Those who have known the Gallery or me for many years know that we were lucky enough to be the first people to market the weavings by the Begay and Barber families that have come to be recognized as the Burnham style. I want to emphasize that all we did was appreciate their different work and do our best to share it with the Indian art world. These ladies did it all.
My dad had known some of the older women in the family, Anna Mae Barber and Marie Begay, but it wasn't until the 1970s that the "new" style began to emerge. The five sisters generally credit Alice Begay with breaking the mold right after she graduated from boarding school, but the first family member I met was Helen Begay.
In the early '70s, she brought a weaving to the old Pepsi plant where Dad had his showroom. I worked there between road trips, wholesaling rugs and jewelry to stores and museums around the west. Dad was at lunch when Helen walked in. She is pretty close to my age, and we hit it off. We talked about all sorts of things, from living on the reservation to different weaving patterns, going to trade school, and how she started weaving.
When she unrolled her weaving, I was astonished. It didn't fit any of the rug categories and wasn't like any of the general area weavings found all over the reservation. It was a mixture of different area weaving elements and pictorial designs, and it only had borders on two sides.
"Why doesn't it have a border all the way around?" I asked.
"Why does it have to?" she answered.
"What kind of rug is it?" I asked.
"It's a Helen Begay rug," she answered.
"It's not going to cost you a lot now, but it will be really expensive in a few years."
Well, Helen was right. She had tried to sell her first "Burnham" at the Crown Point Auction and had only received a bid for a couple hundred dollars. A few years later, her weavings were bringing twenty times that much.
Long story short, I bought the rug and began to market weavings using the artists' names. Her sisters and cousins started working with us, and everyone was having a ball. Helen and I continued our friendship, always taking time to talk about everything in our lives.
She often came in with her daughter; we just swapped stories and ideas. She was with a good guy named Wayne, everyone liked. It was a huge loss when he passed away.
In 2008 Helen returned to work at the plant she had been employed at, which Raytheon now owns. And she quit weaving. Whenever she was up with one of her sisters or when we'd meet at a family gathering, I would give her a hard time about not weaving.
"I am going to start weaving," she'd say.
"No, you aren't," I'd reply. "I think you forgot how!"
I always kidded her about returning to the loom, even as a hobby, and she always told me she would. Then about six weeks ago, Helen came up with her sisters and asked me if I had a weaving comb.
"I do. What are you going to comb with it?" I joked.
"No, really, I don't like my old one," she said.
"So, that's why you quit weaving! Take this one, but I don't believe I will see a rug out of this deal!" I said as I gave it to her.
Then I forgot about it until I got a text three days ago on Thursday. It said, "Jackson, this is Cindy (the name she goes by). I finished a rug. Text me back."
So, of course, I did and got no answer. I tried to call and got no response. I decided she was goofing with me. Then Saturday morning, I was sitting at home, planning the day, when Linda from the Gallery called and said, "Helen Begay is here."
I jumped up, dressed, and drove into town to find a beautiful Burnham-style storm pattern lying on the rug room floor and Cindy with a huge smile.
I hugged her and asked how this could have happened. What brought this famous weaver out of retirement?"
I was at Sandy's, and she was working on a big rug. She had a smaller warp strung and rolled up that she wasn't using. She asked if I wanted it, and I said sure. Then I went home and put it on my loom. I already had the wool, so I started weaving. I was hooked."
We talked for an hour or so, and then, as she was leaving, I said, 'Hey, tell the truth. When you started the weaving, were you having fun?"
She flashed a huge smile, squinted her eyes, and excitedly said, "Hell Yeah!"
For many years, weaving was an important part of Helen's life. I could never believe that anyone good at anything could give it up. I am thankful that was true!