De­sign­ing woman

Bas­ket weaver Sally Black

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO -

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


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