you have to Try it Out
By Ramona Sakiestewa
At 4, I had a sewing machine and made a lot of clothes for my dolls. I was actually good enough that I could make my own clothes, so by the second grade I was making clothes for myself to wear to school. I remember I cut out a fiesta sort of skirt with a pink top and cut out this rose that had been drapery material and I embroidered that onto my skirt. That was one of my favorite pieces. I thought it was fantastic! I was always good at making things. Everything I did was a kind of an enhanced art project.
At 7, I had a lot of epiphanies. I realized then that I was of in control of my mother's life and mine. It was one of those moments, like, "Oh, I'm going to be an artist," and I never really thought about it again until I got into my twenties.
Textiles and fabric were always really interesting to me. I started doing replications of prehistoric textiles for places like Bandelier National Monument and for museums, and then I started weaving for myself. As I moved into other work in other mediums like copper and glass and other architectural projects, I was always putting woven elements into them. I like the idea of having this little bit of woven history. I think people forget that their seatbelts are woven in a particular pattern for strength and durability. When you go into space they have special woven fabrics. The Japanese have perfected all of these triple-layered, specially spun synthetic fabrics that wick moisture away from your body so you don't freeze when you go up Everest or into space. There are so many things that we just don't even look at that are still woven exactly as they were hundreds of years ago, but they are used in technology or they are used in a new format. We just don't think about weaving; we think about technology. For me, it's really interesting; I think it's a really interesting metaphor. It's literally like a thread through history that you can attach many things to. Fireproof fabric, lightweight fabrics, imperial clothing — there is nothing you can't reference back to weaving at some point.
I was doing arts administration in my twenties and into my early thirties. Then I just decided one day that I was going to open up a weaving studio. I did a business plan and figured that I could do something with it. It was in the '80s, so it wasn't the best financial time, but it worked out for me. I don't think I could have picked a harder thing to try to sell, though, because weaving is considered a craft and not an art form, by and large. A lot of people don't relate to it at all. It's tough to get museum shows because they want you to approach craft museums or, in my case, ethnographic museums: "Oh, you're an Indian, so why don't you go show with natural history museums?" So after many years, I've decided having shows with whales and starfishes is not a bad environment to be in, but it's not the same drive I have for showing in contemporary art museums as a contemporary art medium. The only time people get shows for weaving and it's a big deal is when someone commissions an atelier in Europe to weave a Picasso or Matisse painting and then it's a big deal.
I remember working for a woman, Gloria Ross, who is Helen Frankenthaler's sister, for quite a few years, weaving the work of Kenneth Noland, who is a contemporary artist — and it was at that point I thought, "They're doing weaving because they have run out of media to produce in; I'm doing weaving because I love it. They're doing painting and other things because they like that better." And it's like, "Well, now that I've done that, I'll do printmaking. Oh, and maybe I'll do a sculpture," and at the very bottom of the list is weaving, so they do a tapestry. It's kind of this poor stepchild approach to it, which I don't see at all. I see it at the forefront. It's as good as painting.
Getting a job at the National Museum of the American Indian was a big moment for me. And it just fell out of the sky. An architect asked me if I would participate in a project and go on his team. He found my name through the Heard Museum, which keeps a file of Native American artists that he contacted me through and put me on his team. I got to be a designer for that building in architectural elements, which I have never done but I just thought it was so much fun. This whole architectural part of my evolution really impacted my life, not realizing how much interest I had throughout my life in architecture, that three-dimensional look at how things are made. I feel like architecture can transform the way people think and feel and move in a space. When everything else is gone it's the walls that are still standing. What do you see? What does it tell you about what went on in that space? It's a visual architecture poem in a space.
In 2009 I stopped weaving and now am still doing painting and works on paper. I now have work up at TAI Modern in Santa Fe, New Mexico. So my next adventure is with product design. I have this single drive to somehow get Native American design into the open market. Native American design should be authentic, and we, Native Americans, should have a place at the table. We don’t. We keep getting knocked off, and things keep getting reproduced. Some things are wonderful, but it ought to be our oyster too.
Every year I make a list of what I have accomplished and what I haven't. When you work by yourself a lot I think it's really important that you document your accomplishments, just because you forget. And in those dark periods of conflict, then you think about something you did and think, "Well, I did that, so there," and you just go on. And during moments of adversity, well, I just eat chocolate cake. That's my cure.
I think as artists we have to be prepared to reinvent ourselves many times. You can't just be on one track to financially survive as an artist. I think there has been a real bias to do just painting or just one thing. I am all about doing all of it. Just do it all. Just try it out. I think people are shocked when they find out Georgia O'Keefe did Dole advertising or Salvador Dali did advertising illustrations for Hanes Hosiery — but those are bread and butter moments and it's a completely different thing than your own artwork. You just have to step away and say, "Oh, yeah, I'll do that." Have you ever seen the movie "Galaxy Quest"? It has the best piece of advice: "Never give up; never surrender," if it's something you really feel passionate about.
Ramona is a contemporary Native American artist renowned for her tapestries, works-on-paper, and for her public art/architectural installations. She is a self-taught weaver using prehistoric Pueblo techniques from the American Southwest and was invited to join the architectural design team for the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Mall Museum, where she created a design vocabulary for the project and collaboratively designed architectural elements for the museum. She is the recipient of numerous awards for her artwork, including the New Mexico Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts, the Governor's Outstanding New Mexico Woman's Award, induction into New Mexico Women's Hall of Fame, the New Mexico Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and a selected artist for Gift to the Nation, Friends of Art and Preservation in Embassies, Washington, D.C. Her current work still includes architectural design and works-on-paper, which gives her the opportunity to work from micro to macro scale, and she continues to explore themes that are based in her own cultural shapes, divination, and astronomical themes. Follow @ramonasakiestewa. Read more about Ramona's work here. Visit the Smithsonian Store.
Words: Ramona Sakiestewa