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Press: Fiber Arts - Threads of Tradition - Featuring Ellen and Lucy Begay - Nov/Dec 2010



FROM ONE GENERATION to the next, weaving traditions are passed on with a single thread.  The design, palette, and style may differ, but the thread remains constant, trying each generation to the next.

So it is with Navajo weavers Lucy Begay and her daughter, Ellen.  Both not only follow the traditions of Navajo weavers but live in the most traditional way of the Dine, or Navajo people, on their native land, the Navajo Nation of Arizona.  Almost seventy, Lucy spends summers at her sheep camps (passed down through generations) weaving by daylight, as there is no electricity.  The rest of the year is spent with her ninety-six-year old husband in their traditional Hogan, a home they share with daughter Ellen, now in her mid-forties.  Wherever they live, they weave.

Ellen translates as Lucy, who speaks only Navajo, describes watching her own mother weave until one day she raveled a Blue Bird flour sack for thread to try it herself.  It was Lucy’s grandmother who actually taught her the technique, just as Ellen learned from her grandmother, as is the Navajo way.

The weavings Lucy and Ellen create are considered the Three Turkey Ruins style of Burntwater.  Navajo weaving styles are regional, with Burntwater weavings known by the geometric patterns and border.  The intricate color palette they use has been passed down in the family for generations. Lucy makes her own natural dyes from native plants she gathers while tending her sheep.

About thirty years ago, Lucy’s weavings captured the attention of Steve Getzwiller, a well-known expert and dealer of Navajo weavings.  “I became their market,” he says, “I would commission specific designs initially, but in the last two decades I have encouraged them to do their own thing.”

Weaving with Churro wool as their ancestors did, mother and daughter first set the warp and hang it to dry for about two weeks, which draws it up tight and removes any shrinkage.  Just before insetting the yarn, they finger-twist it to make it even tighter.  One piece can easily take several months to complete, but with dazzling results.  

“If you’re not knowledgeable about Navajo weaving,” Getzwiller continues, “your eye is going to tell you, ‘Hey” This Is beautiful!’  And if you do know something about Navajo textiles, you’re going to say, “Wow! I’ve never seen anything like this before!”

Oregon businessman Gary Beaudoin began collection their works ten years ago.  “It’s amazing how their art is quite pure,” he says, “The luxury of the isolation allows their creativity.  It’s the way they can transform an original abstract geometric design from their heads to the loom.”

He was so taken with their works he took pieces to the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles (SJMQ&T) in California, certain he had the making of a worthy exhibit.  One look and the museum staff were convinced.  Museum curator Deborah Corsini describes the work as “just dynamic, electric kind of weaving.  It was the intricate, sophisticated designs that really caught our eye.”  The subsequent  SJMQ&T Exhibition, Navajo Weaving in the Present Tense: The Art of Lucy and Ellen Begay (February 16 – May 4, 2010), was a success with, efforts currently underway to tour it to other venues.

“To have their story told and their art expressed is an important thing to do,” says Beaudoin, “Navajo weaving is on its last knee and needs an infusion of interest.”