Ledger Art : Part II

We have seen that Plains Indians pictographic tradition has a long history going back to the prehistoric Rock Art. The Ceremonial and Biographic petroglyphs and pictographs are our earliest telltales of this narrative expression of either symbolic ideas or actual events. We also recognized that the use of perishable media, such as hides and wood, must have been widely spread even thousand of years ago. The Biographic tradition was mostly expressed on hides, whether robes, shirts or tipis, throughout the protohistoric and early historic time, but took a new path with the arrival of the Euroamerican  population on the Western Plains. Paper was introduced and readily accepted by Native warrior/artists to expand their narrative pictorial story-telling tradition. With paper came also new drawing utensils such as pens and pencils, opening new horizons for their pictographic representation.

The first known use of paper, pen, pencil and even water color dates back to the early 1830’s when first Catlin, then Bodmer, enticed two already prolific Mandan warrior/artists, Four Bears and Yellow Feather, to try their hands at the new implements. We do not know if earlier explorers gave paper to Indian artists before that, but it took another few decades for the wider use of paper to become common.

Epic picture writing was a favorite of the warriors to tell and advertise their combats and other warrior’s deeds and it was often done soon after their victorious return to the village. We know of a painted buffalo robe, taken by members of the US army from a defeated village, representing a battle that this same unit had had a few days earlier against that Indian group.

Ledger books were an ideal medium for the nomadic people of the Plains, light and compact it could easily be stowed away and carried from camp to camp. What is called today Ledger Art defines any Native Art on paper whatever kind it is. A lot of the early books were certainly obtained through raids as several examples are books or diaries used by their original white owners. Many account ledgers, journals and army rosters with previous entries in English, were used and drawn over, as well as some commercially printed catalog and even a bible! Not only the paper was sought after, but the mere act to acquire, as a war trophy, an object that belonged to your enemy, was an ancient custom. Many nonliterate Indians view the white’s writings, documents and books as having supernatural powers, so taking and using these objects was a strong spiritual victory empowering the triumphant warrior. According to Colonel Dodge, in the 1860’s “…many warriors keep a book in which their acts are thus recorded.”

Paper, pens and pencils gave the opportunity to the Native artists to expand their artistic skills and creativity. Like the ancient Biographic scheme, the Ledger Art is also principally a depiction of war deeds, with a few hunting and courting scenes. From a large canvas, a rock cliff or a buffalo hide, the artist had to alter his art to fit the smaller size of the books. The multi scenes and acts spread on a hide was no longer feasible and he was forced to tell the whole story in one single frame. Keeping with the Native pictorial tradition, the scene is still floating on the page, with no foreground, background or horizon confining its space.

The ledger books are often used horizontally, with the spine as the bottom of the drawing. The scenes are mostly read from right to left, with the dominant figure on the right and are also predominantly bilateral, meaning that two figures or actors, or two groups of figures or actors are interacting with each other. It can be a chase, moving from right to left, where the warrior/artist is pursuing his enemy, killing him or touching coup. Or he is stealing horses, herding them away in front of him, or hunting a buffalo, or the buffalo, now on the right side of the page, is goring horse and rider! The action can also be moving toard the center, two warriors facing each other in hand to hand combat, the cavalry charging mounted warriors, the grizzly facing the hunter, the dancers going back and forth in rhythm or two lovers wrapped in a blanket.

Many artistic conventions are used to illustrate mixed chronology and action in time and space. The C symbol for horse’s hooves, showing where and when horses went, dotted lines for foot tracks of the warrior’s activity. The page can be covered with dots and lines or arrows to show that the warrior/hero survived an onslaught of enemy bullets or arrows. A foe can be shown with a bow or quirt on his head and two arrows on his back at the upper right corner of the page, while the subject is counting coup and shooting another victim, telling of him killing two enemies. Countless others conventions are used to tell the story, stack of weapons to show how many were stolen, a hand over a figure for counting coup, several horse heads and many hoof symbols for a successful horse stealing raid, a line encircling a human form to show him hiding in a pit, surrounded or hidden behind a palisade! And of course there is the name glyph that would reveal the identity of the creator of the art or others in the scene. The imagination of these artists is limitless but always understood by their native audience

Next time we will look at more details of some famous Ledger Books.

References:

“Lakota War Book” Castle McLaughlin
“Cheyenne Dog Soldiers” Afton, Halaas, Masich
“Plains Indian Drawings 1865-1935” Janet Berlo
"A Cheyenne Ledger Book History” Colorado Heritage Autumn 1996

Ledger Art : Part I

The Native American form of representative art known today as “Ledger Art”, or any form of art done on paper, has its origins in the pre-historic Native Ceremonial Art Tradition still available to us in the numerous ancient Rock Art sites throughout the Plains region of North America and beyond.

These Ceremonial Art images were predominantly humans and animals figures, carved or painted alone or in small, juxtaposed groups. Depicted in rigid, frontal forms, lacking action or a sense of united scenes, these figures documented the religious and symbolic beliefs of Plains Indians, associated with vision quests and shamanic practices. They were of 3 majors types, the shield-bearing warriors, the rectangular stand alone human figures and the animals. These figures are simple and conventionalized, the shield-bearing represented by a large round shield, with the warrior being portrayed simply by stick legs and arms and a dot or small circle for the head sometime shown with a headdress. The shields are often very detailed, picturing either abstract and geometric designs or animal figures offering protective power to the shield. The rectilinear human figures are also stylized and conventional, sometimes shown with elaborate headdresses, sticks arms bent up at the elbows and occasionally holding weapons. Their bodies regularly show anatomical details, ribs, kidneys, genitalia and symbolic lifelines and often facial expressions. Like the human figures, the animals are simple and stylized, outlined by a curvilinear line, always in profile and showing identifying details such as antlers, claws or feathers.

 
 

The evolution of Ceremonial Art into, what is called Biographic Art, can already be seen in late prehistoric Rock Art, but is really prevalent in the historic pictographic tradition painted on animal hides used for war shirts, shields, tipis, robes and later drawn on ledger books.

No Ceremonial or early Biographic Art on perishable media is known today, but it is strongly suspected and almost expected, that prehistoric Native cultures decorated animal hides and other decaying materials. One strong indication for this thought, is the images of the shields on Ceremonial Rock Art that are often decorated with abstract, symbolic designs or animal spirit images, as most likely the original shields were made of hides, it therefore demonstrate the use of hides as a media for pictorial drawing, whether as shields or robes. Another clue, is that the carved human figures have also decoration that could be body paint or symbolic signs, but could very well be representation of decorated shirts. It seems obvious that prehistoric Plains Indians used more than just sandstone cliffs to execute their picture-writing art form.

Where Ceremonial Art was symbolic and meant to bring power and protection to the people,  Biographic Art depicts real events and humans involved in actual activities such as war, hunt, social and tribal episodes. The images gained in movement and fluidity, interacting with one another in scenes and actions that can be read through stylistic convention creating a picture-writing with a storyline easily interpreted by initiated people. Stylistically, the figures resemble the early ceremonial petroglyphs, shield-bearing warriors, blocky human figures, archaic, naïve animal forms and a new triangular form for the human torso is introduced. But now the figures interact with each others, creating active scenes of combat, counting coups or stealing horses. Figures facing each other in semi-profile, arms outstretched holding spears or clubs, bent over, leaning forward or backward creating action and giving life to the scenes. Horses drawn with curvilinear lines are more graceful and fluid, emanation of agility, speed and power. Riders are been pictured on horses increasing the sensation of action and mobility. The new incorporation of ideograms and pictograms such as dashed lines for human footprints, series of C shapes for horses tracks, dots or lines with dots for flying bullets creates again illusion of movement, travel within the scene and the passing of time in a unique picture frame. The story telling can be intense and detailed, narrating events that helped preserve and transmit the tribal history.

The rapid evolution of the Biographic Art form culminates in the early 1700’s through the late 19th century. Our records of this form of Native art is a lot more extensive due to the collecting habit of the first Euro-American visiting the Western Plains region. The oldest painted robes date to the first half of the 18th century and many more were acquired in the following decades as well as painted war shirts. The first known ledger drawings on paper were done by the Mandan’s warriors Four Bears and Yellow Feather who were given paper, pen, pencils and watercolor paint by Karl Bodmer in 1834. It is possible that earlier examples of Native art on paper existed but did not survived. The expansion of the use of paper did not occur until the 1860’s with the increase numbers of travelers and people moving out west. Warrior/artists were able to get paper material through trade, raid or gifts and favored this media for its ease of transportation and use.

The same evolution in style and topics happened in Ledger Art that it did in early Biographic Art. We will look at that in a coming blog. 

REFERENCES:

“Plains Indian Painting” John C Ewers
“Plains Indian Rock Art” James Keyser & Michael Klassen
“The Five Crows Ledger” James Keyser

APACHE PLAYING CARDS

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The Apache playing cards are a classic example of a crosscultural artistic exchange, combining traditional pictographic representation of nontraditional design and imagery. The Apache traditional artistic interpretation were more abstract than their contemporary Western artistic tradition.

Members of the Hernan Cortes were the first to bring playing cards to the mainland America in 1519 and it took another 70 years, with Juan de Onate in 1598, for the first deck of cards to appear in the Upper Rio Grande River Valley. The local Native population being fond of gambling readily took on this new game of luck with its unusual features of shape, form and colorful design. Numerous mentions of indigenous people indulging in fierce card games have been recorded since the late 16th century.

The cards and games that the early Spanish conquerors brought with them were of the Latin Suit system, itself of an Islamic origin, common in Italy, Spain and Portugal. Sailors and soldier adventurers were avid gamblers so much so that the church and Spanish crown tried to prohibit the export of playing cards to the New World. Like most prohibition it did not work and the government did the next best thing that all government do, if you cannot stop it, tax it!

Overtime, from the traditional Spanish games, evolved new, authentic games of which the Mexican Monte was the most popular, certainly with the Native people.

This game is simple and easy to learn. Very little strategy, scheme and tactic is involved, the only required “skill” is a fascination with Lady Luck!

The set has 40 cards broken down into 4 suits: coins, swords, clubs and cups each of 10 cards with 3 figures, King (Rey), Knight (Caballero) and Page (Sota) and 7 numerals, ace through 7.

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In a simplified version of the game, one player is the banker or house, he lays 2 cards face up keeping the rest of the pack face down. The other players place their bets on either card, gambling that the card coming off the bottom of the pack is of the suit bet on! That's it! A winner gets a 1 to 1 return and the banker scoops up all the losing bets. The quickness of the game is also part of the attraction.

No one really knows when the first Native made playing cards were created, but most of the records seem to indicate that the majority of the packs in collections today are from 1825 to 1900.

When unable to trade or buy paper cards from the Europeans, the Indians made theirs out of animal skin and decorated them to imitate the imagery of the Mexican cards. They did not try to copy the style, only keeping the essence of it they painted the cards within their own traditional artistic customs and worldviews.

Most, if not all of the known sets of cards indicate an Apache creation. Even the ones collected from other tribes look Apache. No one, so far, has been able to explain why other tribe did not make them too.

Our subject set of cards comes from a private collection. It has 37 rawhide cards made of what some “experts” believe to be pig skin. I’m not sure if they were experts in skin or cards! The cards are all roughly cut to the same size (3 1/2” x 2 1/4”) with rounded corners. Overtime they acquired a curved shape that would make it hard to shuffle! They are in excellent condition with a nice, rich patina.

The first 3 suits, cups, swords and coins are complete, where the fourth one, clubs is missing the knight, page and number 6 cards. The graphic style is an exemplary traditional form rendering the essence of the subject in a stylized, minimal figurative pattern.

The court cards are characteristic of a Apache traditional art. Blocky bodies with stick arms and legs, round or triangular head without facial features but each is easily differentiated. The Kings, wearing richly decorated overcoats on Spanish cards, are shown by Apache artists as long rectangles with elaborate decoration, no legs, short arms. The Knight is on a horse, of course, with square, colorful body and more defined arms and a leg showing under the horses bellies. The Pages have more define arms and legs, also wearing elaborate shirts. Two of them are wearing what has been identified as cartridge belts, illustrated by a thick horizontal line at the junction of the body and legs.

An interesting feature to notice is that only the cup king is wearing a crown, but one page is also wearing one. Obviously the Apache artist, being from a more egalitarian society and culture had no problem using a status and power symbol of a foreign culture on distinct figures!

The numerical cards are also very stylized and symbolic. The swords and clubs differentiate by the addition of spikes on the clubs. Our suit of club is somewhat inconsistent in its imagery, the King and 7card could be confused for swords when the other numerals don the characteristic spikes. Were they from another pack? Hard to tell. The rawhide is identical to the rest of the set so is the style and decoration, we’ll certainly never really know.

This particular artist did not outline any of the figures in black. His palette consist of bright, vibrant blue, yellow, red, orange and a little bit of white for the page of coins cartridge belt. This beautiful, rare set of Apache playing cards is a typical example of a 19th indigenous folk art adaptation of an alien object.

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A Curated Moment

I love this quote.  It is from the blog Brain Pickings.

‘ “I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence,” Toni Morrison wrote in her electrifying piece on the artist’s duty at times of crisis. That refusal can take many forms, but at its richest, it is more than mere resistance — it is, rather, a commitment on behalf of the artist to serve not only truth but beauty by remaining in contact with the timeless and the eternal; to fortify us against the urgencies of a turbulent present and embolden us to transcend our primal reflex of fear, so that we may lift not only our spirits but the whole of our consciousness and continue to evolve toward a more humane humanity. This has always been the duty of the artist, and fragments of it can be found in every single work of art that has endured and has helped humanity endure over millennia of tumult.’

http://us2.campaign-archive2.com/?u=13eb080d8a315477042e0d5b1&id=0056b0cc14&e=94206a7770 - Brain Pickings

 Maynard Dixon painted his time.  He painted a changing and disappearing world, yet I think he would recognize a lot of what remains, if he drove out past the sprawl, into the land, he would see the same plateaus, sage brush and high arrogant clouds.   

This is the land I was born in and it speaks to my soul.  The vast breadth of the West gives my eyes room to see the changing landscape. I want to be witness to the place and the time I live in,, to depict its transcendent beauty, its stubborn bones, its highways and byways.  I want to capture an honest impression, one that I see.  The truth is neither exclusively beautiful nor exclusively dark.  It is in the balance somewhere and that balance is tipped depending on the moment in time.  Some moments are stunning beyond expression, some darker than it feels possible to comprehend.  It is worth the trials and tribulations of our lives to experience the perfect moments.  Walter Pater once said, “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.”   There is enough candy-coated imagery out there, the pop music of pretty.    Then there is the occasional voice that can hit all the notes with a resonance of honey that forces you to remember that perfection cannot last, but for this moment it is a part of the world.  My language is paint.  It is how I pay homage, how I investigate, how I communicate, how I hope to add to our collective culture.  You can’t be subtle if you are in love with the world.

Representational art can have a great depth of meaning beyond and including the observation and re-creation of that which is depicted.  When you choose to spend thirty hours on an image it becomes a curated moment.  It says a lot about the artist.  What do they pass along to posterity?  There is a lot of responsibility in our choice of subject and how we portray it.  Lasting art must be part of an art historical movement and moment or it must transcend.  Art that transcends place and time is the stuff that strikes a chord, lingers in our mind, that we attach a personal value to, that we fall for.  A successful painting takes on its own meaning, often different from the one it was created with.  The work starts to move towards its own mythology and symbolism when it strikes a balance between the grand statement and the individual passion.  

I found my grand statement in the clouds.  I am obsessed with the sky.  It is the counter weight of my life.  It is an ongoing and epic concert reminding me of the greater truths of life. The clouds are movement and time translated into color and light.  Their vast abstract qualities put the narrative of the paintings into a distanced perspective.  The muscle of the land is clearly visible, sculpted by the glaciers and the lack of rain.  It is a land exposed.  A land depopulating to the cities, leaving the diners almost empty and the imagination full of wonder.  Who lived here and why?  How do you hear yourself and your dreams under such an expanse of silence?   The turbulent sky is both an arena for distraction, meditation and reprieve from the day to day, while the land and our small existence on it pull me back to the stories hinted at in a pair of headlights in the waning light. 

Cheyenne Dog Soldier Society Robe

The Cheyenne “Hotametaneo’o”, literally Dog-Men, were called Dog Soldiers by the 19th century white population of the Plains region. One of the six major Cheyenne military societies, the Dog Soldiers Society slowly became the most powerful by the mid 1800’s. They were the elite military leaders also in charge of the tribal discipline, community hunts and ceremonies. So powerful and aggressive were the Dog Soldiers that the Civil Council Chiefs lost all control over them. Over time they became a separate family clan from the tribe, at odds with the Peace Chiefs, such as Black Kettle and White Antelope, regarding how to deal with white intruders and the US Army. They absolutely refused to sign any treaties or entertain the thought of moving to a reservation. They were described by a reporter covering the negotiations at Medicine Lodge in 1867 as “…the awesome warriors were armed to the teeth with revolvers and bows … proud, haughty, defiant as should become those who are to grant favors, not beg them.” From a territory situated in what is now Western Kansas and Eastern Colorado, their aggressive warrior behavior was also directed toward their ancestral enemies, Comanche and Kiowa to the South, Pawnee to the East, Crow to the North and Shoshone and the Ute to the West. They kept a busy schedule!

Like other Societies, the Dog Soldier’s had its own symbols, regalia, dances and songs. Often Dog Soldiers wore their hair braided and wrapped in trade cloth as well as long nickel silver hair pieces hanging on their backs. They also often wore breast plates, either hair pipes or german silver pectoral with hanging najas. Bone Hair Pipe chockers were also very popular sometimes decorated with abalone shell. Most of the warriors carried an eagle bone whistle around their necks when going to a fight.

 
 

One of the most powerful article was the shield. Highly decorated with unique, personal and mystic symbols dedicated to the spiritual protection of the warrior. Often seen in visions, the symbols on the shield were accentuated by the addition of eagle feathers or others objects.

Cheyenne Shield

Cheyenne Shield

Vignette of Robe

Cheyenne Shield

Cheyenne Shield

Their weapons of choice were the bow and arrows, knives and lances, but quickly they added pistols and rifles acquired through raids and trade, yet the greatest war deed was counting coup, which was accomplished with their crooked lance, bow, quirt or coup stick. The most peculiar and symbolic item that distinguished the Dog Soldiers is the “Dog Rope”, a long hide strip or sash decorated with quillwork and eagle feathers that was either looped over the right shoulder and hanging under the left arm or secured to the breechclout belt. At the end was attached a red painted wooden pin that could be staked to the ground indicating the warrior intention to not retreat and fight to the end to protect his people. One such warrior died staked to the ground at the battle of Summit Springs in 1869.

Dog Rope and Crooked Lance

Dog Rope and Crooked Lance

This pictorial painted buffalo robe describes a battle between Crow and Cheyenne Dog Soldiers, possibly a battle which occurred in 1863 in Eastern Montana along the Big Horn River. The narration throughout the drawings indicates the Cheyenne as the victors of this close quarters combat. The imagery is the accurate description of real people and real events. These are not random drawings, but very specific identifiable renditions of deeds and items belonging to the Dog Soldiers or the Crow warriors. For instance, the shields drawn are very obvious Cheyenne imagery. Similar examples of shields exist in museums and private collections today. In the upper right corner, the rider on the red horse is wearing a trade blanket with a magnificent Cheyenne beaded blanket strip. The warrior in the upper left is holding a society quirt, possibly third degree, while the one in the center riding the red horse with black spots, as well as the one at the bottom left, is wearing a Dog rope or no retreat sash unique to the Dog Soldier’s war tradition. On the right side, the warrior on the black and white horse wears a upright headdress and the fighter in the lower corner is using his crooked lance to count coup on a Crow victim. In the bottom center is a representation of a shield associated with Cheyenne Dog Society. An interesting weapon adopted by Dog-Men was the cavalry sword, depicted with two Cheyenne fighters in close combat. Research has shown that 17 such swords where recovered at Tall Bull’s camp after the Summit Springs battle in 1869.

Cheyenne Blanket Strip

Cheyenne Blanket Strip

Warrior with Sword

Warrior with Sword

Vignette or Robe

Vignette or Robe

In each of the vignettes, we see close hand to hand combat that demonstrate the Dog Soldiers bravery and power. The horse’s bridles were also displaying the recently taken scalps, and all the horse’s tails are tied up, telling us that they had been prepared for war prior the fight. The warrior on the top row also shows his preparation, his entire body painted for war in the tradition of the Contrary warrior who were highly respected for their bravery in combat. Another interesting vignette on the top row shows a Crow warrior armed with a pistol and a Crow coupstick or crooked lance, obviously a brave fighter. Another clear indication of tribal affiliation is the representation of the classic, traditional Crow hair style, the pompadour or tied as a front top knot. Many other items are easily identified throughout the painting, weapons (rifles, muskets, blanket gun), clothing (leggings, moccasins, cape, shirts) and other imageries, but one intriguing image is on the top right corner and depicts what looks like bear paws/tracks!  Could it be the artist name glyph? We will certainly never know for sure, but there was a prominent Dog Soldier warrior named Bear Paw/Tracks!

Rescue of Bear Tracks/Paw

Rescue of Bear Tracks/Paw

Crow Warrior

Crow Warrior

Contrary Warrior Ledger Drawing

Contrary Warrior Ledger Drawing

Two other clues indicate a Cheyenne artist and provenance. First the pictorial style, perhaps better than any other tribes, Cheyenne artists developed a recognizable language of images. The manner the horses were portrayed in all their art, whether on painted robes, tipi liners or ledger drawings, with their graceful movement and long legs, very specific body or hair coloration helps identify the tribal affiliation of the artist.

Cheyenne Ledger Drawing

Cheyenne Ledger Drawing

Vignette of Robe

Vignette of Robe

Lastly, the hide has been cut in the Cheyenne tradition, unlike the Sioux, Cheyenne would cut out around the horns and eyes leaving a narrow curved hide strip for the head. The front legs were sewn backward creating a more square hide

What’s going on here? The Quirkiness of the Navajo Weaver’s Mind

There is not much written about a very peculiar oddity done by mostly Classic and Late Classic weavers and seldom seen on Transitional and floor rugs Navajo textiles. We all have noticed and if not understood, we have accepted the weaving pattern called variegation. This is the use of different shades of wool colors; mostly brown, red and the infamous grey! Often stripes and wide bands on blankets are of a variegated color, giving them an organic, even vegetal tone and design. It is fairly easy to picture the weaver sitting in front of her loom with 2, 3 or more handspun brown or raveled bayeta skiens of yarn and choosing one or the other, alternating them as she goes along, creating a rich, deep, textured color field. Even the white stripes on Chief’s blankets are not uniform in color and acquire this same richness and texture.

This is one of the reason why these Classic textiles are so beautiful, intriguing and unique. The human and artistic touch can be read throughout the weavings, one weft at the time. Her feelings and soul are right there on her woolen canvas. Happy, sad, mad or whatever else she was feeling.

But there is something else that can often be found on these amazing Classic weavings. The “Spirit Line” is of course a common feature that has a purpose and meaning, but what about these seemingly random lines, dots or even holes found on these old blankets and sarapes? If one looks closely at them, one is almost certain to find at least one of them. We have selected a few of these intriguing, “quirks” of Navajo weavings.

Here, on a Classic 3rd Phase, is a short strand of red bayeta yarn incorporated into the variegated field of brown! Why? What is the meaning of such a sign? Is there a meaning? It is obvious that it is not an accident, it was put there on purpose, for a reason, whatever it might be.  

 
 

On this same blanket, we can see this faint dark line within a white stripe. Why did she add this brown yarn in there? It looks like a zip on Barnett Newman painting “The Voice” 1950, his a vertical zip, hers a horizontal one, but so similar in visual feel and sensation.

 
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In this Late Classic Child’s Blanket, we have an example of single dots or beads and small lines spread on the red field! What was going through her mind for her to add these to her work? These are not features that seem to alter the design of the weaving but maybe they do. 

 
 

This last example is maybe the most amazing and intriguing. Holes! She deliberately created holes in the center of this Late Classic sarape! These are not breaks or repairs in the wefts, she did it on purpose, wraped some wefts around warps and left gaps! Again why? Why did she go through the trouble of doing this? Is it another form of spirit….hole to let her creativity escape? But why in the center of her work? Is there a pattern to it?

 
 

I do not have answers to these questions, but I sure enjoy finding these unusual design creations by the Navajo weavers. Maybe if one of them read this, she could enlighten us on the significance of them.

The "Necropsy" of an Art Project

THE COWBOYS OF CENTRAL MONTANA: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT OSBORN

Yes it is a strange way to put it, but I wanted to find out the details of the making of such a project and one option is to dissect it, therefore the necropsy! Granted, I could have called it the anatomy of an art project, I guess it’s my morbid sense of humor!

It is fairly obvious and easy to understand some of the motivations leading to Osborn's series on the cowboys of central Montana; the romance, the almost mythical stature of the cowboys, as well as the nostalgia of another, “vanishing race.”

So what about the more technical aspects of such an endeavor, like the choice of paper, the printing process, the matting and the framing? Let’s find out.

Before you even take a picture you’ve got to have a camera and Robert Osborn uses an “aging” Nikon D4, with a 24-120 Nikkor lens, because he feels that, bear with me here, “…its 16.2 megapixels image sensor produces images that sharpen incredibly well…sharper than newer cameras.” I could not have said it better! In Robert’s words again, “The Nikon D4 is a great cowboy camera.”

The choice of black and white is almost universal in photographic portraiture, conveying a dramatic feel to the images even though very few of us see in black and white, but again, many think that way! It is kind of a paradox, painters do portraits in color and photographers in black and white, when photography was suppose to, “…liberate painting from the subject” to paraphrase Picasso and photography be the ultimate imitation of nature!

The choice of paper is the result of many years of testing and comparing qualities and nuances. Robert has settled for Hahnemuhle Photo Rag Baryta, a 315 gsm fiber inkjet paper thatin his own words “…produces gorgeous, luminous prints with a wonderfully rich contrast gamut and a semi-gloss finish that does not mark easily.” An issue with matte paper is that it scuffs easily and the marks can’t be removed. Another requirement for his choice was to find a paper containing no brighteners which give a slight pinkish cast that is OK in color prints but, “awful” in black and whites.

When it comes to matting and framing Robert has the same high standards. Matting is done with an 8 ply Crescent Cotton Rag Matboard, acid free with museum archival properties in a warm white color. The same attention to details is given to the frames. Robert chose a Neilson matte-black aluminum frame for its clean appearance, structural integrity and archival properties too. Unlike wood, aluminum is inert and will not affect paper prints and mat boards.

The frames are then fitted with Optium Museum Acrylic glazing, selected for its incredible clarity, a nearly invisible anti-reflective coating and 99% UV protection.

Of course being cowboys, size matters! Most of the studio portraits are printed to 27 inches, but a few, “demand” to be printed to 36 inches! But again, didn’t they put John Wayne on a stamp?

Well, at the conclusion of this fun “necropsy” the result is that this Art Project is still alive and kicking!

So come on down to the gallery to check it out and enjoy the art.

May Day

May 1st, a paradox of human psychological behavior! While more than 80 countries worldwide are celebrating the International Workers Day or Labor Day, after an event that took place in the US, the Haymarket Riot in Chicago, we, in the US, celebrate Labor Day in September for no apparent reason other than it falls roughly halfway between the 4th of July and Thanksgiving!    

May was also the month of the ancient Old World spring festival and is now the New World most pagan spring celebration, the Kentucky Derby! This is an animalistic celebration of a creature original of the western hemisphere, that got the hell out of there when another creature, the human showed up to reappear some 10,000 years later with that same featherless biped on its back!

So let us celebrate that blend of elitist pageantry and pagan debauchery with some North American Native horse art.

One of a kind master piece by a gifted artist that epitomized beauty, elegance and power.

A more subdued example on the same theme. 

What can we say, Brancusi could have carved this one!

Could hook them up at the top of the stretch.

Did not mean to make you mad.

Brilliant! Used as a tobacco board between dances.

…and was smoked in this one!

Future blogs will be dedicated to Plains Indian sculptures and will revisit these beautiful objects in our collection.

Collectors Collecting Collections

What drives and motivates seemingly normal, intelligent and rational individuals to collect all kind, any kind of things?

The psychology behind this behavior has not been deeply, seriously or scientifically studied. Thoughts and theories span from Freud’s, who seemed to have a theory about anything, to the mundane.

Freud explained the need for collecting as a result of our traumatic experience of “potty training”! It goes something like this: as little kids we are trained, in the toilet, to let go and the sight of what was once ours going down the drain was very traumatic! In a nutshell, Freud is suggesting that this loss of control and of precious and personal possessions is why some people collect … stamps!

A less dramatic speculation is that getting attached to things is a universal human response to unspecified trauma or trouble and can lead to the psychopathologic behavior known as “hoarding”, which cannot really be affiliated with the milder symptoms of simple collecting. True collectors are not that nuts! Right?

The neat thing about non-scientific studies is that anybody can come up with an idea. Here is one, the first collector/hoarder was Noah! Did he not gather 2 of each example of living animals on earth and kept them in one location?

Even though the science is at the Psychology 101 level, the names given to the different collecting disciplines are etymologically sophisticated. Everyone knows numismatic for coins or philately for stamps. But what about arctophile for collecting teddy bears, vecturist for subway tokens, or better yet, names for things we did not know were collected such as helixophile, corkscrews, or tyrosemiophile, cheese labels for Pete’s sake, and best of all entredentolignumologist for… well I’ll let you guess that one!

In the 18th century a popular elitist activity was to have a “cabinet of curiosities”, an aristocratic form of prestige, power and wealth boasting that lead to the uniquely Western society institution of the Museum.

But to most, collecting is pure enjoyment, that brings a lot of fun to one’s life by expanding knowledge, interests, skills, social interaction and connection to the past, present and future.

Looking, searching for and maybe eventually acquiring that elusive, rare object is a definite joy. But But the ultimate adventure for a collector is the “QUEST”. The search and anticipation are the ultimate, euphoric, existential elements of the perennial journey to the mesmerizing goal.

The Quest, the Opium of the collector!

Have fun!

The Fred Harvey Company

Frederick Henry Harvey was born in 1835 in London. As a 15 years old teenager he boarded, in Liverpool, a ship sailing for America, in search of a new and hopefully better life. Like millions of other immigrants, young Fred had little cash in his pockets but great dreams and ambitions in his soul.

Upon arrival in New York City he quickly found employment at the popular Smith & McNell’s restaurant as a “pot-walloper” or dishwasher. The restaurant was located across from the busy Washington Market in Lower Manhattan. McNell’s started in 1812 as a small neighborhood outdoor market bringing fresh food to urban dwellers. In a few decades the market became the largest in the city and it was all Henry Smith and Thomas McNell needed to turn the small coffee house they had bought in the early 1840’s into a high volume 1,000 seats eatery that catered to dealers, farmers and customers patronizing the busy market.

Unpretentious, inexpensive but offering fresh food and good, fast service, the restaurant operated 24 hours and was said to serve up to 10,000 meals a day!

Fred couldn’t have picked a better place to learn the restaurant trade. As a young, ambitious, hardworking immigrant, he somehow attracted the sympathy of his bosses who taught him the basics principles of the food and hospitality business. He worked his way up to bus boy, waiter and line cook before leaving in 1853 for New Orleans and then St Louis where, with a partner, he ran a profitable cafe. Unfortunately, when the Civil War broke out his partner enlisted in the Confederate Army and left town not without forgetting to take all the money they had saved! 

Broke and dejected, Harvey moved to Kansas and found employment with the Burlington Railroad for/with whom he travelled frequently and could not help noticing the despicable food and service railroad travelers had to endure and he readily found then and there his calling. What he had learned from Smith and McNell turned out to be invaluable. He opened his first Harvey House next to the rail depot in Topeka, Kansas in 1873. The pillars of his success were cleanliness, good and fresh food and brisk and efficient service. His clientele had only a 30 minute stop before the train left again, and they actually were able to eat the food they paid for at Fred’s place, which was a huge improvement on what use to happened before Harvey came to town!

In 1876 his partnership with the Santa Fe Railroad began and in a few years there was a Harvey House every 100 miles strung along the Santa Fe line.

At his death in 1901, the now Fred Harvey Company owned 42 restaurants, 16 hotels and 20 rail dining cars! The right man at the right place at the right time. But again, just as Louis Pasteur said “Luck favors the prepared minds” and that young English boy was prepared for sure. This is the background for the rest of the/his story.

After his death, Fred’s sons, daughter and her husband continued the management of the Company. The involvement of the Fred Harvey Company in the Southwest and its Native peoples was a direct consequence of the Company’s need of a steady flow of tourists customers. At the turn of the 20th century the renewed interest for the North American indigenous people combined with the beautiful and exotic sceneries of the Southwest desert offered an unusually powerful promotional tool to both the Fred Harvey Company and the Santa Fe Railroad. What was good for one was also good for the other. The increasing number of travelers was good for the railroad, good for the Harvey houses and hotels and in addition was also good for Navajo and Hopi artists and artisans.

The epicenter and heart of the enterprise was the “Indian Department and Museum” at the Alvarado Hotel in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the brainchild of Fred Harvey’s daughter, Minnie and her husband, JF Huckel. Its success and significance is largely due to the astute and keen collector’s eye of Herman Schweizer their “anthropologist” manager. The museum was described as “the most extensive ethnological museum in the country” and “the largest and most complete of its kind in the world”. Navajo textiles occupied a prominent place as commercial and ethnographic items. Schweizer had an extensive personal connection throughout the Navajo and Hopi artist communities as well as with the traders on the reservations, especially JL Hubbell of Ganado, who supplied most of the contemporary weavings and some rare, classic blankets too.

These were the ones Schweizer was looking for. He was very aggressive in his quest, searching, acquiring, buying, collecting and even hoarding them. He bought entire collections of Classic and Late Classic blankets and sarapes from old Santa Fe and Arizona merchants and curio owners such as A F Spiegelberg and Arthur Seligman, or from early private collectors and their estates and from one of the first Taos painters Bert Phillips. He also used the services of two questionable characters, Pedro Muniz and Juan Olivas, who reportedly "had obtained old Navajo weavings in warfare or in trade” before the 1860’s!

A telling example of the depth and broadness of their textile holdings is the famous William Randolph Hearst Collection now housed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. Most of the weavings were purchased from the Fred Harvey Company and the inventory is simply astonishing: 39 Chief’s blankets, 86 bayeta sarapes, 42 Child’s blankets and on and on and on! Should not be legal for one dude to own so many!

What was not sold, formed the core of the Indian Department Museum collection and was ultimately distributed between several institutions such as the Heard Museum in Phoenix and the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe. Collectors and lovers of Southwest weavings and other art forms, are forever indebted to Herman Schweizer and the Fred Harvey Company for their “hoarding!” Their love, passion and maybe foresight in acquiring these old, used blankets at sometimes high prices, is the greatest legacy of the Fred Harvey Company, not the fact that it was the first restaurant chain ever created.

It is hard to imagine what could have happened to all these fabulous weavings if they had been left out there in the wild. Fortunately for us great collections are formed and often end up in public institutions for our enjoyment, enlightenment and education.

THANK YOU THE FRED HARVEY COMPANY!

J.B. Moore and the Crystal Trading Post

During the late 1800’s, a period of severe depression on the Navajo reservation, its textile industry experienced dramatic changes that severely influenced its production. The commercialization of the handmade craft steered the demand from a mostly local and native market to a wider, national and “foreign/Anglo” one that required increased production. To meet that demand and in keeping in the buying of lower grade blankets by the pound, the traders inadvertently contributed to the deterioration of the art of weaving.

The Navajo weavers were glad to satisfy this new demand and increase their income. The traders were buying all the blankets the weavers brought in, independent of the quality. What ensued was the lowest point for the craft. The coarse wool was not properly washed, if at all, nor was the wool degreased or burrs, dirt, dust and odors removed. To top it off, this poorly cared for wool would not take the dye properly either. To speed up the process even more, traders supplied their weavers with cheap cotton cords to use as makeshift warps that would deteriorate rapidly.

What could have been easily foreseen soon came to fore, and the more discerning buyers refused to buy these inferior textiles. A few traders realized the danger of this practice and started to require quality products and workmanship.

One who even went a step further is the legendary J.B. Moore of the famed Crystal Trading Post. Contrary to the amiable, engaging and colorful J.L. Hubell, whose life is well documented, John Bradford Moore seems to have been a more reserved, business-like but also an energetic, innovative and visionary fellow.

Little is known of his personal life. Of Irish descent, he may have been born in Texas in June 1855, but spent most of his early life in Sheridan, Wyoming where he met and married a young lady, Marion Cooney, from England in 1887. Their daughter Eunice was born in 1894. There is no record of J.B. Moore’s activities in Sheridan, but he must have been somewhat successful as apparently he was elected its mayor in the early 1890’s.

He moved to the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico in 1896 and bought half interest in the trading post situated on Washington Pass on the west side of the Chuska Mountains. Later on he bought out his partner Joe Reitz for full ownership of the trading post and was from then on the sole owner.

Life as an Indian Trader in this remote mountainous region of the reservation can be harsh and lonely during the winter at 8,000 feet. To carry on his business year-round and satisfy his local clientele, J.B. Moore bought and freighted in enough supplies for several months when snow would prevent any transportation. In his own words “…it is also our mission here to buy any and everything the Navajo has to sell…(wool, pelts, farm products, surplus of his flocks, cattle and horses)… And, it is also our purpose to sell him in turn, all the supplies, groceries, dry goods, clothing, wagons, harness and saddles, everything in fact he has need for and the money to buy with …”

He did establish a good relationship with the local Navajo population and slowly, with perseverance and determination he was able to convince his weavers, rooted in tradition, to produce nicer, finer but unconventional textiles. To help them achieve excellence Moore and his wife would oversee the cleaning of the fleeces and would even ship the best wool back east to mills for industrial cleaning and dyeing that he would give to his best weavers. His influence was also significant with the designs he introduced. Still somewhat traditional early on, with striped borders and fields of interlocking serrated diamonds reminiscent of classic serapes, he soon conceived more complex, multiple elaborate borders of frets, hooks, wavy lines and other figurative elements surrounding a central field of bold interlocking and connected crosses, diamonds, octagons and other alien figures evocative of oriental rugs becoming very popular.

These readymade designs were very helpful to the skilled but less creative, original weavers, “not all good weavers are good designers.” But J.B. Moore was quick to acknowledge his gifted, ingenious and inventive women and he gave credit to several of them for some of the most recognizable Crystal style designs. He and maybe more so these Navajo women weavers, have had a monumental influence on the emergence of some of the most known regional styles such as Two Grey Hills, Teec Nos Pos and Storm Pattern.

 Conception, innovation, newness and acquisition of the material are to a degree the easiest half of the equation, and J.B. Moore was equally talented and shrewd at the other half, finding or even creating a new market, in another word: “selling!”

His mail order catalogues may not have been the first ones, but still they were highly successful profitable for him and his weavers. After the publication of the second catalogue in 1911, Moore and his wife abruptly left, without a trace, in the fall of that year for what some sources claimed was due to a scandal he was not to be blame for??? Riiiight! So is life on the rez. No matter what, as Marian Rodee said, J.B. Moore “…was instrumental to changing Navajo weaving from blanket to rug.”

The Emergence of Navajo Regional Weaving Styles

After Bosque Redondo, the Navajo came back to their beloved ancestral homeland but had to rebuild their sheep flock and wool supply. They acquired and traded yarns with the newcomers to their land, the Anglo, government licensed traders, who were spreading across the newly formed reservation.

The influence of the trading posts on the social and cultural life on the reservation grew over the years and brought many changes to the people and their native weaving industry. Several parallel events slowly merged to create a world and birth place, to a metamorphosed traditional art. When the Classic wearing blanket became obsolete, the imagination and ingenuity of the Indian traders gave birth to the floor rug that this new breed of Easterners, the tourist, was in desperate need of! The perennial perfect storm. Some of the most influential traders were the early partners Juan Lorenzo Hubbell, C.N. Cotton and later J.B. Moore.

Juan Lorenzo was born in 1853, in Prajito, outside Albuquerque, New Mexico to a Hispanic mother and an Anglo father. After working at an early age as a post office clerk, the 17 years old Juan succumbed to the romance of the West, bought himself a horse and a saddle and headed to the still wild and untamed Utah Territory. No one knows for sure, but the “Hubbell’s legend” has it that young Juan seduced a Mormon girl and seduced her so well that the local Mormon bishop wanted him to marry the girl and her sisters! That prospect did not appeal to Juan who decided to skip town instead. With a posse sent after him he barley survived his quick exit, and found himself south of the Grand Canyon in the safer Navajo Reservation with two gunshot wounds.

Here he honed his trader’s skills working as a clerk at Indian posts before acquiring his own first trading post in 1876. Two years later, he bought what would become the famous Hubbell Trading Post in Pueblo Colorado Valley, soon renamed Ganado after the Navajo leader Ganado Mucho, a close friend of Juan Lorenzo.

This young and ambitious man slowly built up an ”empire,” owning some two-dozen trading posts throughout the reservation, as well as freight and mail lines services and warehouses. Early on, Hubbell partnered with his good friend C.N. Cotton, who managed the post at Ganado while he was on duty as sheriff in St Johns, Utah some 90 miles away. Both of them were astute and fair traders who built a successful relationship with the Navajo people.

The early and mid 1880’s were years of transition for the Navajo weaving industry. The market for wearing blankets was slowly changing and disappearing. Hubbell’s store housed hundreds of these beautiful blankets, way more than their actual market could handle. They were still only wholesaling to suppliers of mining camps and others Indian reservations across the country. They were at this time only advertising the blankets as durable, utilitarian products able to stand the harsh treatment of rural life. Sturdy and large enough for a bed, they never mentioned the beauty of these blankets. In an 1884 letter to a client in Custer, Montana, Cotton inquired about buying buffalo robes and lion skins and selling wearing blankets.

Soon our two traders thought of a new market, the East Coast and its more affluent population to turn blankets into household objects. Starting in the 1880’s, an antimodernist movement spread in the East and Europe in reaction to the new modern lifestyle. Imagine that,  the public concern with immigration, industrialization, labor unrest and world war fueled a nostalgia for the past! A cosmopolitan world looking for its roots in what was viewed as a primitive and pure culture. History repeats itself? Naaaw.

The Southwest became the embodiment of what antimodernist were looking for, natural beauty and primitivism. The Native people, with the help of Indian traders were more than happy to satisfy this new existential need.

Hubbell and Cotton first had their weavers replicate old blanket patterns, using the commercial yarn Germantown, mostly recreating the Moki style in what became the famed Hubbell Revival. They asked their weavers to produce larger and thicker pieces that were now floor rugs. They encouraged and expected quality craftsmanship and artistic innovations and were now advertising beauty to stores and dealers in New York City and other Eastern metropolis.

Because buyers such as the Fred Harvey Indian Department did not care much for the Moki style and the Germantown yarn that was not “Indian” enough, Hubbell asked his artist friend Elbridge A. Burbank to create paintings, for his weavers to copy from. New patterns blending early native designs and Oriental ones framed into an all around border became a new innovation for Navajo weaving. Now almost all the yarns used were native handspun wool limiting the color palette to white, gray, brown, black and of course the famed Ganado red with an occasional blue. The new patterns and color schemes had a great influence on other regional styles such as Two Grey Hills.

Even though our two traders parted ways in business, they stayed friends for the rest of their lives. Hubbell passed away in 1930 and Cotton in 1936.

The Hubbel Trading Post stayed in the family until it was sold to the National Park Service and still functions as a trading post. The C.N. Cotton Company ceased all activities after Cotton's death. 

 

References: 

100 Years of Navajo Rugs - Marion E. Rodee

Rugs & Posts - H.L. James

C.N. Cotton and His Navajo Blankets - Lester L. Williams

The Legend of Don Lorenzo - Erica Cottam

Juan Lorenzo Hubbel

Juan Lorenzo Hubbel

C.N. Cotton

C.N. Cotton

Saddle Throws, Blankets and Rug Samplers

One often ignored aspect of the Navajo textile industry is the creation of small weavings whether fancy small saddle throws, saddle blankets or the newer rug samplers.

Early on, during the Classic Period (1860’s and before) weavers made fancy small blankets that were used as saddle throws to add protection and decorum to the traditional horse gear. These saddle throws were of high and classic quality and workmanship, using expensive and exquisite wool yarns such as raveled bayeta and after 1863 the commercial 3ply, cochineal and synthetic dyed yarn manufactured in Germantown, Pennsylvania which became very popular partly due to the wider range of bright and attractive colors.

These fancy saddle throws gave rise to the single and double saddle blankets. In the early 1860’s, soldiers and cowboys used mostly commercial saddle blankets manufactured in the East, but a few examples of Navajo woven saddle blankets have been dated back to the Classic Period. Prior to this time, even Navajo used sheepskins or fleeces under their saddles.

Later, in the 1870’s, ranchers and cowboys near the reservation started to use the Navajo made blankets. The quality and durability of these blankets were quickly adopted by many. Thick, absorbent, with open weave allowing better air circulation on the horse’s backs, they were superior to mass produced blankets.

Early in the 20th century, some weavers started to create “mini” rugs of the different regional designs. These small weavings are great examples of the skill and artistic talent of the Navajo craftswomen and a wonderful way to build a collection of classic regional rugs as well as a collection of beautiful color and abstract fields with saddle throws and blankets.

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Indigo & Cochineal

The majors, if not the only two iconic dyes of the Classic Navajo weaving period are indigo and cochineal. A mystic blue and a vibrant red.

Definitively an absolute part of the great weaving tradition, they are an odd couple with different histories but similar glory and fame.

The word indigo comes from the Greek, “indikon” and latin, “indicum” which means, “from India” because until Europeans came to America, India was the sole known source of indigo. Oddly enough the word, “aniline” also comes from indigo by way of the Spanish word, “anil”.

Indigo does not really exist by itself, it is the result of chemical reactions. When a green plant containing a colorless compound comes in contact with water it produces a murky yellow substance that will turn blue in contact to oxygen!

The manufacture of indigo dye is time consuming, labor intensive and expensive. The plant indigofera contains a very small percentage of the dye so a lot of plants are necessary. After harvest the plants are soaked in water tanks where through hydrolysis indican is transformed into indoxyl. The indoxyl rich water is then drained into a new tank where contact with oxygen will oxydize indoxyl into indigo that will settle down, be drained, pressed, dried and cut into lumps for shipping and sale. Navajo weavers simply acquired the lumps or powder through trade or gifts and all they needed to do was to dissolve the dye into an alkaline solution, most often urine, that can be used and reused over and over again for many months. Unlike other natural dyes, indigo does not require heat, an attractive quality in a desert region poor in natural fuel. Another quality is that indigo molecules are deposited on the fibers rather than reacting with them, eliminating the need of a mordant, lessening cost and labor.

By contrast cochineal dye is easier to manufacture, simply harvest the bug, kill it, dry it, crush it and voila! But then the dyeing process is a lot more involved. First the dye must be dissolved in soft, pure water to avoid contamination of the dye, then the solution must be boiled before introducing the fibers to it. The yarns themselves must be treated before hand with a mordant for the dye to react with the fibers. Different mordant are used for different tones of reds: alum for crimson, tin for scarlet, chrome and iron for purple and copper for claret.

This complex and expensive process is certainly one of the reasons why cochineal is not known to have been used as a dye in the Southwest. It came by a roundabout way with the famed bayeta.

Unlike indigo that is found in tropical regions all around the world, cochineal is a native of solely the American continent. The female insect, Dactylopius coccus attaches herself to the leaves of the prickly pear cactus, nopal, to feed. This insect produces carminic acid to deter predators, which gives the red color to the powder resulting from the crushed dry insects bodies and it takes some 155,000 of them to produce 1 kg of dye.

Peru seems to be the original birthplace of cochineal dating back over 1,500 years ago. The earliest cochineal dyed yarn was dated to around 500 AD in Nasca, Peru.

Around 1,200 years ago cochineal was introduced to Mexico, certainly through trade and it quickly became a major crop. The Toltecs extensively cultivated and exploited cochineal and Oaxaca became its center of production. To the Aztecs Empire cochineal was also a valuable commodity, levied as an annual tribute on dependent states. That tribute was under the form of bags of dried cochineal or cochineal dyed cloth.

After the defeat of the Aztecs, Spaniards kept the annual tribute for the benefit of the Spanish crown and introduce this new red dye to the European market where red was an important status symbol. Cochineal produced a deeper and longer lasting red that what was available there and rapidly became highly valued. It was the second most valuable export during the Spanish colonial time.

The whole journey of cochineal is fascinating: it is produced in Mexico, exported to Spain, sold to England, where textiles dyed with it are sold back to Spain, shipped back to Mexico and finally traded to Pueblo and Navajo weavers in the American Southwest who unraveled the red cloth to incorporate the yarns to their beautiful blankets!

Classic Navajo weavers mostly used only these two colors, blue and red, combined with the natural wool, black, white and grey and created the most artistic and stunning weavings.

 

Sources:

“Blue on Blue” Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, Santa Fe, New Mexico

“Blanket Weaving in the Southwest” Joe Ben Wheat

“A Red Like No Other” Museum of International Folk Art, Santa Fe, NM

Wool, the processes and types used in Navajo weavings.

Most of the Navajo weaving has been done with wool since the early 1800’s. Before that, Navajo's were also known for their cotton textiles. Only one cotton sarape from that time period is known today and is on display at the Heard Museum Collection. The switch from cotton to wool may have been because of the nomadic Navajo lifestyle. It is easier for the ambulant sheep to do the growing on his back than for the nomadic man to grow cotton in an arid desert habitat!

Hair, wool, fur, eyelashes, whiskers and even porcupine quills are all made of the same material, a protein called, “keratine” growing from the same “hair” follicles. So what is the difference between hair, wool and fur? A common answer is that hair and wool keep growing whereas fur stops at a certain length. So by definition dogs and cats have fur, but we say, “dog hair,” and “cat hair!” What about the hair on our arms and legs? It grows to a certain length and stops, but we do not say that we have fury legs!

Another characteristic that differentiates hair, wool and fur is their density. Human hair has around 200 to 500 follicles per square inch (mine on a good, "hair day” has one per square inch :( !!!) The sheep on the other hand has 60,000 follicles per sq. inch, so wool it is! Then you have the sea otter, with one of the highest, “hair” density, 800,000 per sq. inch! This is fur.

So really there is not a definitive answer to that question more a matter of word usage.

Lets go back to wool in Navajo weaving.

Luckily, the first sheep to come to the Southwest were the common Churro sheep of Southern Spain and not the “royal" Merino, for the Churro wool was ideally adapted for the hand processing methods of this arid region. The medium to fine long staple fiber of the Churro has little crimp and scale structure and virtually no grease, making it easy to clean, comb and card. The resulting soft fleece can easily be spun into a strong single ply yarn, requiring very little twist. This is what is called worsted wool as opposed to woolen wool.

In late 1700’s the Navajo were given presents by the Spanish government as, “gratification” for good behavior! One of the gifts was a brilliant red, cochineal dyed cloth called bayeta, that was highly prized by native weavers and incorporated with their hand spun yarns into their textiles. The introduction of bayeta stimulated the native weavers to a level of excellence never seen before. The quality of the ravelled bayeta yarns challenged the best weavers to improve and refine their own Churro yarns to create the finest textiles ever produced. This was the pinnacle of the Classic Navajo weaving art, giving us the magnificent Classic Sarape and Chief’s Blankets

After the war in 1848 American goods were replacing Mexican ones and what is known as American flannel started to be used in textiles. Most of this flannel is a synthetic dyed wool with a red-orange color, also unraveled and woven into blankets.

By the mid 1800’s the so called Saxony yarn was introduced to Navajo weavers. A soft, 3 ply worsted naturally dyed yarn in red, blue and green predominantly. This was produced in Germany and other European countries. It was Merino worsted wool at first and then wollen later on.

Another European yarn, Zephyr, similar to Saxony is sometime found in textiles of this period.

In the 1870’s a new commercial yarn produced in Pennsylvania was brought to the reservation, the Germantown. Originally a 3 ply, synthetic dye yarn it then was a 4 ply yarn. Using the new aniline dies Germantown was offered in many different bright colors opening new horizons to the weavers and they took off and ran with it! We owe the “Eyedazzler” to Germantown and aniline union!

These were the wools and yarns used by Navajo weavers from the earliest period through the Classic late Classic and Transitional period.

Each period was highly influenced by the type and quality of the wool and dyes available. The Classic and Late Classic periods are still of the highest level of work(woman)ship and artistic creation.

Navajo Child's Blanket

 

One of the most intriguing and enigmatic creations from the Navajo loom is the so-called “Child’s Blanket.” A misnomer, a myth, a collector’s fantasy, a utilitarian object or maybe really what it is, a child’s blanket? Will we ever be able to answer that question? And does it really matter? Why are we even asking that question in the first place? Well, maybe our European, Cartesian mind has to categorize and classify to make sense of things? So where do we start? We cannot really ask the Native weavers. They will either tell us what they think we want to hear or they’ll make up a story to make fools of us!

So we are on our own, while they’re laughing! Descartes said, “I think therefore I am,” so let’s think: it looks like a sarape, it often feels like one, but it is the size of double saddle blanket, therefore it is …a child’s blanket! Really. Monsieur Descartes, you’re not serious!

Maybe we should think more the eastern way, like Dogen Zenji, the, “Up is Down” and, “Yes is No” opposites to find an experiential path beyond dualities….really?? What the…?

OK back up, let’s keep it simple here. What an Anglo-European white dude collector folk calls a child’s blanket is really a beautiful textile created by a laughing joking trickster of a Navajo woman who doesn’t give a hoot what you call it as long as you pay for it. Seriously, like first, second and third phase ”Chief’s Blankets” are collector’s denominations, so is the Child’s Blanket.

It appears that these weavings, generally about 30” by 50” may have been used as child’s garment early on as well as a saddle blanket. Charles Avery Amsden described one as, “light and fine with elaborate pattern” and the other as, “loose and heavy with the simplest of patterns.” George Wharton James tells of finding in the dirt and muck of a horse corral what he thought was a gunny sack that turned out to be, after many cleanings, a rare, fine, beautiful tightly woven bayeta textile that had been used and abused for many decades under a saddle! (pictured below)

Any classification is subjective. The first example of a, “classic child’s blanket” in Joshua Baer’s beautiful catalog, “Collecting the Navajo Child’s Blanket” is the same first example of a,“Navajo Sarape” in Joe Ben Wheat’s book, “Blanket Weaving in the Southwest.” So really maybe, “what’s up is down” and, “what is, is not!”

Certainly the truth has to reside somewhere in between all this.

Even though no one has ever found an historic photograph of a child donning one of these weavings, it is conceivable they were used as such at an early time and no doubt many were used under a saddle. But it is also impossible to deny that a lot of them were woven as trade or curio items for army officers, government agents and tourists to take back to that infamous, “Indian Room”

So what are they?

In the words of Joshua Baer again, “Navajo blankets are objects of fascination!” It cannot be said better. Collectors and art lovers can appreciate and enjoy these fascinating weavings challenging them with visual illusions of background/foreground, appearing/disappearing, positive/negative! Dogen again. When one comes across a Navajo textile, time should be taken to look and to really see. The lucky one who has a blanket hanging on a wall can understand why so many Abstract Expressionist artists were amazed by them.

References:

Charles Avery Amsden “Navajo Weaving”

Joshua Baer “Collecting the Navajo Child’s Blanket”

George Wharton James “Indian Blankets and Their Makers”

Joe Ben Wheat “Blanket Weaving of the Southwest”