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Press: Western Art Collector Magazine Article About Navajo Master Weaver Kathy Marianito


Lessons on the Loom

Kathy Marianito is an artist of strong fiber

By Susan Sorg

AUGUST 2011: Navajo weavers share this trait: creating beautiful things with their hands.  You can marvel at complexities of design or richness of color, but it’s not until you learn that life beyond the loom that you truly appreciate the work behind the work.

Such is the case with master weaver Kathy Marianito.  In 2010 she picked up more awards at the Gallup Inter-Tribal All Indian Ceremonial, including a First Place and Best of Category.  At the Indian Market, her work will be sought-after by collectors preferring “wearable art”, as she is the only Navajo weaver using silk and alpaca besides traditional Churro yarn.

This bubbly, creative, and caring woman who is 70-something years young is sometimes as complicated as some of her weavings.. or as innovative, strong, and yet as simple, because all those adjectives apply.  For the Navajos weaving is an inherited occupation.  Traditionally little girls learn it from their grandmothers, or in Kathy’s case, from her own mother, who learned it from generations before.  Kathy Marianito is a true descendant of master weavers.

Steve Getzwiller, considered one of the premier experts and dealers of Navajo weavings, knows very well of Kathy’s heritage. “Certainly her lineage doesn’t come any better, because her great-great-grandmother Juanita was considered one of the finest blanket weavers in the 1870s and 1880s.  Juanita’s husband, Manuelito, was one of the most prominent leaders of the Navajo people.”  It was Manuelito, Kathy’s great-great-grandfather, who was instrumental in negotiating the Navajos release from Fort Sumner and Bosque Redondo in 1868, returning to their homeland, the only displaced tribe allowed back on their true native soil.

Kathy grew up hearing about her famous ancestor, as well as tales of “The Long Walk,” The excruciating walk to exile, and then their triumphant return.  Growing up on the reservation in New Mexico, she also watched her mother weave.  “When I was really young, maybe 8 or 9, I stole her yarn.  I would put it on the fence and would ‘weave’ it there, until my grandfather found out and told my mother.”

Her mother finally taught Kathy how to set up a real loom and weave…lessons which at first did not come easy to the rather headstrong little girl.  “When I really started, it was difficult.  She told me to put it up on my own, and that was rough, but she just kept telling me to do this and that, and fix this and that… ‘You have to learn it, so you know next time to do it better.’”

She apparently listened well, because her weavings started to come quickly.

“I used to make six of them in the summertime, and I used to take them to the trading post and buy my shoes, my clothes, that I needed to take back to school.  When I go to boarding school, we don’t come home for two year!”

Kathy never forgot her mother’s words about how these lessons on the loom would stay with her, so she would always have her own income.  “I never forgot how to weave or to do things my own! My very own hands, my designs… that’s how I got started.”

There were other lessons too, such as how to wash the sheep's wool, and then dry and card it, spinning and dying it different colors using plants such as sage for green, sunflowers for yellow or green tumbleweeds for black wool.  “We tried everything,” she says with a laugh.

When she was 15, however, lessons such as these came to an abrupt end.  That’s when she was told she was about to be married to a man she didn’t really know.  “That was tradition,” she says.  “But I don’t want to get married at 15 years old.. got a lot of dreams and all that.. didn’t have time to hand around and be a wife.  So.. I took off.

The teanager rode her horse to the trading post, taking with her some clothes and what money she had, and boarded a bus for Salt Lake City.  And so her new life began, learning firsthand about the world outside the reservation, educating herself and becoming a seamstress.  She moved to California and had her own apartment, with only occasional visits home. “I’d come back to the reservation, but it was lonely because I was a city girl now!”

Years later, during one of those visits, her mother told her she missed her and asked her to stay.  Kathy did, but returned to the reservation with purpose.  “I got a job as a health representative.  I used to visit homes and take care of people in the community, working with the doctors, the policemen, the lawyers, and I’d talk to the people.  I’d almost lost my language, but that’s how it started.  Then I went back to weaving, to help my mother and to finish her weavings.”

Part of her job was working with alcoholics going through detox and she discovered helping people learn different crafts also helped them learn different habits.  “I taught grandmothers, young girls… I’d teach them to sew, quilt, how to design them, even how to make tools for weaving.”

Along the way Kathy met Lorenzo Marianito, a Navajo medicine man who also came from a family of weavers.  This time she did not run away, and their marriage has remained strong, like her weavings.  Her eyes still sparkle when she looks at them, and there’s a definite twinkle when she watches her grandson Sean, who often is by her side as she weaves.

Steve Getzwiller came into her life in 1998, after hearing about Kathy’s weaving skills.  That’s when she was making rugs.  Not anymore.  Since then the two have continued to raise Navajo weaving to the next level, being the first to use silk as a fiber in traditional designs, and the only ones incorporating alpaca into “wearable art.”

There are very few weavers who understand how to weave a blanket and not a rug.” Says Getzwiller.  “A rug would not be comfortable when worn, while a blanket will drape and fit your form.  It has to do with how she warps her loom and how she packs it, and that sort of thing,” he explains.

Getzwiller calls their work together true collaboration.  “How it really works,” he said with a laugh,
“is I tell her what I want, and then she does what she wants!”

He’s the first to tell you, though, that the results are timeless.  “Her work is a major departure from contemporary Navajo weaving.  I hate to use the term ‘revival’ but it’s about bringing some of the best things that came before back to the forefront.”

As Kathy excels in new forms of her art, the traditions grow stronger.  She recalls when she was little, listening wide-eyed to elderly women relatives, the nieces of Manuelito.  “Their stories about ‘The long Walk” …they never forgot the walk,” she says.  “And I used to think, “What a wonderful way to be so strong, to walk that far and come back.”

It’s not just the mechanics, but the passion from within which truly sets an artist apart.  Such is the way with Kathy Marianito, who is strong enough to walk so far and still come back to her roots.