Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Weaving A Revolution

by John Aldrich

This is the title of a recently opened exhibition at the Utah Museum Of Natural History. Although basket weaving isn't as inherently identified with Navajo culture as rug weaving, the former art has always been an important part of artistic expression on the reservation. The skill is primarily manifested in the northern reaches of the reservation where proximity to the Piute people is thought to have played a role in the acquisition of this skill.

Until recently the principal product of basket makers was the traditional Navajo ceremonial basket.

This simple appearing design contains the keys to the Navajo universe. It is used for a variety of ceremonial events both in healing and at key points in the stages of life. But there was a churning cauldron of creative energy waiting to be unleashed through this avenue of expression. The catalyst for this explosion was the Twin Rocks Trading Post in Bluff, Utah which was established in 1989. Steve and Barry Simpson wanted to continue a family tradition of supporting Native American artisans and hopefully make a living as well. Being on the northern edge of the reservation, they had ample exposure to weavers presenting baskets for them to purchase and offer for sale to visitors to their establishment.

They struck on the brilliant idea of expanding the design horizons of the local weavers in a most unique and contemporary manner. A local Navajo, Damian Jim, who possessed both design and computer skills, began creating contemporary ideas for basket weavers to incorporate into their pieces. The result was an explosion of creative output with the focal point being a nearby basketmaker, Mary Holiday Black. Along with her family they began producing pieces of art of stunning beauty, and this movement spread across the northern part of the reservation as well.

In the course of purveying these baskets to their customers, the Simpson brothers couldn't resist retaining a few pieces for their personal collection.Thus, over the next twenty years or so their collection grew to impressive proportions. Several years ago this treasure of about 150 baskets was acquired by the Utah Museum of Natural history which has just put it on display in a breathtaking exhibition worthy of the artistic level of the pieces.

Compare this basket with the ceremonial basket shown above:

The creative juices unleashed by this scheme of the Simpsons was more than ample reward for their faith in the artistic talents of Holiday and Black families as well as other basket weavers across the northern reservation.

This is one of my favorite pieces in the collection:

If you've ever had the experience of sleeping out under the stars in southern Utah, you should be able to relate to this scene readily. Imagine the basket is the dome of the sky with majestic sandstone landforms reaching up into it. It's a spiritual feeling that is evoked in a remarkable way by this basket.

Now lets take a quick tour of the exhibit at the museum:

Upon entering, this understated wall sets the tone for the show - beautiful art presented in a simple and engaging manner.

There are numerous display cases, large and small, containing the collection. Here are two of them:

 A special display pays homage to the trading post tradition in Navajo history. Although Twin Rocks is a modern business, it does fulfill one of the major historical rolls of trading posts. It provides an outlet for local Navajo artisans so that their wares can reach a wider audience.

Dispersed among the displays are a number of video kiosks such as this one where Mary Holiday Black is describing her art.

A large display is devoted to explaining the role that the Simpsons and Damian Jim played in creating this renaissance of Navajo basket making.

Steve Simpson is shown on the screen in the center where a video chronicles the history of this revival.

A special treat for visitors to the museum yesterday was Anderson Black, a son of Mary's, who was demonstrating his art to a throng of fascinated people.

And finally, here is another of the more unique and creative baskets in the exhibit.

If you are within traveling distance of the museum I would strongly encourage a visit. Pictures can only begin to convey the impact of seeing this astonishing display in person. The exhibit will become a traveling display after April 28th, so don't delay your visit too long.

And if you're within traveling distance of Bluff, I'm sure Steve and Barry would love to have you stop by. The basket makers of the area continue to create wonderful pieces of art and a good selection is always on display at the trading post.


  1. Hello..just beautiful and precious..one day I will come :)) one warming heart from Croatia..stay strong

  2. Absolutely stunning!

  3. John - I really enjoyed reading about the exhibit and seeing the wonderful baskets on display. Wish I could see it in person. Great seeing what Steve and Barry have helped to support along with the basket weavers. Loved the old Twin Rocks photo (PK)