A STUNNING NEW BASKETRY COLLECTION GIFT IS UNVEILED AT THE EITELJORG MUSEUM IN INDIANAPOLIS.
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.