Sign up for our newsletter!

Navajo Pictorial Weavings

by Jackson H. Clark

There is magic in a Navajo pictorial rug. I discovered this magic many years ago when a trader friend of mine sold me a small pictorial woven in bright commercial dye colors. I was enchanted by the sense of tranquility woven into the rug. Unfortunately, I never even learned the weaver's name. At that time it didn't seem to matter; now it is important. The pictorial scene depicted a Navajo hogan, sheep, cattle, birds and a bright blue sky with billowing white clouds. This insignificant little pictorial grabbed me and held me. I was hooked, good and proper.

 Frankly, before this I had always ignored contemporary pictorial weaving as being too modern, untraditional and somewhat funky. But when I had hung my new pictorial on my office wall, I began to notice small, easily overlooked details. I saw a coffee pot on a cook fire, the skin of a freshly butchered sheep hanging on a hitching post, and a woman spinning wool. Many times through the years I have looked at the rug, and a sense of peace and well being has come over me. It was an elixir for the cares and stresses of a busy day. Navajo weaving is a true American folk-art, and pictorial weaving is its finest form.

This one utterly captivating Navajo weaving got me started collecting pictorials. I began each visit to a trading post by looking at the pictorial rugs. The word got around among my trader friends that I was a sucker for a good pictorial, and I got the first chance to buy new items. In a few short years; 10 or less, I have put together a modest collection of all types of contemporary rugs, but pictorials are my favorites. I admire all Navajo weavers, but a good pictorial weaver absolutely, gets me in the pocketbook.

Entranced, I have watched Navajo weavers at their looms creating rugs of exquisite quality from only the vision in their minds. There were no drawings, sketches, or plans to follow. One weaver told me that she has only the roughest idea when she begins to weave what will be created. Another weaver told me the process of formulating the design comes gradually as she washes, cards, spins the wool in preparation for weaving. As an artist will chose the colors from his palette, the Navajo weaver will chose from the wool colors she can find at the trading post, or in the case of the better weavers, from the plants, roots, and native materials available for dyeing. Frequently, only after the warp is strung on the loom and the weaving started is the subject chosen.

One weaver told me, "I'm just going to do that plain bottom border today and then go home to sleep on it and talk to my grandmother." I was a little surprised, because we were at a museum in a large city, and I didn't think her grandmother had made the trip. In fact, I thought her grandmother was dead. When conversing with a Navajo, silence is better than lots of questions. I waited until the next morning to see what would happen. The weaver came in smiling, and in good spirits she began to weave. After an hour or so I asked, "What did your grandmother say?" "Oh," she replied, "Grandmother told me to do a Squaw Dance scene with lots of people in it." I mentioned that I thought her grandmother was dead. "Yes, that's right, she's been dead for years. I talk to her in my dreams."

I'm not sure that all Navajo weavers talk to their grandmothers in their dreams, but I know there is a lot of talent out there in Navajoland. However, not all pictorial weavers are award-winning artists. There are excellent weavers and good weavers, and there are lots of poor weavers. I buy what appeals to me and pay little attention to the guidelines for quality that are so important in collecting most Navajo weaving. I have bought crooked rugs, rough rugs, and rather ugly rugs because they seemed to jump out of a pile of rugs and talk to me. Some pieces seem to say, "Look at me. I'm different, I'm beautiful, I want you to have me." Maybe it is the weaver's grandmother communicating. I know that something or someone is talking to me. When I have failed to heed that voice, I have regretted it for days.

Once in a while a pictorial weaver will bring a rug which is so unusual it cannot be resisted. For example, I bought a rough little pictorial from a lady who took the few dollars I paid her and left in a hurry. I suspect she was glad to unload it on me. Many months later she returned, and I asked her about the scenes in the little rug. "Alice, I can see that there is a horse or two tied to a tree, a hogan, and apparently a ceremony going on in the hogan. There are lots of pickup trucks and people, but what are those two black things and: the black glob in the top panel?" "Oh, that's easy. That's the Four Corner Power plant, and those grey things are the smoke and the black thing is a pile of coal. The people are all going to a Firedance ceremony in that hogan." It was as easy as that! The mystery ended, but the charm increased.

Many customers ask about special ordering pictorials. There are unknown factors when rugs are specially ordered. If money is paid in advance the quality may suffer, and there is the matter of dealing with the mind of the weaver. Navajos don't necessarily see things the way we may assume they do. It is as if they are following some inner guide and vision rather than hearing what is being said. Perfectly clear instructions, given to a fluent English-speaking weaver, may be totally misunderstood. This is true even when instructions are typed in large block letters. Many weavers speak no English and must rely on a relative to translate and conduct business. In translation some things are lost. This is more understandable when Navajo lifestyle is examined. During the last forty years I have driven over almost every road and trail in Navajoland, and I am always impressed at the isolation of some families, many of whom live without running water, modern plumbing, or electricity. The kids go to school, adults work, but the weavers stay home and weave. For many Navajo people, especially the oldsters, a trip to town is a real event, an occasion to dress up in the finest clothes and wear the best jewelry. 

Gilbert Maxwell, in his book on Navajo weaving, tells the tale of ordering a rug to advertise his business, Gilbert Maxwell and Son, Farmington, New Mexico. When the rug was completed, Farmington had become Framington. "What's the difference?" asked the weaver, "Farmington, Framington, it's all the same." In Navajo, Farmington is Totah, where the three waters meet, and that is what counts. Farmington is just another white man's word.

I have fallen into this special order trap many times. Most of the time everything works out O.K., but sometimes it doesn't. Each time I give special instructions to a pictorial weaver, even one I have known for ages, I wonder to myself, "Is this really wise? How will it turn out?" For example, as a gift I ordered a small wall hanging that was supposed to read, "Gllbert Balkin, Collector of Things." When the weaver brought it in, Balkin had become Baikin and Collector had one "L". Recently, I ordered a pictorial as a gift for a Fiftieth wedding anniversary: "Jennings and Harriette, March 28, 1938." The weaver changed Harriette to Harrietts because "Harriette is such a funny way to spell a name." I suppose that this is because Navajos frequently misuse the plural by adding an "S". Sheep become sheeps, and cattle are cattles. Harriette liked the rug anyway.

I remember asking a weaver, Esther Bitsue, if she would weave an American flag. "Sure thing, no problem," and there was no problem. It was a superior work. Then I ordered a Colorado flag; again, no problem. Then she did a New Mexico flag, and it was perfect. "How about a Texas flag?" "Easy," she said. For each of these special orders, I furnished an actual flag the same size as the rug I wanted. How could I go wrong with a Texas flag? Well, things happened, and then they didn't happen. I waited and waited until I needed the flag to take to Midland.

Esther's daughter works in an office with a telephone. I called to ask when the flag would be ready. She said her mother was having "trouble with the star" but it would be ready on Monday. I told her Monday would be too late, so she said that they would try to be up Saturday. The moment they arrived in the showroom I knew that something was seriously wrong. The usual rowdy bunch of children were subdued and were hiding behind the full skirts of grandmother (weaver) and their mother. The menfolk stayed in the pickup. On previous visits to our gallery we had always had a wonderful time, telling jokes, sipping Pepsi and bargaining over the price. This time was different. Esther was sad. She was sad and frightened and apprehensive. Everyone sensed it. A tear ran down her cheek as she clutched the still unseen rug, wrapped in a Cortez Mining Co. flour sack, under her arm. I felt terrible and didn't know what to do. Finally I said, "Esther, let me see the flag." Reluctantly, very reluctantly, she handed it to me as the kids watched with brown eyes as big as saucers. The daughter said she had to use the restroom and split the scene. I unwrapped the flag. It was odd, to say the least. My son, who had been watching, smiled and left the room. It's O.K. to laugh with a Navajo but not at them.


"Esther's Texas flag was perfect in every detail except..."

Esther's Texas flag was perfect in every detail except she really had had "trouble" with the star. It was an out of proportion and lay on its side in an ungainly manner. Esther was bawling out loud now. 1 eased the situation and said, "Well, that is a funny looking star, but I like it." She was afraid that I wouldn't pay her the promised $400, and she feared no other trader would. I reassured her that the flag was O.K. Everything was fine. The kids relaxed and ran around the showroom, we all had a Pepsi, and Esther took the $400, plus a few dollars for gas and food, and left for home. My son came in and said, "I almost laughed out loud. The star looks like a K.O.A. campground sign that got knocked on its ass by a truck." It really did. Today, 10 years later, I still have the Texas flag. It is not for sale for any price. I can't sell memories like that and my Texas flag experience is a fine memory.

Santa traded for soda pop,

photo by Bruce Conrad

I started buying Navajo rugs in 1957, when I was sales manager for the Pepsi-Cola Bottling Company in Durango, Colorado. Our Pepsi franchise covered most of the northern Navajo Reservation and I soon discovered a fine way to collect past due accounts and to sell lots of Pepsi was to take Navajo rugs in a dollar-for-dollar trade. Reservation trading posts had lots of rugs but little cash. It was a good arrangement, and it was fun. The Pepsi business flourished. I had to sell the rugs, which was even more fun. I used to spend many hours with traders talking about rugs, soft drinks, and life in general. Ed Foutz from Shiprock, a trader friend of mine, gave me a small Santa Claus pictorial. We had traded rugs for soda pop for many moons, and this was a nice way for him to thank me. I loved this little bright green and red Santa.

I thought it would be fun to have a pictorial with a Christmas tree and the greeting "Happy New Year 1980." That part worked out fine, but the rug arrived after Easter 1981. On another occasion I ordered a pumpkin rug for Halloween. It arrived about Christmas time. Not all special orders turn out like this. I have ordered flags, banners, greetings and many other special orders, and the majority are fine. When an error occurs, I think it adds to the charm. At least it is good for a smile.

I often hear potential buyers say that pictorials are a relatively new idea in weavings. This is not the case, as birds, animals, trains and other objects were woven in rugs and blankets dating back to about 1860. When the railroad pushed westward across what today is the Navajo reservation, many rugs were woven featuring the steam locomotive pulling tiny passenger cars across the desert. I have several pictorials, one with a warrior on horseback, which date to the early 20th century. I bought a large pictorial which was woven at Ganado in 1921. It is full of birds, animals, bows, arrows, and other symbols.

Asuna Blackhorse saw footprints

Photo by Bruce Conrad

Asuna Blackhorse is almost 95. I used to buy her finely woven pictorials in the 1960s. At that time she specialized in weaving the paintings of Pablita Velarde, the famed Pueblo Indian artist. The last time I saw Asuna she told me she was almost blind and couldn't weave. Then, unexpectedly, she appeared with a rug. It is rough and uneven, totally different from her early works, yet simple and straightforward, the footprints of a man, a boy and a dog. My children gave it to me as a gift. Just looking at it will bring a ray of sunshine into any day. Apparently Asuna saw the footprints of her son, grandson, and their dog in the sand or snow and thought, "I can do that, even if I am almost blind."

Navajo pictorial weaving is a thriving art form. Weavers let their imaginations run, and the results are sometimes like something Grandma Moses might have done. Recently a weaver brought a rug depicting the loading of animals on Noah's ark. One by one the animals file up the gangplank as a Navajo-looking Noah looks on. Other scenes show whimsical animals in wilderness settings with babbling brooks, lakes and green trees.

In my opinion the finest pictorial weavers are Isabel John and her daughter-in-law Geanita John. These two ladies live in the Navajo Reservation not far from Canyon de Chelly, Arizona. Handspun, hand-dyed yarn predominates in their weavings. The pieces range in size from 18x24 inches to heroic sizes of eight to ten feet in length. Isabel was the featured weaver when the New Mexico Folk Art Museum opened the Girard Wing. The Denver Art Museum has one of her large pictorials in the new Native American Wing.

Sotheby's auction house in New York featured a large Isabel pictorial on an important auction catalog cover. A large Isabel pictorial is in the acclaimed "Lost and Found Traditions" exhibit; this outstanding exhibition of contemporary North American Indian art was curated by Ted Coe and funded by Prime-America Corporation. Geanita John's peaceful pictorial of a Navajo family scene is a keystone piece in the Durango Collection.

Geanita and Isabel are traditional Navajo women, proud of their skill, their creative ability, and the Navajo culture. Navajo is the language spoken in their home. Theirs is a happy family filled with a love that seems to be purely Navajo. These two remarkably talented weavers point the way for a whole new generation of Navajo women who wish to continue the tradition of Navajo weaving. Their message is, "You don't have to be bound within the confines of a geometric weaving. Let your imagination flow and create what feels good to you yourself." Today, in many homes, offices, and museums their weaving imparts a sense of peace and well being to those who view and enjoy.

The growing popularity of the Navajo pictorial has given an incentive to weavers to start weaving pictorials. I always advise buyers to buy what they like. If you actually like a funky rug, go ahead and buy it. If you want a real work of art, such as a large Isabel John piece, shop carefully and observe important details such as the sense of depth and realism woven in the piece. There are weavers who have capitalized on superior weavers' successes and have emulated their work without duplicating their artistry. Get the advice of a reputable dealer and insist on securing the weaver's name. Some weavers are incorporating their names or initials in the borders of rugs. You are buying a work of art, not a curio. Somewhere, in the heart of Navajoland, weavers are preparing their looms, themes take shape in their minds, long dead grandmothers give guidance, and nimble fingers thread the weft through the warp and sing the weaver's song. Eager traders wait to buy newly completed weavings. Phones will ring in distant offices and homes, and the message will go out, "I just bought a fine pictorial. I want you to be the first to know." A deal will be made. A space on a wall will be filled. The needs of weaver, trader, and collector are fulfilled, and the weaver will begin again.