Oct. 5, 2004
By Susan Green
Navajos are master weavers. Their beautifully woven rugs not only mirror the history of the Navajo people, they mirror the lives of the women who weave them.
The Kennedy Museum of Art is gathering the stories of those Navajo weavers who created the objects in the museum's Edwin L. and Ruth E. Kennedy Southwest Native American Collection.
Funded in part by an 1804 Grant, "Weaving Histories: Navajo Weavers Oral History Project," brought together students, along with curators from the museum, to videotape interviews with the weavers.
"We're working on a March 2005 exhibition focusing on multiple generations of weavers," said curator Jennifer McLerran. "D.Y. Begay, a Navajo weaver who's consulting with us on this exhibition, helped us coordinate the trip and acted as our interpreter. The project wouldn't have been possible without her, since most of the weavers spoke only Navajo."
Undergraduate and graduate students worked alongside the curators conducting research and gathering material for upcoming exhibitions, video installations and written educational materials.
In addition to creating a complete and coherent history of the weavings in the museum's collection, the oral history project provided a unique multicultural educational experience for the students involved.
Nick Polizzi, a graduate student in art education, Tom Coop, an undergraduate in art history and marketing, and videographers Larry Shields and Whitney Fromholtz, undergraduate students in telecommunications, traveled with McLerran and Sally Delgado, curator of education, to the Navajo Reservation, which encompasses parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. They spent three days documenting the weavers' stories.
"It was a great experience," Shields said. "You don't often have an opportunity to do something like this. I'm grateful to the museum and the University for giving me an opportunity to have this experience."
Mindful that they were guests, since the interviews took place in the weavers' homes, Shields and Fromholtz didn't know what to expect. Neither had been on a reservation before and, for that matter, neither had Polizzi.
Begay traveled with the crew to the homes of three weavers where at least three generations of each family were gathered for the interviews.
McLerran said the weavers and their families welcomed them into their homes. Once the interviews were over, the crew was sometimes invited back for a meal or for a demonstration of weaving techniques.
The weavers were happy to talk about their work; the crew captured more video footage than they'd initially planned. Both Delgado and McLerran attribute the plethora of material to Begay's relationship with the weavers. "With D.Y. conducting the interviews, they opened up more than if we'd been asking the questions," Delgado said.
Delgado and McLerran are quick to note the students' contributions to the success of the project. Polizzi, in particular, made quite an impression on the weavers. "Nick is really outgoing and the weavers were really comfortable with him," McLerran said. "In fact, we were lucky to have such a good group of people. There was a lot of chemistry."
Glenabah Hardy, one of the weavers, honored Polizzi with a nickname: "Navajo Son."
The curators brought weavings from the museum's collection, which the weavers made years ago, so they could see them again. Hardy's daughter, Irene Clark, was especially moved.
"When we unrolled Irene's weaving on the floor, she said it was like seeing a relative after a long time," Polizzi said. "She approached it in a spiritual way and said when you see a piece that you made 30 years ago, it reminds you of your life back then."
Meeting the people behind the objects was a wonderful experience for Polizzi. "It's not often that you see the people who create the work in their normal, everyday environments. It gives you a more accurate impression of their culture," he said.
And he wasn't the only one charmed by the Navajo culture.
"I didn't know the Navajo culture was so alive," Shields said. "And that so many of the weavers spoke only Navajo. I had some knowledge of the weavings, from previous work with the Kennedy, but this project certainly enhanced my perception and understanding of another culture."
Fromholtz agreed, and said that being on a reservation changed her perception of the history and the current state of reservations.
"It also gave me a chance to experience another culture through meeting people, learning about their history, eating their food and seeing how they live within modern American culture," she said. "Not only did the trip help me reshape and shape new impressions of the Navajo culture, but it also helped me practice interacting with people of other cultures. It reaffirmed my desire to make documentary films."
For Polizzi, it helped him clarify part of his thesis research – object-based learning using non-traditional art. "Weavings, jewelry and baskets are not usually found in an art museum," he explained. "And not usually considered art in the Western world. They're difficult to place within a Western understanding of art. I'm interested in helping people construct their own meaning in relation to cultural objects."
Delgado and McLerran returned with another crew this summer. And this fall, McLerran will teach a course in Native American art, using some of the material garnered from the oral history project.
According to James B. Wyman, director of the Kennedy Museum of Art, the oral history project is an important beginning towards collections-based curriculum offerings at the Kennedy Museum of Art, and further testimony to the museum's commitment to diversity.
"Preliminary discussions about creating a museum studies program are underway," he said. "A multi-disciplinary program incorporating faculty, resources and departments across the University is envisioned."
This is another example of the Kennedy's tradition of preparing Ohio University students for careers in the museum field.
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Susan Green is a writer with University Communications and Marketing. This story originally appeared in the autumn 2004 issue of The Bulletin, a publication of the Kennedy Museum of Art.