Contemporary Tradition: Melissa Cody Visits the de Young’s Navajo Textile Collection
Like any artist, December Artist-in-Residence Melissa Cody diligently does her research, and like a true innovator, she’s aware that you need to know the rules in order to break them. A fourth-generation Navajo weaver, Cody’s residency focuses on weaving and its relationship to communities and their environments. Although the main part of her residency takes place in public, she is also conducting research behind the scenes at the de Young.
Last week Cody spent time with museum staff carefully studying Navajo weavings in the Textile Arts collection. Cody looked closely at the varied techniques and stylistic choices of skilled weavers who came before her—much of which is not obvious to the untrained eye.
A specialist in the Germantown Revival style of weaving, Cody was particularly interested in the de Young’s strong sampling of late 19th-century examples of this type of weaving. According to Jill D’Alessandro, curator of costume and textile arts, the term “Germantown” refers to the commercially manufactured dyed wool yarn produced in Germantown, Pennsylvania and supplied to Navajo weavers on government-sanctioned reservations in the Southwest.
As part of a forced migration by the US Army, many Native American tribal groups were driven from their homes to regions in the West. Germantown wool yarn was provided to Navajo weavers living on the Bosque Redondo reservation in central-eastern New Mexico. Steadfastly continuing their cultural traditions, Navajo weavers adapted the use of this new material, shifting their textile production from subsistence use and trade among tribes to commercial purposes. Navajo weavers began to create rugs that suited the tastes of Anglo rug dealers and collectors. Adversity did not diminish Navajo cultural expression, and response to commercial interests led to a wholly new and innovative approach to an honored tradition.
In the Navajo culture, weaving is women’s work, a tradition traced back to the primordial Spider Woman, who is believed to have woven the cosmos on a loom using sunbeams, lightning bolts, and rainbows. Cody acquired her technical skills from a long line of masterful artists who encouraged her to start weaving at a very young age. Cody was first introduced to the Germantown style as an adolescent by a family friend who was also a rug trader, and she has been working in the style ever since.
Now at the vanguard of a new generation of weavers pursuing the practice as fine art, Cody is contributing new ideas to this ever-evolving art form. Imbuing her original compositions with both historical references and contemporary art influences, Cody begins each piece with a general thesis in mind, but allows the final composition to coalesce on the loom. She uses traditional Germantown patterns and color palates, but deconstructs them by incorporating unusual color schemes and juxtaposing bold, sharp lines with non-traditional symbolism. Using geometric overlay and playing with scale, she enhances the dimensionality of each design, reworking it into a new composition.
For her residency at the de Young, Cody is developing a body of work in response to the contamination of ground water on the Navajo reservation. Threads of Rain makes a statement about water—an element essential for all humankind—but also addresses concern for those living in the desert landscape.
Join Melissa Cody in the Artist Studio from December 5–27, 2012, Wednesdays–Sundays 1–5 pm.