Fabric of Life: 150 Years of Northern California Fiber Art History

Sunday, September 21, 1997 to Saturday, October 18, 1997


  • Mar Adams
  • Artist unknown (Karuk)
  • Artist unknown (Maidu)
  • Artists unknown (Lower Klamath River)
  • Artist unknown (Pomo)
  • Artist unknown (Shasta)
  • Artist unknown (Yurok)
  • Ruth Asawa
  • Gaza Bowen
  • Judy Chicago
  • Marian Clayden
  • Lia Cook
  • Dominic Di Mare
  • Emily DuBois
  • Raymond Duncan
  • Lillian Elliott
  • Valborg (Mama) Gravander
  • Thomassin Grim
  • Trude Guermonprez
  • Ana Lisa Hedstrom
  • Marisa Hernandez
  • Lucien Labaudt
  • Cora Laine
  • Marilyn Larkin
  • Jean-Pierre Larochette
  • Yael Lurie
  • Jean Ray Laury
  • Dorothy Liebes
  • Margery Livingston
  • Nance O'Banion
  • Linda R. MacDonald
  • K. Lee Manuel
  • Madeline Mason
  • Susanna Matthay
  • Helen Pope
  • Patricia Ravarra
  • Nanilee S. Robarge
  • Michael Roman
  • Ed Rossbach
  • Debra S.
  • Kay Sekimachi
  • Barbara Shawcroft
  • Martha Stanely
  • Isabella Lillie Syme
  • Chi Tominaga
  • Rosie Lee Tompkins
  • Frank Tuttle
  • Consuelo Jimenez Underwood
  • Lydia Van Gelder
  • Katherine Westphal
  • Flo Oy Wong
  • Kaisik Wong
  • Marguerite Zorach

California art history has been the subject of a number of studies that emphasize the media of painting, sculpture and photography. This exhibition shifts the lens of study to focus on fiber and textiles. By starting with Native American art and then moving through time to the present, we have attempted to weave a Northern California fiber art history. Northern California, (here defined as reaching north to the Salmon River and extending south to include Monterey-Fresno 37th parallel) represents a distinct region with distinct voices that are historically significant. Many different issues, influences, and vocabulary surface as we examine this history. This exhibition was organized collaboratively. Regrettably, gallery space limitations precluded our ability to represent the work of more than a handful of artists from any given time. We have altogether excluded fabric production, fashion, and theatrical costume, although San Francisco's reputation in this area is such that it is worthy of it's own separate study.
- Mark Johnson


Weaving the End of the World?
by Julian Lang

Many indigenous tribal groups in California possess what is called a ‘high language’. The language form contains the special vocabulary and knowledge relating to the sacred and the spirit world, while mundane matters are conveyed using the ‘people’s language’. The same distinction can be said of native textile arts. Basketry of every description, woven and appliquéd fabrics, feather work, beadwork, and wearing apparel can all be distinguished as being of the secular or of the sacred.

The separation between the two categories is not hierarchical, but has a horizontal, equal relationship. From the native perspective utilitarian objects are not opposite sacred objects, but instead sit behind them, equal but once removed. Ideally, the sacred objects will find their place “sitting before” native peoples during the annual ceremonies to remake the world, thereby recreating the original vision of the ideal world. There is, in fact, a similarity between the power of visual arts in the western art history sense and the role of the sacred object to native peoples. Both are considered prophetic, literally providing a future vision for the people.

The native arts objects included in the “Fabric of Life” exhibition are an interesting array of both secular and sacred objects. The objects provide a fine example of the textile arts created by indigenous peoples of northern California prior to the Gold Rush era. The objects provide a means, as well, to discuss how native material culture (artifacts) combine with ceremony and myth to create the vision by which several northern California tribal groups lived.

The Karuk tribe is indigenous to northwestern California, some 60 miles inland from the coast. The Karuk aboriginal territory is as sparsely populated today as it was in the 1849-1852 Gold Rush era when more than 60,000 miners inundated the Karuk ‘World’. The easy gold was gleaned quickly and the hordes left behind one of California’s most finely tuned social and religious centers in a disrupted, though not irreparably, state. The anthropology of northwestern California indicates that the Karuk, along with their neighbors, the Hupa, Tolowa, Wiyot and Yurok comprised the southern extension of the well-known Pacific Northwest tribes. The Californians did not carve and erect totem poles, host potlatches, or mount grand raiding parties. However, one found artistic achievement, elaborate mythologies, and the development of a unique religious system, the Fixing the Earth religion.

While a majority of the artifacts in this exhibition are of Karuk origin, some objects have provenience with two additional tribal groups in northern California, the Pomo and the Maidu. The artifacts of the latter tribal groups are not included as token examples, but instead were selected to extend a basic premise concerning native arts, and the basic premise of this essay: All native arts objects serve two major functions. (1) The object acts as an important means by which tribal individuals are able to connect to the CREATION, and (2) The objects have a distinctive visionary quality by which tribal individuals are able to connect to the Future.

The major Natural History and History Museums of America are literally jammed to capacity with basketry originating in northern California. A woman’s art, weaving achieved spectacular aesthetic levels throughout the region. Clearly native culture depended upon basketry for nearly all domestic work, and for many esoteric religious duties as well. Individual artistic expression was achieved, as well, by the ‘textile artists’ of each community village.

Woven caps, worn by tribal women throughout northern California on a daily basis, are perfect examples of decorating the surface of the basket with the perfected overlay technique. Each cap was designed with geometrical patterns created by overlaying the twined warp with specially prepared materials. The patterns were created in combinations of buff, red, white, and/or black. The everyday cap was decorated simply while the ceremonial caps were rendered in complex, multi-colored design-patterns. Great attention was paid to the overall proportion, the relative scale of the design pattern used, and to the fineness of the weave. They stand as fine examples of Native American artistry, and were the specialty of a limited number of women weavers. They were much sought after by their fellow tribeswomen and by parents who purchases them for daughters who had reached puberty, and become eligible to dance in the many ceremonies.

The first function of the object is utilitarian. Whether the object be a basket, clothing or other secular item, still it possesses its own spiritual and political meaning. Nearly every woman in a household learned to weave baskets, make clothing, and dress (tan) deer and elk hides, as a matter of course. Great artistry and specialization was attained by some women. These women went on to produce the treasures of their families and village, the finest basketry, the ceremonial dresses, and other clothing and items specially created for use while attending the People’s Dances, the Puberty Dances, the World Renewal Ceremonies, and the Jump Dance.

The secular items, the utilitarian baskets, work caps, and everyday dresses possessed aesthetically pleasing designs and ornamentation. The ceremonial items were awe inspiring. For instance, the basketry was considered the finest type of basket by native peoples and, in later years, by the collectors. Ceremonial baskets were intricately decorated and finely weaved to serve, prepare, and present food. Some of this type of basketry was used by the spiritual leaders to carry ceremonial regalia, or to complete esoteric rites and rituals. One basket in particular, the Jump Dance basket, was used as a dance regalia item, having no utilitarian use whatsoever.

According to Karuk belief, and the belief systems of the other northern California tribes, the origin of the material culture is with the Immortals. This race of people resided on the earth just prior to Humanity. A proto-Human the Immortal possessed great creative and intuitive powers. They were the residents of the Myth-time, Pikváhahirak (Karuk language). Their role was to perfect a way of life that was harmonious with the environment, that created a connection between the People-to-come (i.e. Humanity) and the creation of the physical world, and to institute specific laws, beliefs, and ceremonies. The Immortals, also known as Spirit-People and Ikxaréeyav by the Karuk, also devised the material culture of the People. Since the first Human generations the ideal has been to emulate these Spirit People, to continue on with the spiritual and physical legacy. Within this context the function of all native arts is to reiterate the Creation, and to continue on the path to perfecting the objects as created by the Ikxaréeyav.

The collector of native arts today assesses the monetary value of a basket at a rate determined by the number of woven stitches per square inch according to the particular basket type and style. Native people’s, specifically Karuk people, value a basket by its authenticity, its ability to measure up to traditional specifications. All objects, baskets or regalia items, are made according to well-established protocols governing their manufacture as well as their use. The value of the object is enhanced when the relationship is clear between the object, the maker and the tribally held belief system. This relationship is assured when the maker is known, and is regarded as a progenitor of the ‘old way’. The most valuable objects are those which are constructed in strict accordance to the instructions of the Myth-time, for they take on a special meaning.

Tribal identity and the vision of the people is contained in each object, whether it is woven, embroidered, laminated, or wrapped and painted, as long as it is constructed according to the instructions of the Ikxaréeyav. This fact is true whether the basket is a utilitarian vessel, or whether it is a ritual-ceremonial object. The object exists as an image of the Creation, and a vision of the future. The Karuk perception of time is much different from the linear timeline of Past-Present-Future. Progressive time places the future before us. The Karuk perception places the past before us, the future behind, the present below us. ‘That which is before us’, the future, is actually the Creation. All artistic achievement must reflect this relationship, to attain its true value.

Native arts objects included in this exhibition were selected based upon their ability to reflect traditional norms, and for their individual aesthetic qualities. By far they are not a survey, or a representative gathering of objects. Instead, each is an example of transmitted knowledge, generation-to-generation, from the Creation to the present (all of the objects were collected in the first half of this century--the Karuk objects were collected at the turn of the century). The greatest value of an object is to vigorously provide the connection between the Creation, the viewer, and the Future. The progressive Western view is that visionary art must be prophetic, reflecting what will be, what is to come. The native perception is identical. The difference is that the Future is new and changed from the Western perception, while the native view insists upon a perfected, contemplative Future based upon the Creation--a refined understanding of the already known.

The Present gains in meaning and purpose when placed in direct relationship with the Creation. This ideal time erupted with all creative and procreative energy, out of which social structure, religion and arts were instructed to flourish. This path is the path to Happiness and Harmony--sensibilities in very short supply these days. The Fabric of Life brings forth a small but important collection of items which were made with this indigenous formula in mind.

The importance of the objects contained in this exhibition cannot be overstated. They provide a perfect opportunity for contemporary audiences to appreciate the breadth of textile techniques and applications. The exhibition also provides, through this discussion, a means to introduce a broad audience to the function that these objects play within native cultures, and to see what is not usually seen when looking at “artifacts”. Undoubtedly, each basket is aesthetically beautiful. More importantly, each basket comes from a specific place, culture, and historic period. By bringing together examples of native textiles, the regalia, the armor, the feather work, and ceremonial dresses, the Fabric of Life attempts to extend our knowledge of California’s native artistry and its reliance upon the textile arts.

A belief system governs the construction of all tools, houses, and clothing. In fact, all items of the material culture are spiritual heirlooms. Each object was created by a particular Spirit-Person who left behind instructions on the method of construction, its ideal shape and form, and its use. This Spirit-Person also indicated whether there were any taboos concerning its use. The objects of native material culture are, in a sense, reliquaries of original knowledge, whether secular or ceremonial. As such, a basket defines the individual.

There is an outstanding notion today among many native weavers that the weaver/individual has the power to imbue a basket/object with one’s (negative and presumably positive) feelings. This notion is opposite the Karuk tradition which says that the object is the individual, not an ersatz representation, but the embodiment of the individual’s inner spirit. The basket defines the individual. According to the Karuk saying, “Kâarim tukup=hâak, vaa kári muvik toopùusip; vaa’íin mu’ípi kunpikyäati, whenever you are out of luck (i.e., it is a bad time), [that’s the time you] pick up your basket work, it will make you have bones in you [your weaving will fix your bones-turned-to-water due to bad time]. The very act of weaving, according to Karuk belief, rebuilds inner strength--you are as strong as the object you build--it is you; you are not the basket. Similarly, “...if you have a crooked, poorly made baby basket and keep [your] baby in there, the baby will (grow up) twisted”. One version of the Karuk story of the Great Flood includes the manufacture by “all the women” of a great huge storage basket (a conventional sized storage basket is included in the exhibition). The women wove this sipnúkaam using multiple strands at a time. “The people got inside the basket there...that’s why people are living now.” But the [current race of Human Beings] were told, “However long the earth exists, you mustn’t weave (several strands at a time) again...(it will be) the end of the world.”

Notwithstanding the implications of bringing on the Karuk People’s version of Armageddon, innovation was possible. Individuals who underwent exhaustive spiritual vigils, prolonged fasting, and pilgrimages into the high mountains, if lucky, might receive instructions resulting in something entirely new. When the impetus for creative uniqueness was achieved in this way, the innovation was accepted by all. Arbitrary deviation was rejected, considered unwholesome, and even believed to be dangerous to the People.

Changes have occurred to traditional modes of construction. Most notable, knowledge of the ‘Old Ways’, i.e., fundamental native knowledge, has been passed on to fewer and fewer individuals, due in large part, to federal educational policies of assimilation, to missionizing influences, and to military service. There has remained, however an ironclad group of elders who have maintained the “Old Ways”, and more importantly, there is a significant group of middle-aged practitioners: weavers, regalia makers, and contemporary fine artists, who have taken it upon themselves, to learn the mythologies, the protocols of manufacture, and the language of making native arts.

Frank Tuttle (Yuki, Nomlaki, Konkow, Maidu), is one such “maker” of native arts, who, coincidentally, is included in the Fabric of Life exhibition. A sad fact is that many of the elders who held onto the “Old Ways” have since passed away. Tuttle, has devoted much of his life to both raising a family, and to acquiring a vast knowledge of traditional manufacturing techniques, many of them long forgotten, or rarely used. This effort has brought him closer and closer to understanding the power of the Creation. Over time he has been making art objects in “the old way.” He regularly unveils his new “old” creations, exalting in his new understanding of the original techniques. More importantly he has acquired a spiritual understanding and knowledge of his complex Creation, he is of 3 different tribal groups. Besides being a traditional artist, he is also a contemporary fine artist. The distinction between the two is clear. Nevertheless, his non-traditional work is intensely informed by the Creation as well.

The Native American objects included in The Fabric of Life originate within the old-time historical and social context. Their lack of ambiguity is their power. They are (unknown) Native People, the physical manifestation of inner spirits preserved for as long as they exist, exerting their own unique power. Native art, after all is said and done, is made to inspire and to inform. Native art will continue to do so as long as it strives towards its original purpose: to remind us of the Creation. Today we are able to create objects based upon traditional forms. This act, in itself, is a cultural and political statement. Native artists and artisans must bear an additional burden: we must keep in mind that the artforms, the materials and the very purpose of making art are governed by particular Spirit-people today as was the case 150 years ago. We can act only as intermediaries between the Creation and the Future.

Contemporary Developments in Northern California Fiber and Textile Art
by Candace Crockett with notes by Vanessa Van Orden

In Northern California, where rapid change and the mixture of cultures and lifestyles create an atmosphere of resistance to conformity, the many threads that compose the fiber art movement can appear thin and fragile when looked at individually. But when these threads are woven, they create a strong and flexible web nourished and kept alive by a community dedicated to its survival.

Northern California textile art in the nineties is different from that of the seventies and eighties. No longer is there a rush to learn a variety of techniques and to compete with weavers of ancient civilizations. Present day students find the Arts and Crafts movement ornate and old fashioned. Technology, economic factors, and the hierarchy of the art world (where textiles have been marginalized) are contemporary issues. And while theory-driven conceptual art may seem a far cry from the contemplative, timeless beauty of a weaving by Kay Sekimachi, an intertwining of conceptual issues with textile traditions and materials has developed in contemporary work.

The study of ethnic textiles and the cultures that produce them has been a key part of the academic fiber art movement in Northern California for decades. During the seventies, there was an interest in appropriating techniques, forms, and imagery from other cultures, especially Native American. Some artists seeking spirituality and content in their work treated cultures like cafeterias with assorted plates to choose from, but ultimately the images which emerged looked borrowed and out of place. I see a new respect and sensitivity to cultural traditions and to appropriateness in contemporary fiber art.

Native American indigenous traditions have resurfaced with vitality and renewal, not only in learning, documenting and expanding their traditions, but in embracing the world in ways that are contemporary, inclusive and inventive. Frank Tuttle's bag and his painting with string are sculptural, referential and yet, of this time. The California Indian Basket Weavers Association, founded in 1991, has fought to bring awareness of the spiritual and cultural importance of basketry.

Mulitcultural histories and practices are strong in contemporary textiles, and as this century comes to an end, I believe, will grow in strength. An understanding and respect for textiles, combined with constant immigrant populations bringing their traditions with them has created textiles that are artistic documents of cultural growth and change. Currently, this is particularly evident in the embroideries of the Mien, and the "story" fabrics of the Hmong Southeast Asian peoples, represented in this exhibition by the epic storycloth by Fresno artist Hua Lee Vang. An indigenous/Latina perspective is evidenced in the work of Michael Roman and Marisa Hernandez. Consuelo Jimenez Underwood looks to the land and the environment in her weavings and presents "American" history from a personal perspective (her father is Mexican of Huichol origin and her mother a second generation Chicana).

Community collaboration, has developed as another major issue in Northern California. A line might be drawn connecting Christo's earthwork "Running Fence" (1976), to Judy Chicago's "Dinner Party" (1979) and "Birth Project" and ending with Justine Merritt's "Peace Ribbon" (1985), which included approximately 20,000 embroidered panels of which approximately 3,500 were created by Northern California women. Three months after the "Peace Ribbon" was used to encircle the Pentagon (1985) , Cleve Jones, San Francisco AIDS activist, envisioned the NAMES Project , ultimately raising $1,768,000 for direct services for people with AIDS.

Weaving as a method for constructing fiber art continues as a strong presence. The availability of more complex looms and the addition of the computer has influenced the weaving of Emily DuBois, Lia Cook, Sheila OÕHara and Nanilee Robarge. Weavers have also embraced surface design and mixed media techniques so that complex loom controlled patterning is juxtaposed with dyed, printed and discharged surfaces. The image oriented textile is very much part of the nineties. Thomasin Grim, using a technique of individually lifted, painted floating warps, weaves dreams. Her imagery is specific, highly personal, mysterious and yet universal.

Two-dimensional and three-dimensional work are equally strong in contemporary fiber art. Three-dimensional textile work sometimes incorporates very different materials. Flo Oy WongÕs installation ÒBitter Melon Rice Blues: An Elegy for AmericaÓ incorporates sequins, lace, rice sacks and a folding chair in a memorial to the victims of anti-Asian violence. Pat Ravarra, using monofilament, weaves clouds that float overhead. While not firmly a Òtextile artist,Ó sculptor Ruth Asawa has explored for decades textile techniques using wire.

The art quilt is at the forefront of contemporary textile art. A strong support system, consisting of publications, exhibitions, collectors and even a museum (rare in the fiber arts) have been important to quilt artists in Northern California and partly accounts for their strength. Rosie Lee Thompkins, a pseudonym for a Richmond artist, works within the "patchwork" tradition in a way that is individual, and referential of African weaving and applique traditions. Other African-American quilts have been showcased in exhibitions organized by Oakland collector Eli Leon. Linda R. MacDonald has a body of quilts produced in the late eighties and early nineties specifically dealing with community concerns. The quilt "Wild and Tasty", the second in a series of three, deals with the confrontation in her community (Willits) between environmentalists trying to preserve a forest and an endangered species, and the loggers, concerned about their jobs and a way of life. Her imagery deals directly with problems her community has had to face. Though not working with quilts, a concern with political issues can also be seen in the pieces of Underwood, Hernandez, and Flo Oy Wong.

Currently, there are several important support groups and organizations for textile artists in Northern California including the Northern California Handweaver's guild system, begun in the thirties and the Sample Service started by Helen Pope in 1979 and continued by Peggy Osterkamp (housed at American River College in Sacramento as part of their library' s Textile Bibliography lending service). Lace is taught and discussed at the Lace Museum in Sunnyvale and the Northern California Lacemakers Guild holds regular meetings in San Francisco. Shops, such as The Yarn Depot in San Francisco, Straw Into Gold in Berkeley, and Lacis in Berkeley are historically important for workshops. The Textile Arts Council at the de Young Museum along with educational institutional textile programs are vital community links to understanding contemporary textile art. San Francisco City College, College of Marin, Mendocino College, College of Arts and Crafts, San Francisco State, Chico State, San Jose State and the University of California at Davis offer classes and programs demonstrating that the academic support for textiles is still present.

The nineties produced major exhibitions of Northern California fiber artists, including Ed Rosssbach at the Renwick Gallery of the National Museum of Art (1997), Dominic di Mare at the Palo Alto Cultural Center (1997), Lia Cook at the Oakland Museum (1995) and the Renwick Gallery (1996), Thomasin Grim at the Bruanstein/Quay Gallery (1997), Linda R. MacDonald at the Grace Hudson Museum in Ukiah and in Mendocino at the Stewart/Kummer Gallery in Gualala (1997), Gaza Bowen in Santa Cruz (1997), and Rosie Lee Thompkins at the UC Berkeley Art Museum (1997). In a review for the San Francisco Chronicle, 7/4/97, titled "Diversity, Piece by Piece," art critic Kenneth Baker says of the Thompkin's Exhibition: The exhibit says the critical barriers that once stood between art and craft, between popular and elite sensibility, between European and pan-cultural aesthetics, are down. It would appear that, having moved away from the decorative arts, and successfully survived the dichitomizations of "craft versus art" discussions, fiber art, is now, to be seen simply as art.

- Candace Crockett

1 see Sara Greensfelder, "NEA Support of CIBA Attacked in Congress", California Indian Basketweavers Association Newsletter #19 (Nevada City, 1997). 2 June Anderson, personal interview, May 1997 3 Consuelo Jimenez Underwood, telephone interview, August 1997 4 see Amelia Jones, "The "Sexual Politics" of the Dinner Party: A Critical Context", Sexual Politics: Judy Chicago's Dinner Party in Feminist Art History, ed. Amelia Jones (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996). 5 see Judy Chicago, Birth Project (New York: Doubleday, 1985). 6 Audrey Keller, telephone interview, June 1997. 7 see Linda Pershing, The Ribbon Around the Pentagon: Peace by Piecemakers (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1996). 8 see "The History of the NAMES Project", NAMES Project Foundation: AIDS Memorial Quilt, 1997,(July 1997). 9 see "Quilt Facts", NAMES Project Foundation: AIDS Memorial Quilt, 1997, (July 1997). 10 Flo Oy Wong, personal interview, July 1997. Wong states the installation's iconography is from the "Ching Ming" Cantonese spring-time ritual of cleaning graves. The title "Bitter Melon Rice Blues" refers to the Cantonese admonition for emigres to America: "Nay yu hek fu" ("You have to eat bitter"). 11 During 1996-97, Asawa was "Urban Artist in Residence" at San Francisco State University and worked collaboratively with students from the University and the neighboring School of the Arts high school to create public sculpture for lightwells in the Arts and Industry building lobby. 12 see Eli Leon, Who'd A Thought It: Improvisation in African American Quiltmaking (San Francisco: Craft & Folk Art Museum, 1987). 13 Kaethe Kliot, telephone interview, August 1997.