. “I hardly see anyone doing designs on baskets. I wanted to do something different, I told my mom. A lot of people said I wasn’t supposed to be doing it, but I did it — and now everyone is into it.”
Black, one of the world’s most recognized and respected weavers of Navajo baskets, is honored as a legacy artist at We Are the Seeds. Black is also part of Seeds’ Honor Women Art Share Project, and will be doing live basket-weaving demonstrations at her booth. She is known for her contemporary aesthetic, branching into baskets that are inspired by designs more commonly seen on rugs. Her pieces employ Navajo symbolism like eagles and hummingbirds as well as images from outside the culture such as the American flag. Raised at Douglas Mesa in Utah, Black now lives in Monument Valley. Her mother, who came from a long line of rug and basket weavers and learned to weave at age eleven, pioneered the form now known as Navajo story baskets. In 1995, Holiday Black received a national heritage fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts; she passed the tradition to her children, teaching them to weave.
Black has shown at SWAIA Indian Market in the past, but she said her application was not accepted for 2017. “They complained about a little thing. I told them I was well known and they said they would do research on me. I don’t know what happened.” She was concerned at first that she would not be able to sell her work in Santa Fe this summer, but Michael Billie at the Navajo support organization Capacity Builders Inc. told her there was another option. “I’m not used to the name of the new market yet. I feel a lot better, though,” she said.
The process of gathering sumac twigs and plants with which to make colorful dyes begins in September, when the roots, bark, and leaves are at their most colorful. To prepare the rods in the traditional manner, Black makes a triple incision into the butt end of each twig, one part of which she clamps between her teeth while tearing the other two off with her fingers. Then she scrapes each piece clean of bark, rendering it ready to be dyed. As this stage, Black is already considering what her finished baskets will look like, always striving to achieve her most complex ideas, figuring out ahead of time the array of colors she will need for the year’s projects. “It’s hard to put designs on the basket. Painters can do any kind of designs, but on baskets, making designs is complicated. My son is a dress designer and he is going to school in Lawrence, Kansas. Sometimes I make him figure out designs for me — he draws and puts designs in a computer. I like that, to make a new challenge.”
Black is at her happiest when she is at the weaving stage, all her materials around her at the ready. “When I have all the rods that I need, when they are still soft the way I like, and I have all the designs I want to do, that’s when I really enjoy working. I want to share my work with people so they know how baskets are being made, all the time I put in, what I use, and what I go through — all the pain. A lot of them think it’s simple to make. I think it’s hard work I chose to do, even though I enjoy it.” — Jennifer Levin
I HARDLY SEE ANYONE DOING DESIGNS ON BASKETS. I WANTED TO DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT, I TOLD MY MOM. A LOT OF PEOPLE SAID I WASN’T SUPPOSED TO BE DOING IT, BUT I DID IT — AND NOW EVERYONE IS INTO IT.