Southwest Travels Inspire Priceless Navajo Rug Collection

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Southwest Travels Inspire Priceless Navajo Rug Collection

BY M. J. VAN DEVENTER

On the path of life, Grace “Pam” Parrish loved to travel, especially on backwoods country roads. Route 66 was her favorite. It was on that fabled road, en route to New Mexico, that she fell in love with Navajo weavings.

New Mexico was a favorite stopping point for Parrish and her husband during the 1970s. He was of Delaware Indian heritage and involved with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. They lived in West Texas and California and often traveled back to Oklahoma, where Pam spent her childhood. Along the way, the couple would peruse the wares of Native American vendors.

It was one of those roadside trading posts where she bought her first Navajo rug – the seed for a priceless collection that is now on display at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum through May 8.

It didn’t take Parrish long to learn the unique qualities of Navajo weaving. She began to collect high quality rugs from some of the Southwest’s most well-known master weavers – Daisy Tauglechee, Clara Sherman, Rose Gould, Linette Nez, Katherine and Larry Nathaniel. Tauglechee was Parrish’s favorite.

Parrish was fortunate to encounter Bob Payne, an auctioneer in Bloomfield, New Mexico, who became her guide and guru to acquiring her collection of more than 60 weavings, including rugs, saddle blankets and tapestries.

She learned the distinctions of the various geographic styles, including Two Gray Hills, Teec Nos Pos, Wide Ruin, Ganado, Sampler, Storm Pattern and Yei. At the time Parrish was collecting, many of the weavers kept their own sheep; shearing, cleaning, carding and spinning the wool for weaving. Each region developed its own style so no two weavings were ever alike.

What also makes her collection distinctive is the creativity of the weavers she collected. They drew inspiration from their imagination or experiences, shunning patterns or styles used by other tribal weavers.

Eric Singleton, Curator of Ethnology at the National Cowboy Museum, says, “Each artist’s skill and knowledge is seen in a piece of fine art that is unique, yet displays a family legacy and tradition going back hundreds of years. Of all the regional styles, the Two Grey Hills and Wide Ruins stand out because they used undyed wool or natural dyes to create the designs of each weaving. They harvested flowers, leaves, roots, bark and stems from a variety of plants to create the colors in Wide Ruins weavings. The Two Grey Hills artists used the natural color of sheep and goats’ wool.

“Two Grey Hills and Yei are important due to their history and the distinctive designs they incorporate. I also would include the Ganado style. Ganado was one of the first trading posts and the bright red incorporated in their designs is distinctive,” Singleton notes.

“All the regional styles are unique and beautiful in their own way. They all developed about the same time. They all have, for the most part, remained true to their regional style and have specific qualities that make each worthy of displaying and keeping for their beauty, skill and the benefit of future generations,” Singleton said.

Well into her buying mission, Parrish knew she had created a collection of value. She had acquired, in a 40-year period, a diverse group of weavings, which represented many regions of the Navajo reservation. Some of the large pieces in her collection took more than a year to weave, giving them even more value – more cache – for her collection.

As an Oklahoma City resident, Parrish was familiar with the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum and believed the weavings could be used there as teaching tools. She also recognized there was still a strong Navajo weaving movement and thought her collection would be beneficial in researching the differences among the weavers, dyes and designs.

It may have been a bold move on Parrish’s part, but she made a cold call to the National Cowboy Museum four years ago to see if they might have an interest in acquiring her precious collection of weavings.

It seems prophetic that Mike Leslie, the museum’s former curator of ethnology and now the assistant director, answered her call and listened.

“She had no connection to the Museum until then. We struck up a friendship and she began gifting part of the collection during the next three years,” Leslie said.

He noted, in a Spring 2014 issue of the museum’s magazine, Persimmon Hill, “I’ve had similar experiences where pieces are not quite what the collector thinks and it doesn’t work out. Other times, it’s truly amazing what the collector has and this is one of those cases. It has turned out to be a phenomenal collection.”

“So much of the collection is of tapestry quality, with very, extraordinarily fine weaves. The artisans who produced these works are incredibly gifted,” Leslie said. “But just as important is the documentation that Mrs. Parrish kept along with these pieces. Having the artwork and the information behind each piece is really a museum’s dream come true.”

The current exhibit of 22 weavings from Parrish’s 60-plus piece collection, reflects the work of several late 20th century weavers – Edith John, Nora Shorty, Rena Begay, Larry Nathaniel.

It provides what Leslie calls “an enlightening opportunity for museum visitors who may not have an awareness of Navajo weavings. The collection will serve a purpose beyond the exhibit space as well. Because of its diversity, the pieces and documentation can be used as a cultural insight into the Navajo people. They also may serve as an educational tool for current and future artists.”

For the viewer of this exhibit, Singleton suggests, “If there is one aspect of the show that should not be missed, it would be for the viewer to contemplate the size of some of the pieces. Often, we look at the overall beauty of a piece, but several of the weavings are between eight and 12 feet. To accomplish something like this, the weaver would need to work on it for nearly a year or a year and a half. That is a remarkable display of not only skill, but patience and fortitude.”

Also included in the exhibition in the Museum’s Silberman Gallery, is one distinctive painting from the Arthur and Shifra Silberman Collection of Native American fine art. It is Harrison Begay’s The Weavers, depicting two weavers producing a Yei pictorial weaving. There are sheep below them and they are sitting on two rugs of an older design. “It is reflective of all that goes into a weaving,” Singleton said.

The Silbermans were Oklahoma City residents who loved collecting and documenting the work of contemporary Native American artists, particularly Oklahoma artists.

“A collection of this nature and quality illustrates the passing down of a tradition. It is not a dead or dying culture, especially with most of these pieces being woven in the 1960s, 70s and 80s,” Leslie said.

Now with the entire collection in the museum’s hands, Leslie considers it a “historical, priceless stand-out collection – a great asset for the museum.”

Unfortunately, Mrs. Parrish passed away in March 2015 before seeing part of her collection staged in the current exhibition. Remembering her fondly, Leslie said, “She was an extraordinary lady.”

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