Cityscapes in a traditional basket

Over the 35 years Twin Rocks Trading Post has been working with the Monument Valley Navajo basket makers, Chris Johnson has emerged as one of the best.
Chris is a full-time shepherd, so during any given year he will produce only a few baskets. When he arrives at the trading post, however, you can be assured his work will be top shelf.
Chris’ designs are complex, his colors perfectly matched, his weaving tight and his coils finely rounded. His skill is on par with the best contemporary Navajo basket weavers, including Elsie Holiday, Lorraine and Sally Black, his auntie Peggy Black, and his sister Joann Johnson.
A few months ago, Chris brought in a basket that at first blush looked like an abstract flower. Upon closer inspection, however, the design proved to be a cityscape featuring buildings from New York, London, and Paris.
In the past, his sister had created a companion piece featuring the local geologic formations.
Generally, Chris’ weavings are sold within a day or two after they arrive. This basket was a significant departure from more “traditional” Navajo baskets, so it didn’t fly off the shelf the way his work typically does.
It took a deeper understanding of more recent Navajo art trends to fully grasp its importance. Having the weaving around for a longer period gave me the opportunity to study its complexities and admire the abstract and complex nature of its design, execution, and outside influences.
After it had been here a few weeks, I received a call from the curator of an important Southwest museum inquiring about Chris’ “Cityscape” basket. Her collections team was considering acquiring it.
Since we love working with museums, we were thrilled to arrange an accommodation. A few weeks later the curator called back to confirm her team had indeed approved the purchase.
She also mentioned the members had engaged in a vigorous debate about whether the basket was “traditional” and/or “Navajo” enough. Ultimately, she had been able to convince the doubters Chris’ basket was important and belonged in their permanent collection.
The issue raised by the collections committee was an open invitation for me to climb up on one of my favorite soapboxes.
Let me start by saying the trading post items I most enjoy are a blend of the traditional and the innovative, and Chris’ basket fit perfectly into that framework.
I have, however, often found that “traditionalists” disagree with my artistic principles and frequently want Native American art and Native Americans in general to stay within a narrow channel; one that attempts to restrict their culture, creativity, and art.
Several years ago, Barry and I were invited to attend a museum opening at the American Craft Museum in New York City. The exhibit was titled, Changing Hands: Art Without Reservation.
It was a formal event, so Barry and I showed up in our rented tuxedos and shiny shoes. I am sure the New York elite attending the exhibit had a good laugh at the two hayseeds looking like penguins in their hired outfits.
We, nevertheless, enjoyed the evening and were thrilled to see the extremely progressive art pieces.
Quoting the Arizona Republic, the catalog associated with the exhibition said, “It is time to dump the confining label of “Indian art.”’
The publication went on to quote Verma Nequatewa, who said, “It is an exciting time for Native American art. Native artists are no longer tied to traditional styles or forms, though they can use their own traditions as a foundation.”
Grace Glueck of the New York Times got it right when she said, “Although many of the objects use traditional craft mediums and techniques, their makers tend to look more to the present and the future than the past.
“The curators hope the show will help redefine the artists’ creations as ‘art rather than artifacts,’ so they are no longer pigeonholed with the ethnographic and anthropological.”
It was my hope the show and catalog signaled the end of those of us outside the Native community attempting to impose our values on Native American art.
That, however, turned out to be a vain hope, and that development still has not happened.
Notwithstanding this restrictive attitude among some admirers of Southwest Native American art, things have nevertheless improved, and I believe Twin Rocks Trading Post stands as a shining example of how artists have become freer in their designs and with their techniques.
We have spent over three decades attempting to liberate local artists from restrictions imposed by those of us born outside the Native community.
A look at the work of Elsie Holiday or Joann Johnson will convince the skeptics that our ambition has been successful.
Their art is one of the many things that make me proud of the work we do at Twin Rocks, and why I still enjoy being Tied to the Post.
Now it’s time for me to climb down from my soapbox and finish cleaning the glass.

San Juan Record

49 South Main St
PO Box 879
Monticello, UT 84535

Phone: 435.587.2277
Fax: 435.587.3377
Open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday