The elegant design of the Pima woven basket, with its repeating lizard design, is stunning at first glance. But it takes a deeper understanding of the skills that went into the creation of the basket to fully appreciate it as a work of art.
Kelly Bastone, curator at the Tread of Pioneers Museum, said it's important to American Indian artists that their work be understood in more meaningful ways than superficial beauty.
The Pima basket, which dates to the 1930s, is on display with pottery, textiles and leatherwork from a variety of indigenous cultures in a museum display that continues at the Tread of Pioneers Museum through May. The exhibit is "Crafting the Earth: Native American Masterpieces from the Pleasant Collection." It represents a rare opportunity to see spectacular pieces in a concise collection at a small museum outside a major city.
"Joyce Begay, a well-known Navajo artist, has said you've got to change your commodity view in order to appreciate Native American crafts," Bastone said. "It's not just about the beautiful item on the shelf, it's about the process."
Informational displays in the exhibit bring out the techniques that went into the creation of the pots, baskets and weavings.
American Indian artists approach all aspects of their crafts with a certain reverence, Bastone said. For example, it would be considered inappropriate for an artist to work on a woven blanket when he or she was in a negative frame of mind -- angry or frustrated. All of those qualities contribute to an understanding of the work.
The Pleasant Collection was gathered by Maybell native Johnny Pleasant and later his son, Richard. Johnny Pleasant went on to help start the American Ballet Theater. The Pleasants left the collection to a West Routt couple, Eunice and Farrington Carpenter, who gave it to the Tread of Pioneers Museum. If a museum had to go out and acquire the individual pieces today, Bastone said, it would need to have very deep pockets.
Although the Pleasants had roots in Northwest Colorado, the collection includes very few examples of Northern Ute arts. One notable exception is a beautifully made infant cradleboard. It is wrapped in brain-tanned deer hide, a skill the Utes were famous for among other Plains Indian tribes. The cradleboard also features a meticulously crafted sunshade. The ochre tinting is evidence that it was made for a male child.
Most of the pieces in the collection are post-westward expansionism -- they date from the 1920s, '30s and '40s. However, there are some notable pieces from the 19th century and a couple of examples of prehistoric pottery from the Four Corners region.
Modern collectors think of Navajo weavings in terms of rugs, Bastone said, but before the textiles caught on as collectibles, they were primarily intended for use as blankets or garments.
The Pleasant Collection includes a Navajo woman's shoulder blanket that was worn as a coat and a shawl commonly referred to as a "chief's blanket." It has a collar that extends to lapels resembling a modern man's sport coat. Both are dated to about 1880.
Pottery in the collection includes a dozen pieces. There is a humble prehistoric pot that was obviously well-used next to a spectacular sample of the black polychrome work from Northern New Mexico's San Ildefonso pueblo.
Nearby, a DVD running on continuous loop allows visitors to the exhibit to see how two Acoma potters gather their clay, treat it and form it.
The Tread of Pioneers Museum is in a Victorian style house at Eighth and Oak streets in downtown Steamboat Springs. It's close to dining and shopping in Steamboat's historic shopping district and makes an easy cultural break in the midst of a ski vacation. In addition to the Pleasant Collection, the museum houses a ski museum and displays of pioneer life in Steamboat during the late 19th century.
¤ Crafting the Earth: Native American Masterpieces from the Pleasant Collection
¤ The Tread of Pioneers Museum, Eighth and Oak streets, is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
¤ Admission for the museum is free for Routt County residents or $5 for adults, $4 for seniors ages 62 and older and $1 for children younger than 12.
¤ Call the museum at 879-2214 for more information or special arrangements.