Bursts of radiant energy seem to be emanating from the central star image in Alicia Nelson’s most recent basket. The dramatic black and white geometric image reflects the night skies over Navajo country, where stars seem closer and brighter than other places.
Alicia Nelson - Basketweaver: Young and vulnerable to other's opinions, Alicia Nelson has nonetheless learned to trust her own instincts, and this has served her well as she has gone from being an apprentice basket weaver to an artist in her own right. Alicia trained under her mother-in-law, the famous Mary Holiday Black, recipient of the National Endowments 1995 Arts Heritage Award and fellowship. Living next to Mary, Alicia is very much influenced by the master basket weaver, who still "gives pointers," but now it is Alicia who helps Mary. Together they gather sumac from along the river for weaving. Alicia helps Mary with splitting the willows and peeling the bark. "While I am helping her she tells me stories about the past," says Alicia, "How she and her family used to work with the sumac." Alicia is one of only an estimated two dozen Navajo weavers who incorporate pictorial images into their baskets.
Born in the Shiprock, New Mexico, Alicia Nelson was raised in a traditional Navajo home, but there were some things she would be surprised to learn when she met Navajos from other areas of the reservation.
"I graduated from Red Mesa High School," Alicia says, "and attended one year at the College of Eastern Utah, San Juan Campus." That is when she became acquainted with Jonathan Holiday. "When I met Jonathan, his family was well known for their basket weaving. I never even knew Navajos made baskets. I thought the Hopi tribe made baskets, and we made Navajo rugs and sand paintings, because that's what my family does. Jonathan's family laughed at me because I didn't know Navajos made baskets."
It's not really surprising that Alicia didn't know Navajos made baskets; for several generations the art of basket weaving among the Navajos was nearly extinct. Mary Holiday Black learned to weave as a child and was one of the few who continued the practice. She taught her eleven children- and anyone else who was interested to weave, preserving and enhancing the tribal custom.
When Alicia married Jonathan, his family was eager to teach her the tribal craft. Alicia had learned how to weave Navajo rugs when she was a young girl, and the transition to weaving baskets was not entirely difficult for her. "I like the way baskets come out," she comments. "You have to really, really concentrate on rugs. I have fun with baskets."
Three years ago, when she first began, baskets were not so easy. Her first ones were woven too tight and pulled into a bowl shape, but she was still able to sell them. she watched her in-laws carefully as they worked. "When I watched them weave and saw how they moved their hands, it made me want to do the same thing," Alicia says.
On her fourth try, Alicia was able to make a simple traditional basket. She quickly produced ten duplicates of that basket. Then she and her husband were out on Douglas Mesa, the family homeland, tending sheep. Jonathan left to go with the sheep. Knowing it would be a few days before he returned, and being by herself, Alicia decided to try making a design basket. She looked out the window and studied the landscape. She thought about the beauties of nature and what flower she thought was most beautiful.
When Jonathan returned she showed him her finished "Rose Basket." "Don't try it again," Jonathan advised her. "Stick with regular baskets until you get better."
"I'm going to keep on doing this," Alicia stubbornly told him. She smiles at the memory when she tells how she showed the basket to Jonathan's mother. "Mary was impressed with it," Alicia recalls, "She liked the piece." Mary endeared herself to Alicia and Alicia says, "Now I go to Mary and ask her if I can make (a particular) design before I do any basket weaving."
She is referring to her pictorial baskets that feature Navajo symbols. Some symbols are sacred and should not be replicated. Alicia depends on Mary's judgment as to what she should and shouldn't do. She also depends on traditional Navajo ceremonies to protect her from witchcraft. "I have a medicine man or lady give a simple ceremony after finishing a basket or two," she says.
Having woven baskets for three years, Alicia has a system. She has a book about basket weaving which she says she reads from time to time. She draws a design on paper and then hangs it on the wall so she can study it and think about it. Her husband, also a weaver, may give her suggestions.
"From the beginning I think about it," Alicia admits. "Then I talk to it too." As she works on it she says she thinks about the Navajo's past, and what the baskets mean to the people. "When my hands start hurting (from weaving), I tell them not to ache like this."
"I want to weave the perfect basket," Alicia says. "Each one I do, I try to make perfect."