Bending to a challenge: A Tohono O’odham basketmaker shows provocative new work

Published in Indian Country Today in 2006. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle...

“I love a challenge,” said Terrol Dew Johnson, prominent Tohono O’odham basketmaker, of the collection of 14 works he is presenting in cooperation with the New York City architectural firm Aranda/Lasch. The show just opened at Artists Space, in the Soho section of New York City. For nearly two years, said Johnson, he has been communicating via email and phone with Benjamin Aranda and Chris Lasch, who observed Johnson weaving, then fed information on his techniques into an advanced computer program that does not merely render ideas, but also generates them. The trio then executed the designs.

            For two of the works at Artists Space, Aranda and Lasch fabricated convoluted steel knots to which Johnson, shown here, affixed willow, grapevine, cedar, and Maori basketmaking fibers. In other cases, Johnson fabricated the sophisticated, sensuous designs with materials like exotic wood veneers, glass and bronze.

            “Using computers this way is controversial,” said Johnson. “Some Navajo weavers have been criticized for using them to make patterns, for example. But I disagree. The computer is just another tool for the artist.”

            The trio is looking forward to the next stage of the collaboration and new applications for their provocative ideas. Aranda and Lasch have suggested that they design an office for Tohono O’odham Community Action, or TOCA, an organization Johnson runs on his reservation. “They want to use the weaving concept in buildings,” Johnson said. “We might stitch panels together, for example, but we’d be using cable instead of fiber. That really got to me: Native people around the world weave their homes.”

            Johnson’s adventurous projects may take him far from home, but he remembers where he comes from. “It’s easy to get caught up in showing and selling your art,” he said. “Teaching traditional Tohono O’odham basketmaking on the reservation keeps me grounded, though, and helps me balance the two worlds.”

What advice does he give his students? “You can weave anything that bends,” he answered. “And if it doesn’t bend, you bend to it. Which is what happened to me in this project.”

Text and photo c. Stephanie Woodard.

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