Award winning Navajo weaver Isabel John and her husband Frank were killed seven years ago in an automobile accident. In our opinion, she was one of America’s most important artists.
Isabel, who was 71 at the time, was known for her pictorial weavings that depicted traditional Navajo life. She completely changed the way people look at pictorial weavings. They were no longer just interesting or fun depictions of pick-up trucks or two dimensional “Grandma Moses” type weavings. They became serious art.
You would never see a pickup, trailer home or satellite dish in her weavings. She wanted people to see what life was like for the Navajo before modern conveniences came to the reservation.
She is represented in many of the finest museums in the country. One of her weavings toured the United States and Europe as part of the Lost and Found Traditions collection. She was a guest artist at the opening of the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe.
Isabell was recognized as a serious artist with long term impact on her art form while she was still alive, a rare accomplishment.
We have just received a very impressive piece of Isabel’s. In 1973, Walter Kennedy was the owner of the Dinnehotso Trading Post on the Navajo reservation. His son, Ivan, had recently started working for his father and Walter was out of the post when Isabel John walked in.
“She had this beautiful weaving,” said Ivan, who believes it was one of her first pictorial pieces. “I ended up paying her $3500.00 for it and when Dad got back he really hit the ceiling. He said that no rug was worth that much money.”
But Walter also fell in love with the piece and ended up keeping it in his private museum long after he’d sold the trading post.
It wasn’t long after this that my father, Jackson Clark Sr., met Isabel and “I think that was the last time we bought a rug from her,” said Ivan.
Dad and Walter were friends and did business for many years. Dad would never go to a weaver’s home if she was selling someone else her rugs, but if they came to his office in Durango, that changed the picture. He and Isabel became great friends and Dad even made a film with the Denver Museum of Natural History featuring Isabel and her family.
So, after 39 years in Walter’s museum, we are delighted to present this weaving for sale. It is a beautiful piece woven with hand spun wool and colored with vegetal and aniline dyes. It is a classic scene depicting the people cooking over the fire and the livestock around the home. Later in her career, Isabel usually put every cow or sheep on their own patch of grass. This scene doesn’t show that! It is 71″ x 40″ in size and is in perfect condition.
We also have a wonderful piece by Isabel’s daughter-in-law that was woven about 8 or 9 years ago. Genita was married to Isabel’s son Dennison and learned the art of pictorial weaving from Isabel. Dennison died in an accident several years before Isabel passed away, but Genita continued to weave the pictorial scenes. Today she only weaves occasionally.
In this piece, you can see Isabel’s influence, but also it is easy to recognize Genita’s artistic ability. She also tended to frame her pieces more dramatically and her colors seemed to have more contrast. It is also woven with hand spun yarn and uses both vegetal and aniline dyes.
We also have available the DVD of the film made with Isabel demonstrating weaving at her home in Many Farms, Arizona. It is called, “The Art of Navajo Weaving” and includes two films, the one with Isabel and one with Jackson Clark Sr. and Mark Winter doing a walk through of the “Durango Collection,” at one time the most complete private collection of Navajo and Southwest weaving in existence.
Today the collection is housed at the Center for Southwest Studies at Fort Lewis College in Durango. This film is a fun way to learn the history of Navajo weaving. The DVD is $19.95.
Isabel was an incredible artist, a good friend and a tough bargainer! You never bought a rug from Isabel in less than an hour.
She would be serious and hard as nails as you went back and forth on the price you were going to pay for her latest work. As soon as you shook hands on a deal, she was all smiles. Somehow, I don’t think I ever came out on top in a single negotiation, but I never regretted buying a single weaving from her.
When you realize that in her lifetime she wove fewer pieces than a watercolor artist can do in a couple of months, it is amazing the impact she had on Navajo weaving.