After several months of preparation among Riki Saltzman and Makaela Kroin at Oregon Folklife Network, Nancy Nusz in France, and myself in Texas, November was soon upon us. It was time to begin our fieldwork in a five-county area in and around Portland.
In my latest round of fieldwork interviews for OFN, two tradition keepers—one from Amity in Yamhill County, the other from Sandy in Clackamas County—stand out in my mind as much for their artistry as for their steadfast resolve to honor, through their work, those who came before them.
Holding a woven basket, in the words of folk and traditional artist Stephanie Wood, “is being able to hold history.” The object embodies the accumulated knowledge that tradition keepers have transmitted through time and space, from one basket maker to the next. In the ideal sense, as experience is gained, the emerging artist advances incrementally from apprentice to master. For most, this entails a lifetime of commitment.
The stories that her Grande Ronde family members shared gave Stephanie Wood her sense of purpose. As she reached adulthood, she could no longer ignore her family’s basket-making tradition—seven generations deep on her mother’s side. Besides her early and informal apprenticeships with elders on the reservation, Wood has studied under three of the most accomplished basket makers in Oregon—Minerva Soucie of the Burns-Paiute Tribe, Pat Courtney Gold (Wasco), and anthropologist Margaret Mathewson. With an insistence on authenticity, Wood now harvests all her own material—beet hazel, sandbar and gray willow, juncus, tully, and cattails—all from secret gathering spots. Wood’s baskets embody nature’s gifts as well as intangibles: her feelings, her good heart, even the laughter and stories that played out as the work evolved. They are all embodied in the finished work.
Adorned with the traditional “111” tattoo on her chin, Wood honors her Native heritage as well as the womanhood, beauty, and strength she brings to her craft.
Francisco Bautista’s wooden floor loom, brought from Mexico, dominates his modest workshop. On the walls his weavings come alive in splashes of sunlight. Bautista was raised in Teotitlán del Valle, a village outside of Oaxaca City, Mexico, known for its weaving tradition. Bautista is a fourth-generation weaver; when he was 10 his father started his son’s formal instruction in this family trade.
“At first, I began working on the fringes of his weavings, tying the threads one at a time…. As my passion for weaving grew, he would sit with me at his loom and show me the rhythm and beauty of weaving.”
Keeping the weaving tight and straight on the edges is a must. “Weave it like a man,” his father would say. For Bautista it is the heart, not the head, that brings forth the true inspiration for the work. As he was taught, Bautista begins each weaving with the sign of the cross at each corner. When all is done—although they have yet to meet—the buyer in Bautista’s mind is foreordained, soon to take a part of his family, a part of his ancestry, a part of him.