Weaving Old Into New

THE exquisite expressions of her multicultural explorations are trapped in fiber. Ramona Sakiestewa weaves ancient and original ideas into new wool. Though she draws on many traditions, there is nothing derivative about her tapestries. She makes what she takes her own.

Dazzling Kachina colors of her Hopi heritage grace a series of tapestries called "Katsina" (the older and more phonetically correct spelling of "Kachina"). The "East Horizon" series takes up in rich, warm earth tones the astronomical configurations found on the walls of ancient Anasazi ruins. Geometric designs from a variety of native American basketry, pottery, and fiber sources find new interpretation in Ms. Sakiestewa's vivid "Basket Dance" and "Kutij" series. Organic forms continue to teach her. And two recent lecture tours in Japan yielded yet another influence on her tapestries: In her "Tenryuji" series, an ancient Japanese garden design, taken from a still-more-ancient Chinese painting, surfaces as abstract patterns in fine linen and wool yarns.

"I'm attracted to weaving because it is very painterly," says Sakiestewa. "You can get an even greater depth of color and texture than you can get in paint. I think [tapestry] reaches a different emotional chord in people's lives. I use intense color. Each color has a certain vibration and put with another creates a certain energy - I like to make the hair on the back of the neck stand up."

She has never read a book on color theory. She picks colors she likes - the colors of the great Southwest. "I don't know if you've seen the sunset here - the fuchsia pink and lavender blue - it's unbelievable," she tells me.

Color is influenced by the quality of light in the environment. But various commissioned works have taught her not to fear any color combination. When she takes commissions from the East Coast, Sakiestewa says, she works in gray and green. In 1989 she did a series of 13 tapestries commissioned by the Taliesen Foundation and based on drawings by Frank Lloyd Wright using his colors - ones she would never have chosen for herself. Her "Tenryuji" series features a distinctively Japanese green unlike any she h ad ever used.

"In order to get the right green, I integrated other colors and used linen [entwined with wool] in the green areas because it reflects the light and gives a sheen. You can see the grain, the texture - I wanted it to look like [the tapestries] were scratched on.

"I am interested in different cultures' colors. I'm going to start next fall on a series based on Mediterranean colors. I draw on anything I see that I like. Then I digest it for myself."

She frequently takes a small element of design from an Indian basket or a Hispanic tapestry and enlarges it. "I love looking at something very busy and distilling the essence out of it," she says. "I like to distill the essence of the feeling."

She does not excuse, however, the practice of artists raiding other cultures and passing off what has been stolen as their own. "I don't try to make a piece that looks Japanese, or that would make people think I was Japanese. I take certain things in, process [them] for myself, and put it out in a different form. I think that's what one should do. But here [in Santa Fe] we have 'Indian-like' painting made by non-Indians, passed off as Indian."

"We are the oldest group of people inhabiting North America," Sakiestewa says of her Hopi ancestors. And her designs often reproduce those of ancient tradition. Yet her work is vibrantly contemporary. "I do a traditional group of work I sell at Indian market every year. Those are colored with natural dyes. I dye the yarn myself. My traditional style is taken from the period between 1850 and 1900 in Hispanic, Navajo, and Pueblo style weaving - they used the same imagery, they just arranged it differently.

The rest of the year I use Swedish yarn and have 260 colors to choose from. Then I blend the colors sometimes using three strands together." The consistently high quality Swedish yarns are used in all kinds of work, including geometric abstraction like that in the "Facets" series.

THIS is her peculiar grace as an artist, the synthesis of old and new, of art and commerce, of turning various and lively cultural images into works of fiber art.

"Weaving is easy," she says. "Anybody can do it. You have to have patience. You have to be able to enjoy repetition. Yes, there is innovation in design - even in technique for certain pieces. But basically, weaving hasn't changed in the last 2,000 years. The web covers the warp, which makes it tapestry."

Sakiestewa should know. She took up weaving in high school, teaching herself on the traditional vertical loom using as texts anthropologist Ruth Underhill's "Pueblo Craft" and Kate Peck Kent's "The Cultivation and Weaving of Cotton in the Prehistoric Southwestern United States." Traditionally, the vertical loom was the province of Hopi men. But Sakiestewa was inspired by tradition, not constrained by it.

Meanwhile, working for the New Mexico Arts Division for five years, she helped individual Indians and rural communities find funding for arts projects. During this period she was commissioned to replicate an Anasazi turkey-feather blanket from a fragment found in Bandelier National Monument. She even learned the lost art of fabricating the yarn from plant fibers while undertaking the intensive research. She was also asked to reproduce a cotton "manta" (wearing apparel) for Bandelier using yarn she spun h erself. Thus she learned more about the lost Anasazi society. "The Old Ones" stimulated her. Helping others get funding helped her, too. She learned a lot. She also learned she wanted to produce something more than paperwork.

"In 1981 I became a full-time artist. I borrowed money and formed a corporation, and I was able to buy out my lenders. I've had two part-time assistants for six years.... The state had actually taught me the business part of the arts - and I like the business.

"The most fun is working with clients you don't know. I try to get a sense of who they are and what they like and then try to come up with something I like that they will like as well. A lot of artists hate that interaction on commission. But my training has been with people, and I like that interaction."

Business and art are not mutually exclusive for Sakiestewa, and she has little patience with the old split between art and craft.

"I'm not interested in this whole argument about art versus craft. People like to categorize and pigeon-hole things instead of just seeing what they can see - seeing what they can feel about a piece. Not everything is fine art, but you know it when you see it."

Her industry is truly "cottage" style, located as it is in a little cottage next to the home she shares with her husband, poet Arthur Sze, and their son Micah. The five looms packed closely together in the small rooms produce full-size tapestries. Sometimes she and her assistants work collaboratively - a tricky business since all weavers "pack" differently. But normally, they each work alone from Sakiestewa's designs - designs she often finds in her dreams.

The designs Sakiestewa has produced dramatically embrace her native American heritage. But she grew up in an urban environment with her Anglo mother and stepfather who surrounded her with American Indian art at home. Her Anglo heritage, she says, spurred her on to find out who she was.

Heavily engaged in the current discussion of multiculturalism, Sakiestewa says that "everybody is multicultural. I think it's important to understand what your origins are or are not. But what I'm not interested in with multiculturalism is ethnic nationalism.... I think it's important to understand the differences and share the differences, not to isolate yourself, to say, 'We're different and we're better.' I understand where that insecurity originates, but it still doesn't improve the ability to coexis t with other people.

"If we are going to keep going on this planet, we have to coexist. Look at the Mideast peace conference with thousands of years of animosity. Look at the Berlin Wall. The disbanding of the Soviet Union. Never in my lifetime did I expect to see this. But instead of getting busy fixing up their lives, so many go back to racial wars with each other. It's devastating to see that people can live in such an oppressive system and the minute they get free they go back to fighting over what happened to their pare nts. It's a poor way to live on this planet."

Being selective, she says, is also a positive thing, but if one is closed off to others, the same problems keep recurring. Each generation must work on the same old things, the same old prejudices and fears. Each generation must work to overcome them.

"It doesn't make you comfortable to deal with these issues.... I have to find out who you are as a person, regardless of your cultural baggage and your regional upbringing. I have to know who you are as a person and hope you treat others the way you would like to be treated."

Back to the Golden Rule?

Well, there was nothing wrong with those old rules, she tells me.

She certainly has her own. Open to cultural diversity, innovation, and experimentation, she nevertheless maintains the highest standards of her craft. Well respected among arts professionals, artists, and collectors, Ramona Sakiestewa lives in the real world, concerned with real issues, and true to her own best traditions - the old and the new. Part three of "Out of the West," a series profiling artists of the American West.

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