A pilgrimage to see the Two Grey Hills/Toadlena weavings

On March 15, Penny Tschantz dropped a couple of comments on my January 17 post about recording the rare-breeds DVD set for Interweave. In one, she told me about a book, Dreaming of Sheep in Navajo Country by Marsha Weisiger. I now have a copy, although I haven't had time to start reading it. In another, she mentioned an exhibit of Two Grey Hills/Toadlena-style Navajo weavings that has been installed at the Wheelwright Museum in Santa Fe but is closing April 17.

It's amazing that this exhibit has been up for most of a year (since May 15, 2010) and I hadn't heard about it. That just goes to show how intense the book project has been. (Oh, yeah, I remember May 2010. And the months following. Sort of.) I guess I can forgive myself for having missed the news about the textile installation. And thank Penny for letting me know in time to make a quick, not altogether responsible, trip! (Not responsible because the undone work piled up here is deep and needs all the shoveling time I can give it.)

Last night I got back from a four-day trip that involved 1302 miles of driving (really? that's what the odometer says) and two days of visiting the Wheelwright. My brain got full both days. I had thought I'd go to the Wheelwright one day, and maybe see something else the other day. Nope. Had to go back and spend more time with the textiles.

What I can't show here is the weavings themselves. No photos permitted in the exhibit, and, alas, no catalog. I can talk about the trip, and give some hints about the rugs and tapestries.

First, Two Grey Hills/Toadlena weavings come from a certain part of the Navajo Nation, in its eastern portion. They emphasize the use of handspun yarn in natural colors, much of which comes from Navajo Churro sheep. Within an exquisite textile tradition, they are some of the most extraordinary works. They are associated with two trading posts, the Two Grey Hills Trading Post (about ten miles off US highway 666) and the Toadlena Trading Post, which is about six miles farther toward the Chuska Mountains. You can see photos of Two Grey Hills-style weavings on both posts' sites.

I've been fortunate to have visited both trading posts, more than once, and have seen work by some of the weavers featured at the Wheelwright. I even had the incredible opportunity to accompany trader Mark Winter of Toadlena on visits where I met two of the weavers and saw their work in progress. These were top-of-the-heap life experiences.

Second, I've woven a Navajo-style textile. A fairly long time ago, using information provided by Noel Bennett that reflects the teachings she received from Tiana Bighorse, I made an upright, Navajo-style loom, warped it, and beat the weft into place. Some time I will write more about that experience. Mine is not, of course, in any way a Navajo textile: and as always when I work to learn with my hands the ways of traditions that are not a direct part of my own heritage, I designed my rug (it's a rug, not a tapestry) in ways that make it clear that it's neither a copy of a Navajo work nor an attempt to imitate one directly. The colors are different and the ways my patterning goes together are different. No one would mistake my work for a "real" Navajo textile, even though I wove it on the appropriate type of loom; it has four selvedges; and so on. By making it, I learned the techniques and developed an intimate understanding of the interplay of work and creativity in the creation of masterpieces like those that the Navajo weavers produce.

Third . . . I just had to go to Santa Fe. Even though the trip made no rational sense. I remembered my experiences from my travels within the Navajo Nation in the mid-1990s. I thought about timing. I calculated fuel costs. I researched inexpensive lodging, and the presence of a hostel began to bring the trip into focus. Then my friend Susan Tweit forwarded me a coupon that allowed me to book a stay at the Sage Inn for just a bit more than the hostel would have cost and with a superb location. The Wheelwright is open both Sunday afternoons and (very unusual for a museum) on Mondays. I cleared a space from a Saturday morning through a Tuesday.

Here's part of the sunset on the drive down:


It's only appropriate that the place where I stayed was enhanced by relatively very simple, yet still warming, Navajo (rug) and at least Navajo-influenced (pillows) textiles.


There was even room for yoga, which might have been iffy at the hostel.


(My yoga strap dates from about the same era as my Navajo-style rug, which my mother now owns. The strap is cardwoven, from 5/2 perle cotton.)

While I was planning the trip, I located a wonderful bikeways map of Santa Fe in PDF form. Its only drawbacks were that it is LARGE and the color is absolutely essential to using it. My printer handles 8.5×11 sheets of paper and prints in black and white. I wrote an e-mail note to "Project Administrator, Bicycle and Trails Committee," asking how I might be able to get my hands on a printed copy of the map.

The tricky part, of course, was that I would be arriving in Santa Fe about 8 p.m. on a Saturday night, and would want to bike Sunday morning, well before the museum opened for the afternoon. I learned that the map is available at bike shops, but much web-surfing revealed to me that almost all of Santa Fe's bike emporia are closed on Sundays. Robert Siqueiros, Projects Administrator of the Engineering Division of the Public Works Department, came to my rescue and helped me connect with the right map at the right time. Because of his help, my car rested at the motel from the time I checked in to the time I checked out.

I could not have done the riding (or car-resting) without the help of the map. It got battered because I kept having to pull it out of my back pocket and unfold it to read it under what were pretty windy conditions.


I got lost a number of times, but because of the map I got found again quickly enough and could continue on my way, whether I was just exploring or whether I had a destination, like the museum, the entrance to which looks like this if you bike up Camino Lejo just past Corrales:


The museum itself isn't visible in that photo. Here's how I knew I had reached my destination:


Open at 1 on Sundays. I arrived at 1:03, without really intending to . . . I'd taken the long route, simply setting out on an exploration and still with half an idea that I was going to drive the car to Museum Hill, because it is uphill, and I wasn't sure how I'd deal with the wind, the extra 2,000+ feet of altitude, and the wrong turns I took on the trails ("Bikeway ends" and "No access except by government employees" required backtracking). Yet one mile after another, I kept going, and then . . . I was there! At exactly the optimal time!

The docent who was serving as gallery host, Judith Beery, is knowledgeable and enthusiastic, and we had a great conversation. Then I spent two and a half hours in the exhibit before I needed to take a break.

There are 37 textiles (I counted on Monday; Sunday I was just too enchanted to be analytical), representing 31 weavers, including:

  • Bessie Manygoats (c. 1900-1964), 4 weavings
  • Daisy Taugelchee (1911-1990), 3 weavings
  • Clara Sherman (1914-2010), 2 weavings and a video of her spinning process

And one each:

  • unknown (weaving from about 1910)
  • unknown (weaving from about 1910, a second one)
  • unknown (weaving from about 1950)
  • Blind Man's Wife (? – 1914)
  • Mrs. Police Boy (1865-1965)
  • Frank Gould (? – 1944)
  • Mary Yanabah Curley (1877-1977)
  • Yellow Moustache's Wife (c. 1885 – c. 1955)
  • Esther Silentman (1903-1991)
  • Susie Tom (1903-1985)
  • Helena Taugelchee Nez Begay (1904-1965)
  • Katherine Nathaniel (no dates; weaving c. 1950)
  • Yazzie Blackhorse (1913-1965)
  • Cora Curley (b. 1916)
  • Elizabeth Billie (b. 1920)
  • Rose Mike (b. 1925)
  • Virginia Deal (b. 1926)
  • Mary Ann Foster (b. 1926)
  • Evelyn George (b. 1928)
  • Julia Jumbo (1928-2007)
  • Rose Curley (b. 1929)
  • Margaret Yazzie (b. 1929)
  • Elizabeth Mute (b. 1932 or 1933)
  • Salina Dale (b. 1935)
  • Emma Benally (b. 1938)
  • Mary Louise Gould (b. 1935)
  • Barbara Ornelas (b. 1954)
  • Angeline Silentman (b. 1955)

I have listed the weavers in the "one each" group not in the order their work was presented in the exhibit, but according to recorded or approximate birth dates. I took down their names and dates when I went back on Monday.

I could have spent many more hours examining these works of art, which were hung and lit in ways that made them glow like stained glass.

With the time I had, I looked closely at the weaving techniques, and admired the absolute mastery and individually inventive ways of approaching the geometry of the loom: the right-angled intersection of warps and wefts, and each weaver's intensive discovery of how to work with that geometry, doing Olympic-level backflips and perfect landings with pattern elements, and in some cases to also create curvilinear forms that adroitly escape the grid.

And I explored the use of color, mostly the natural sheep colors (with only occasional, very small, accents of red or turquoise). Some weavers chose to blend the colors completely, smoothing out any variations within particular color areas. Others, of equal technical skill, chose to blend more roughly, but then used the varying shades in ways that create an exceptionally lively quality. The approaches were equally breathtaking.

Of course, I also looked intently at the quality of the wool and the spinning. Some of the yarns, and I think this is characteristic of Navajo Churro, have a silk-like shine and seem to glow. I know the resulting yarns are durable as well as beautiful. The sheep produce an exceptional type of fiber, and the weavers whose work is on display at the Wheelwright have worked over generations, as a lineage and as individuals, to create an evolving and inspiring body of work that depends on, and makes the most of, that material.

I sat on the floor and looked and looked.

On Monday morning, I went back again and spent more time with a handful of rugs, sketching motifs to remind myself of some of the details. I had to leave far too soon, having done only a scrap of the observing and note-taking and sketching that I wanted to do, after having been in the presence of these 37 works for a total of four and a half hours. Not nearly enough to be "done" with seeing them, but as much as I could physically handle in the available time and plenty to reward the decision to get to Santa Fe while the exhibit was accessible to me.

Outside the museum's entry is this sculpture, "Heading Home" by Allen C. Houser.


Here's how I felt about the trip (one of a long series of painted walls seen from the the multiuse path as I rode my bike):


And here's one of my favorite buildings on the highways I took back north:


It's located in La Jara, Colorado, between Antonito and Alamosa.

Thanks, Penny. It was an absolutely amazing trip. And I never would have known to take it if you hadn't told me. Thanks, Susan, for the Sage Inn. It's right across from the bike path, next door to a healthy grocery store, and a few blocks from Body, where I ate my only Santa Fe restaurant meal, and a fine (and reasonably priced) choice it was.


Now I need to deal with some of that piled-up work. It waited for me (and multiplied a bit while I wasn't looking).


15 thoughts on “A pilgrimage to see the Two Grey Hills/Toadlena weavings”

  1. I’m so glad you made up your mind to go, Deb! And relieved that you found the exhibit worth the trip. Even though my experience of the weavings was far less educated than yours, I was deeply affected by it. I think what I most clearly felt (and still feel) was the way the weavings seem to reflect the landscape where they were created (including the sheep, their history, and the Navajo sense of sacred places). I loved it and am happy that you did, too.


  2. Joy, you’re most welcome for the tour. If (or when) you have a chance to see Two Grey Hills/Toadlena weaving, don’t hesitate!

    Penny, I am incredibly grateful for your tip. I have even more to say about what I saw and felt, and will be working to find time to write up a longer piece.

    It was also a pleasure, since I was there so long, to hear the discussions between the docent on duty and the more casual visitors, some of whom were there just because they’d planned a skiing trip but there wasn’t any snow. EVERYONE was blown away. The docents/hosts did help, by providing an optional introduction to the exhibit which almost all of the visitors said yes to.

    One of the founders of the Wheelwright Museum was Hastiin Klah, himself an exceptional weaver who specialized in representations of sand paintings (altered to record the basics without violating the essence). He was from the Two Grey Hills area. http://www.wheelwright.org/about.html

    There is also an exhibit at the museum of a contemporary artist who works in jewelry; her name is Liz Wallace, and she is making amazing pieces–what’s on the website only suggests the unique beauty of her work.

    Yeah, Penny, it was absolutely fantastic. No relief required: I took the risk of going, and since I had seen work by these weavers before, I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed, even if what I saw was what I’d seen before. Disappointment was not an option. Once I was en route, the outcome was assured. I just didn’t have a clue how MUCH wonder I would experience.

  3. I’m so glad it worked out for you to make the trip! I have the sense that the inspiration will feed into some project along the way. And I’m glad we could help out with the Sage Inn coupon and the cottage. Hope the shoveling of projects is going well…

  4. The trip is already feeding some projects, Susan. Thanks so much. The only hard part about the cottage was leaving! I would have been so productive there. But if I had stayed longer I would have needed a backhoe to move the work at home, rather than a big shovel.

  5. Sometimes a trip does more than one expects-it offers renewed energy, inspiration, and joy. It sounds like this is exactly what you experienced in Santa Fe…I’m so glad you went! It’s hard NOT to be inspired by the amazing skills of the Dine (accent missing there)/Navajo weavings…truly amazing.

    Am having a “lucky” day here–I’ve received two packages by post that I thought were lost forever, and your post was like a third present. Thank you.

  6. Ooh, Leslie, glad you got to see a proof! If that was the version I think it was, it's gotten even better {grin}. Yes, it was FANTASTIC to go see the weavings.

  7. Deb, I got out “Dreaming of Sheep” to look through again, and my notes directed me to a specific discussion of the history of the Navajo Churro breed beginning at the bottom of page 191. I first read the book for a course on Navajo history and culture that I was teaching, and in my memory it contained more about the actual sheep than it probably does. I hope you’re not disappointed. I still think it’s an excellent book.


  8. Not a problem, Penny, if there is only a small amount about the sheep. I'm always interested in the cultural and environmental contexts as well. If a book even ACKNOWLEDGES that there are sheep and they're important, it's a big plus! Um, I've even tried to learn to speak Navajo. It went well enough that I was able to say "thank you" and get a burst of Navajo back that I couldn't understand (but was pleased at my attempt, as was the person I said thanks to). Would love to have an excuse and opportunity to learn enough to comprehend more. That may or may not ever happen. Anyway, I'm not just interested in the wool. . . .

  9. You sent me on a journey back in time, and a vague remembrance, of something my mom mentioned as a sign:

    Monday thru Saturday, 8 am-6pm or by appointment. If the store is closed, rug buyers should drive to the rear and honk persistently.

    One of her students parents wasn’t a buyer, but a weaver, and did the same thing….now I have to plan a journey, to refresh and rejuvenate…thank you!

  10. Yes, I love the "honk persistently" message. It's definitely there–on the web page as well as the building! At Two Grey Hills (rather than Toadlena) trading post.

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