Weaving a Story

The Colorado History Museum's major exhibition this season is Spirit of Spider Woman, an intelligent and elegantly presented examination of Navajo weaving that's been two years in the making. But don't expect the dry, straightforward approach that is typical of the CHM. Instead, like the exhibit's catchy title, Spider Woman is likely to ensnare viewers with its dazzling content.

Spider Woman was organized by Carolyn McArthur, an assistant curator of material culture at the CHM. This show is McArthur's first chance to direct and curate a major exhibit, and she says she wanted to take full advantage of the opportunity to dare to be different. As a result, Spider Woman is as much an art exhibit as it is a display of historical artifacts. "I wanted to do something that diverged from the exhibits here at the museum in the past," McArthur says. "Previously, shows here were 'object dense,' and I wanted to create instead a different way of seeing the objects, of conveying the visual information they contain atmospherically, to make the space more contemplative."

McArthur's approach involves galleries installed with a relatively few number of objects that have been aesthetically and strategically arranged under dim lights, not unlike the way it's long been done by the Denver Art Museum's native arts department head, Nancy Blomberg ("Nancy has been an inspiration," notes McArthur). As a result of Blomberg's influence, Spider Woman at the CHM makes an interesting and appropriate chaser to the DAM's Inventing the Southwest exhibit presented this winter. And like that show, Spider Woman explores not just the history of American Indian art, in particular weaving, but its social role and continuing influence as well.

According to McArthur, the relationship between the DAM's recent show and Spider Woman was wholly intentional, and the two institutions scheduled them in quick succession as an act of collaboration (Spider Woman opened before Inventing the Southwest closed.) "We haven't helped one another in the past as much as one might wish," McArthur says. But that all changed, as she points out, with the mammoth precedent-setting Real West show that was mounted in 1997.

That critically acclaimed blockbuster exhibit, the brainchild of Andy Masich, former vice president of the Colorado Historical Society, was held jointly by the DAM, the CHM and the Denver Public Library. Real West was the first time the three cultural heavyweights that line the south side of the Civic Center had ever cooperated on anything--which is pretty astounding, since each was founded more than a century ago, and while they've been lined up in a row only for the last few decades, they've always been within walking distance of one another. Their first attempt at working together, Real West was a rousing success, with the nearly 100,000 visitors making it one of the best attended exhibitions ever held in Denver. Real West also wound up serving as a greenhouse for subsequent exhibits at both the DAM and the CHM (if not the DPL), with Spider Woman being the latest to have sprouted.

For Spider Woman, McArthur assembled a team that involved several CHM staffers, including, among others, Judy Steiner, an assistant curator of photography, and David Newell, an assistant curator of decorative and fine art. In addition, the CHM's American Indian Task Force, made up of representatives from various tribes, was consulted, as were contemporary Navajo weavers, including those working on reservations and those here in the metro area, many of whom are associated with the Denver Indian Center.

The Indian consultants provided McArthur with an essential resource. "The team of Navajos determined the basic story that would be told in Spider Woman," she explains, "and they let us know when we mispronounced words and when the rugs were hung upside down."

Spider Woman begins with an explanation of the religious underpinnings of Navajo weaving. According to sacred tradition, weaving was brought to the Navajo by a deity. "The Navajos did not use a Navajo word to describe her, and referred to her in English as 'spider woman,'" says McArthur. The connection of weaving to spiders is an obvious one, made more so by McArthur's use of a lighted projection of a spider web on the wall opposite the entry to the exhibit.

According to Navajo religion, the Spider Woman was part of a pantheon of gods and goddesses called Yeis. One of the first weavings on display, "Sandpainting pictorial rug," which hangs next to the light projection of the spider web, lays out this sacred belief. "Sandpainting pictorial rug" was made circa 1950 by an unknown weaver from wool yarn that had been dyed using synthetic tints. It is rare for a weaving to be based on a sandpainting as this one is, because real Navajo sandpaintings are done by medicine men as part of curing ceremonies, whereas the rugs, as indicated by Spider Woman herself, are woven exclusively by women. "Weaving a sandpainting rug requires the weaver to recite many prayers during its making," McArthur says. To some of the Navajos who consulted on the show, the idea of a sandpainting rug was controversial because of their religious beliefs.

The "Sandpainting" weaving features a gray field, in the center of which is a cross done in black and white. The gray field is the universe; the cross is the Navajo symbol for the Spider Woman. Standing on the four principle sections of the cross, facing four different directions, are pairs of figures, done in red, white and black. These small figures represent the Navajos. Four large linear figures, the Yeis, form a frame around the central motif of cross and figures. Here, the Yeis have been conceptualized as being similar to the Navajos, but much larger and more resplendent.

This weaving is one of many in the Spider Woman show on loan from the Harmsen Museum of Art, the Lakewood facility that's yet to be constructed in the proposed Denver West development. The museum may not have a building, but it does have a large Western-themed collection that was put together over the last forty years by Golden millionaires Bill and Dorothy Harmsen, the founders of Jolly Rancher Candies. Other rugs in Spider Woman, as well as pottery and furniture, are part of the permanent collection of the CHM.

The "Sandpainting" piece is hung horizontally, unlike most of the other weavings in the show, which are displayed in the more traditional vertical way. The decision about orienting the rugs was resolved by the original weavers. "Navajo rugs are made in such a way that they are built up in little triangles, instead of having one continuous weft as European weavings do," McArthur says. So by carefully examining their construction, she was able to tell how each of the weavings in Spider Woman was attached to the loom in the first place, and she then hung them accordingly.

After this poetic introduction to weaving handed down by Spider Woman, McArthur gets down to prose in the next gallery by tracing the actual course of weaving among the Navajo. Historians and archaeologists believe that the Navajo learned to weave in the early eighteenth century from the Indians of the Jemez Pueblo in northern New Mexico. At that time, the nomadic Navajo who had wandered the southern plains came to settle near the Jemez Pueblo. "Interestingly, in the Jemez culture, the men are the weavers, instead of the women," McArthur notes. Why the Navajo women took to weaving instead of the men is unknown, but one advantage of this division of labor was that the women also had control of the sheep, which ultimately gave them independent wealth.

Originally, the Navajo created single-ply handspun yarn prepared from the fleece of each weaver's own flock of sheep. The palette of the resulting rugs and blankets was limited to the color scheme of the sheep, essentially white, cream, beige, tan, gray and black. "The Navajo weavers put a special status on rugs woven using naturally colored yarns alone," says McArthur. But beginning in the mid-1700s, the Navajo also began to use commercially produced yarns--and how they came upon it makes a compelling story.

Through contact with other Indian tribes, or with the Spanish themselves, the Navajo came into possession of red woolen Spanish trade cloth. The red color came from the cochineal beetle of Central America, which the Spanish shipped back to Europe to make dye. The cloth itself was made in a variety of countries, including Britain and France, in addition to Spain. It was then shipped back to the New World as woolen cloth and used as a bartering chit with the Indians throughout Spanish America. When the Navajo got ahold of this cloth, they didn't use it to make clothing the way many other tribes did. Instead, they unraveled it and recycled the yarn to make their own unique woven cloth.

The Spanish, who occupied New Mexico through the mid-nineteenth century and whose presence continues to be felt in that state, did more than provide the Navajo with some added yarn: They also influenced the design of the rugs. The 1875 "Wearing blanket" displays not just the red yarn from the unraveled trade cloth, but the serrate, or serrated motif, that the Navajo also took from the Spanish.

At the CHM, the "Wearing blanket" has been hung on the wall behind a display that includes two mannequins draped in the traditional way the Navajo wore them. One of the mannequins is clad in a "Bosque Redondo wearing blanket" made in Bosque Redondo, New Mexico, in 1865. This was just a year after the Long Walk, a forced march ordered by Kit Carson as a part of U.S. military policy, during which the Navajo were relocated with much hardship from their homeland. The "Bosque Redondo" blanket, made by a Long Walk survivor, is predominately red with gray stripes, with a bold black-and-white zigzag or serrated pattern running through it.

The Navajo not only wore these blankets but traded them, and they were considered to be, as they still are, valuable commodities. McArthur includes a reproduction of a Cheyenne ledger page that records in pictures the specific years when the Cheyenne traded for blankets from the Navajo.

Having laid out these many didactic concepts related to the impact of trade on the Navajo weavers, McArthur next displays a group of the most beautiful weavings in the show. And though she does not explicitly indicate it, all of them illustrate her points in some way. The "Two-faced, or specialty rug," made around 1885, probably on a commission from a wealthy white settler, is absolutely stunning. What's special about this rug is that it is finished on both sides, which is very rarely seen. Also striking is the forward-looking design: The checkerboard pattern and the elaborate color scheme of red, white, gray, black and yellow suggest a geometric abstract painting done a hundred years later.

Other fabulous rugs in this section highlight various regional styles among the Navajo. There's a spectacular "Gray Hills rug" woven in 1880 in an array of natural undyed wools. The name "Gray Hills" refers to the town of Gray Hills, New Mexico, and despite lore to the contrary, rugs in this style are not meant to depict actual hills. And an 1885 "Germantown Eye Dazzler," so named because the dark red, orange and gray yarns from which it was woven were manufactured in Germantown, Pennsylvania, sits around the corner from a 1945 "Crystal Trading Post rug" in undyed and aniline-dyed wool that was named for the shop near which it was made and to which it was originally sold.

Beyond an architectural element depicting a loom with a tarp shade are a series of showcases in which magnificent old Navajo jewelry is on display. Jewelry, like weaving, is an art form at which the Navajo have long excelled--they eventually gained a worldwide reputation for both--but unlike weaving, jewelry was traditionally done by men. McArthur has used the jewelry to indicate the change that occurred when the artifacts created by the Navajo went from being the stuff of barter to being an increasingly marketable commodity.

As depicted thoroughly in the DAM's Inventing the Southwest exhibit, the Harvey Company, a restaurant and hotel chain in the Southwest, sold and publicized Indian art in order to encourage tourism. The row of Plexiglas showcases outfitted with jewelry in the Spider Woman show leads the viewer to a section devoted to the Harvey Company's Cardenas Hotel, which formerly stood in Trinidad, Colorado. The hotel, seen in a photograph, was, tragically, demolished in the 1970s. McArthur has created a niche suggestive of the long-lost lobby, though the furniture and pottery used in her display did not come from the Cardenas. Real standouts here include David Moffat's monumental arts-and-crafts-style desk, and a breathtaking copper-and-mica chandelier. Unfortunately, identifying labels are too scarce in this section.

The last portion of Spider Woman demonstrates the effect of the dominant culture on the Navajo's weaving style. One of the oddest rugs in the exhibit is the circa-1960s "Yeibichal rug" done in the trendy colors of the period. "It shows how the Indian art market is driven by the tastes of the time," says McArthur. She has paired it with a traditional "Yeibichal rug" from 1935.

Spirit of Spider Woman at the Colorado History Museum is a fine first outing for curator Carolyn McArthur. It provides local viewers with the opportunity to further explore the striking visual traditions of the American Indian that continue to resonate in the contemporary art scene not just in Denver, but everywhere, which makes it easy to get caught up in it.

Spirit of Spider Woman, through August 8 at the Colorado History Museum, 1300 Broadway, 303-866-5299.

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