The exhibition It Started with Willows, now showing at the Bristlecone Gallery at Western Nevada College, is a fiercely eclectic show, encompassing sculpture, drawings, prints, collage, and basketry—featuring work that has been made over the span of the last 70 years or so. And it hangs together beautifully, strung along a line of traditional pattern. Winnowing trays, seed gathering baskets, cradle boards, and fish traps (drawn from the collection of Lloyd Chichester) are hung next to works by contemporary Native artists, ranging from large-scale mixed-media abstractions by Melissa Melero-Moose (Northern Paiute) to playful assemblage sculptures by Phil Buckheart (Absentee Shawnee/Choctaw). The pulse of pattern in the basketry, achieved by weaving darkened willow strands among the naturally lighter ones, emanates outward to the contemporary work, appearing in bold geometrical structures, border or background elements, or depictions of traditional clothing and containers—a vital zigzag of continuity.
Melero-Moose is the curator of the show, and also founder of Great Basin Native Artists (GBNA), a collective of Indigenous artists from the Great Basin region stretching across Nevada, California, Southern Orgeon, Southern Idaho, and Utah. The contemporary artists in the show are part of that collective. Melero-Moose explained that GBNA partly grew out of a desire to tell the story of the continuance of Indigenous culture–“Our connection to the land, and connection to these plants that they turn into these baskets—that are entities, you know.”
Talking about the patterns, Melero-Moose explained: “In the beginning baskets were made for utilitarian uses. And if you’re sitting around making baskets, maybe you get some embellishment going on, and you get some designs because you’re sitting around these beautiful mountains and all of these beautiful colors. I think that’s how over time, way back in the day, a lot of the designs got integrated into the basketry.”
The connection between landscape and pattern is made explicit in “Basket Landscape,” a monoprint by David Ipina (Yurok). In it, the curved-edge form of a basket creates a sort of viewing frame—at the right edge, the basket itself is rendered in careful detail, with every section of the woven overlapping accounted for, like tiny sections of cross-hatching. As the eye drifts leftward, and the repeated quadrilateral shape integrated into the basket design stairsteps up and down in space, it gradually resolves itself into landscape elements—the upper line taking on the geologic weight of a mountain range, while the lower line becomes a jagged-edged stand of coniferous trees.
But Melero-Moose cautioned me not to jump to reductive one-to-one explanations of the meaning of patterns. “I think if you were to talk to five different weavers, or contemporary artists, you might get five different answers. [The landscape is] what I see and that’s how I interpret it, that’s how I was taught. But if you talked to another family, there are families that have their own family designs, and they have their own purpose for those designs. They might give you a completely different answer.”
Some pieces nod to pop culture with a light touch. In the diptych “Big Foot,” Topaz Jones (Western Shoshone/Lummi/Kalapuya/Molalla) depicts Sasquatch against bright green, pixilated weaving patterns (the name Saquatch is an anglicization of sésquac, from the Halkomelem language). In the second part of the diptych, Big Foot is shown in the classic, unperturbed-look-over-the shoulder pose from the Patterson-Gimlin film, which froze my blood when I was a kid. In the painting “Grandma’s Corn” by Karma Henry (Fort Independence Paiute), the prominence of a Folger’s can—painted in flat colors—calls up Warhol’s Campbell’s can. But instead of invoking a commercialized emptiness (Warhol’s pointed indifference to subject, his “might as well paint this as anything else” attitude), the Folger’s can is infused with a sense of family memory and everyday usefulness. Green leaves sprout up from the can, growing a modest harvest in the compass of a container that would, otherwise, be industrial trash.
Other work channels traditional motifs into distinctive, personal styles. Jack Malotte (Western Shoshone/Washoe) is represented by two eye-popping screen prints, where the usually orderly traditional patterns are part of a chaotic scramble of shapes, mixed with splatters and scratches, swirls of red triangles that shatter across the picture plane, and layered silhouettes that give up their forms only after you’ve squinted at them a bit—geese in flight, antlers branching from a deer skull, raptors with wings and talons outstretched. Phil Buckheart is represented by a half-dozen sculptures where animals, dancers, and totemic figures are partially abstracted—recognizable features are mixed in with both natural and manufactured materials, adorned with painted rocks, or topped with a spray of feathers. “Buffalo Head Dancer,” for instance, only faintly suggests the body of the dancer with brightly colored planes, string, and a net of wire. The buffalo head effuses out above it in dark cloud of felt strips, and the horns are fashioned out of long strands of wire, capped with jingle cones. They look less like horns than antennae, receiving signals from who-knows-where.
Forwarding cultural expression in the shadow of a brutal past
It’s important to underline that the connection to culture—the continuity forged between present and past—is something that has been won against violence and dispossession. Melero-Moose’s mixed media paintings celebrate traditional designs by scaling them up—giving the designs a stature, and a bas-relief tactility, that can enfold the viewer. Growing up, those designs, and the traditions they were a part of, had been moved to the margins of her life—baskets were glimpsed at gatherings or at the homes of relatives. As she grew older, she became aware of what had been pried away from her heritage. Her grandparents were forced to go to a boarding school, and her mother attended a boarding school as well.
Assimilation was a project of erasure—in Captain Richard Henry Pratt’s infamous phrase, the aim of assimilation was to “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” On arrival at most residential schools, the child’s hair was cut, family ties were severed, and Native languages forbidden. In some North American boarding schools, the latter part of Pratt’s formula was an afterthought—in 1909 Peter Brice, Chief Medical Officer of Canada’s Department of Indian Affairs, reported a mortality rate between 30 and 60 percent over five years in residential schools in western Canada—which were essentially large-scale petri dishes for tuberculosis.
Which is to say: cultural continuity, against a backdrop of genocide and “civilizing” education, is a conscious act. It’s a reaching back across a gap.
‘Everyday objects’ as part of the aesthetic conversation
When Melero-Moose was working on her first solo show, she was pregnant with her son—she was aware of existing in a creative realm, where her paintings and traditions braided together. In preparation for the arrival of her baby, family members began work on a cradle board for her (two cradle boards are on display in this show—one at actual scale, and a smaller one, sized so that a child could wear it with a doll tucked inside, shadowed under the curve of the small protruding sun shade). The design of the cradle board and the design of her paintings flowed with each other—an interchange of utility, beauty and community that continues in her work today.
When I asked where she took her son in his cradle board, she said, simply: “Everywhere.” And then went on: “You know when you get your newborn home, and you and [wrap them] like a little burrito, because you want them to be warm and cozy—and that’s where they’re they get real quiet. The second he got in there he slept through the night and so I had to keep him in there until his feet were sticking of out the bottom. He was 19 months and I refused to take him out of there because I was going to have to wean him off of the cradle board, and that’s like having a newborn—where they don’t want to sleep through the night. After 19 months I was finally prepared, I wasn’t exhausted anymore, I was used to having a baby in my life. Those cradleboards are the best invention ever.”
Everyday objects can sit uncomfortably in a gallery setting, divorced from their living context and subjected sometimes to unsympathetic anthropology. Indigenous art has a long history of acquisition through conquest and plunder—and beyond that, the distortions inherent in directing cultural production towards a tourist trade. Not long before the pandemic, I had the opportunity to visit the Museum of Anthropology at UBC in Vancouver, and appreciated the obvious effort that was put into mixing traditional work with work by contemporary artists—creating a visual conversation between, for instance, Kwakwaka’wakw totem poles, large-scale sculpture by the great 20-century Haida artist Bill Reid, and stop-motion puppets created by Métis animator Amanda Strong.
It Started with Willows is engaged in a similar conversation. The basketry clearly grounds the contemporary work, setting it in a foundation of tradition and history. And the contemporary work, sharing the wall-space, breathes vitality into the midcentury basketry—dispelling the stale air of a museum vitrine. We can see the contemporary artists connecting to their own heritage and ensuring that Native artistic expression isn’t closed off in a sort of historical parenthesis—excluded from the present in bad-faith colonial nostalgia. What’s visible, beyond the individual pieces themselves, is the picture of a community reflecting back on itself. In that arc, we can catch glimpses of rituals, landscape, the flora and fauna that define and give shape to a territory, a home—including of course the willows, which are so gracefully bent from nature to culture.
It Started with Willows is on display at the Bristlecone Gallery at Western Nevada College through Dec. 21. The
artists’ reception is Tuesday, Oct. 24, from 5-6:30 p.m.
Melissa Melero-Moose has also curated the show Creating Stories: Artwork of the Stewart Alumni, open through Feb. 2 at the Stewart Indian School Museum in Carson City, and her artwork is being shown at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in the exhibition The Land Carries Our Ancestors: Contemporary Art by Native Americans through Jan. 15.
A note of disclosure: the Capital City Arts Initiative supported It Started with Willows, and author Chris Lanier sometimes writes essays for CCAI’s exhibitions.
Photos: Kris Vagner
Cover photo: A detail of a basket from the Lloyd Chichester collection