Weaving a revolution one community at a time
February 22, 2013
Woven baskets are an important tradition for the Navajo nation.
These shallow sumac bowls are used for weddings, but are also used in other ceremonies throughout an individual’s lifetime, said Becky Menlove, director of exhibits and public programs at the Natural History Museum of Utah.
Earlier this month, the museum opened a 7,000 square-foot interactive Navajo basket exhibit called "Weaving a Revolution," which is comprised of nearly 250 baskets.
To celebrate the museum has taken a few of these baskets and put them in a new "Weaving a Revolution" Traveling Treasures exhibit that will make stops at different communities throughout Utah.
It opened at the Zion’s Bank at Newpark on Wednesday and will be on display until the middle of March, Menlove said.
"Because Zion’s Bank is sponsoring the larger exhibit in Salt Lake and sponsors our Traveling Treasures program, we thought it would be great to open a display in the Park City Zion’s Bank," Menlove explained. "It’s a beautiful presentation of these baskets that we have acquired in our collection and it introduces the big exhibit in the museum that will be on display through April 28."
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The basket weavers and their methods
There is a group of Navajo weavers who live on the Utah strip of the Navajo reservation near Monument Valley.
"The group has been making baskets for generations, and over the past 30 or so years, several of them started to move away from the traditional basket design and began pushing the boundaries of what the baskets could look like and make new designs," Menlove said. "They started making larger and smaller baskets and added different elements in the designs.
"They got bold and began weaving in images of holy figures that are found in sand paintings," she said. "They also started weave in scenes that depicted legends and other traditional stories."
At the same time, some weavers created new geometric patterns and color studies.
"These designs are just beautiful," Menlove said. "So, out of the traditional art has emerged a contemporary art form, which is a revolution in design."
Although the look is different, the materials and methods of creating the baskets have remained the same for hundreds of years.
"The baskets are still made from sumac, which is a bush that grows in dry riverbeds," Menlove said. "It’s a strong-smelling plant and some people call it Lemonade Berry."
Weavers cut the branches close to the ground in order to cultivate long shoots.
"They use a coiling technique where the basket is stitched from the center outward," Menlove said. "The inside of the coils is made from sumac sticks and each of the stitches are made by splitting the sumac into three pieces and shaving them down to a nice even size. These strands are moistened so they can use them for stitching, and when the water dries, the baskets become very sturdy."
Acquiring the collection
Throughout the years, a relationship has developed with the Native American culture and the trading post, where traders play a role in helping an artisan meet the market need, Menlove said.
"In the past two or three decades, the Twin Rocks Trading Post near Bluff got involved and began working with a number of these weavers by encouraging them to take these bold leaps by showing them other types of Southwestern art forms, including pottery and painting," she said. "The trading post actually brought in a graphic artist who would help the weavers get the designs they were imagining onto paper and, later, on the computer so they could see how the baskets would look."
The weavers would sell their completed baskets to the trading post.
"If one or more of the baskets reached a new apex in quality or design, the trading post staff would not resell the baskets, but keep them in the back room," Menlove said.
"Over the years, the trading post amassed this large collection of nearly 250 baskets, which is a remarkable documentation of this whole movement in basketry design."
Since storing the art wasn’t an ideal way for people to see the baskets, the trading post made an offer to the Natural History Museum and donated one-third of the cost.
"We, in turn, raised the remaining funds to purchase the rest," Menlove said. "This is the first time this many baskets have been seen together in one exhibit."
The "Weaving a Revolution" Traveling Treasures exhibit will be on display at the Zion’s Bank Newpark Branch, 1483 Newpark Blvd. at Kimball Junction, until the middle of March. For more information, visit /newsdesk.nhmu.utah.edu/