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Dazzling Pictorials

Dazzling Pictorials

Diné fiber artist and sheepherder Tyrrell Tapaha combines the traditional with the personal.

Dazzling Pictorials

Diné fiber artist and sheepherder Tyrrell Tapaha combines the traditional with the personal.
Summer 2023 issue of American Craft magazine
A person sitting at a weave.

Tyrrell Tapaha works on Áadęę’ Hózhógoo Dooleeł: Cerebral Renaissance, a 2023 weaving that features text message bubbles and a “whirling log” pattern, sometimes referred to as a swastika. The whirling log is a Navajo sandpainting motif that’s part of a healing ceremony called Nightway. It represents well-being. Photo by Roshii Montaño.

A person sitting at a weave.

Tyrrell Tapaha works on Áadęę’ Hózhógoo Dooleeł: Cerebral Renaissance, a 2023 weaving that features text message bubbles and a “whirling log” pattern, sometimes referred to as a swastika. The whirling log is a Navajo sandpainting motif that’s part of a healing ceremony called Nightway. It represents well-being. Photo by Roshii Montaño.

Tyrrell Tapaha sits in front of a large Navajo loom in their living room, building up a section of woven lightning; the weaving comb packs the wefts in meditative rhythm. A wood-burning stove heats the room as the sixth-generation Diné (Navajo) weaver and fiber artist adds to their latest piece, Áadęę’ Hózhógoo Dooleeł: Cerebral Renaissance, on a cool afternoon in Flagstaff, Arizona.

The weaving, composed of commercial and handspun vegetal-dyed Navajo-Churro fleece, mohair, alpaca, and merino, depicts a fragmented composition of memory and place that pulses through every aspect of the textile. A brilliant white-and-black lightning current is boldly integrated into the multicolored eye-dazzler design that reverberates from a blue-and-green pictorial landscape. A personal vignette is positioned at the center, caught within the lightning. The familiar iMessage text bubbles read, “where you are is so freaking amazing” and “as are you” with the “...” typing-in-progress bubble.

“I’ve been venturing into visual abstraction,” Tapaha says. “In just taking pieces, breaking them apart, and putting them back together in some type of amorphous figure. That’s something that I want to play around with—the planning system in my head is very collage-esque.”

Tapaha, from the Four Corners area, is distinctly connected to the Carrizo Mountains on the Colorado Plateau, near T’iis Názbąs (Teec Nos Pos), Arizona. They inherited sheepherding and weaving practices from their great-grandmother, Mary Kady Clah, and other relatives. “It started with helping carding, helping with the spinning, and mechanically becoming familiar with a lot of these tools, and that’s also the breadth that has carried through this generational work for me,” they say. “I’ve taken a lot of responsibility in reclaiming and giving life to the tools I’ve inherited—both rhetorical and mechanical tools.”

“I’ve taken a lot of responsibility in reclaiming and giving life to the tools I’ve inherited—both rhetorical and
mechanical tools.”

Tyrrell Tapaha

Two hands using a weaving comb.

Tapaha uses a weaving comb to pack down the weft of the lightning section on Áadęę’ Hózhógoo Dooleeł:
Cerebral Renaissance
. Photo by Roshii Montaño.

In 2022, Tapaha received the prestigious Brandford/Elliott Award for Excellence in Fiber Art. Their work has been covered in publications including the Navajo Times, Hyperallergic, and the Baltimore Sun and is being diligently collected by institutions across the country.

Tapaha obtained knowledge by observing, listening, and feeling at a young age. They describe the landscape of the Carrizo Mountains as an “ecological paradise” in which their ancestors and family members preserve an instinctual methodology of care. Walking the land with relatives such as their Cheii (grandfather by clan) Roy Kady, a master weaver and sheepherder, they learned about plants that could be used for dyes and medicinal use. “Something that someone has taken the time to explain, I haven’t forgotten since,” Tapaha says.

Navajo-Churro sheep, historically adapted to the desert environment, have been tended by generations of Diné families across the Southwest. Tapaha, who likens tending the sheep to being a “nonverbal camp counselor,” explains that pastoralism has sustained the way of life of the Diné people, but it can also be understood as a radical relationship that has endured colonial intervention—an ever-changing practice of survivance that re-centers them on the ecological landscape. In the Navajo language, the saying Diné be’ iiná—meaning “the way that we live, the way that we are”—is related to the Diné practices of sheepherding and weaving.

Tapaha weaves on a traditional vertical Navajo-style loom that relies on hand manipulation and tools such as a batten to create a shed to move the yarn through the warp, and a weaving comb that packs the weft. They dry plants found in northern Arizona and southern Utah for dyeing mostly handspun Navajo-Churro wool and Navajo Angora mohair. Raw fiber materials such as alpaca as well as bast fibers like cotton, hemp, and flax were the catalyst for Tapaha’s most recent artistic challenge. “Roy [Kady] and I did one of the only Navajo textiles with Navajo-Churro and hemp,” they say. “That was one of the biggest learning curves.”

While Tapaha is inspired by the visual traditions established before them, they want to contribute their own legacy. Their most recent work has taken inspiration from Brooklyn-based tapestry weaver Erin M. Riley and environmental artist Neil Goss, who integrates long-strand raw, exposed fiber into his backstrap-woven textiles.

Generational knowledge is exhibited through refined technical skill and a reinvigorated design element. “This is the first time that those two lightning designs have ever been put together since my great-grandmother passed,” Tapaha says of the textile-in-progress in their living room.

Along the bottom of the weaving, a horizontal row of goat fleece establishes not only the literal foundation of the textile but the metaphorical foundation of Tapaha’s journey as a weaver and sheepherder. The fleece came from the last remaining goat in their great-grandmother’s striped-face flock. “When I first decided that I wanted weaving to be an integral part of my life, [the striped-face goat] was one of the deciding voices in that.”

Tapaha sitting at a weave.

Tapaha weaves Think for Yourself at their great-grandmother’s home in Arizona. Photo courtesy of Bill Hatcher.

A handspun and commercial vegetal-dyed Navajo-Churro and alpaca piece of art.

Think for Yourself, 2022, handspun and commercial vegetal-dyed Navajo-Churro and alpaca, approx. 61 x 42 in. Photo courtesy of Dawson Peters.

Tapaha imbues every element of the textile with life, including the life of the sheep and the energy of the plants, and ends with a living work of art. They weave their artistic and aesthetic pastoral philosophy and personal motivations into a complex fabric, but their practice ultimately begins and ends with the desire to maintain a reciprocal relationship between weaving, the land, and the sheep.

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted spaces where organic and shared knowledge can flourish on the Navajo reservation. Tapaha would like to see “more spaces that hold space,” such as “spin-offs” where Diné cultural innovators, artists, elders, and children can get together. Tapaha and other weavers have benefited from communal exchange—adapting techniques, sharing stories, and sustaining relationships.

“What tools am I bringing forward?” This question, which Tapaha asks frequently, helps distill their motivation as an artist. Tapaha preserves artistic autonomy by integrating the practice of weaving with their active relationship with the land. “It’s my way of homing in and finding some type of harmony,” they say. It’s a complex responsibility that holds weight but also provides an unrestrained space for knowledge that is forever emerging—for the imagination to run wild.◆

@tyrrelltapaha

Roshii Montaño is a Diné scholar and curator based in Phoenix. She is a graduate of Stanford University and an ASU–LACMA master’s fellow in art history.

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This project is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts. To find out more about how National Endowment for the Arts grants impact individuals and communities, visit www.arts.gov.

 

 

 

 

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