By Andreana Donahue and Tim Ortiz
This post was was originally published on Disparate Minds, an ongoing interdisciplinary project that discusses the work of self-taught artists in the context of contemporary art founded by collaborators Andreana Donahue and Tim Ortiz.
We first encountered Miranda Delgai’s unforgettable work on our initial trip west, during our first studio visit outside of Nevada at Hozhoni in Flagstaff, Arizona. We were able to meet Delgai and see many of her weavings in person – work that’s technically astonishing and distinctly singular. These transporting works are defined by imagery that is compelling because of its minimal, idyllic, and genuine nature, while also conveying conceptual elements of materials rooted in tradition and storytelling that Delgai has a direct connection to through her heritage.
Delgai was born in Ganado, Arizona on a Navajo reservation in 1969, the daughter of a schoolteacher and medicine man. Delgai has maintained a prolific studio practice at Hozhoni since 1995, working in various media including ceramics, drawing, painting, and embroidery, but favors weaving. She uses Navajo-Churro wool woven on a traditional Navajo upright loom, reflecting the rich history of weaving in her community and family (who are well-known locally as traditional rug weavers).
Ella Earl, Miranda’s mother, elaborates on the presence of weaving in their immediate family history:
She has both maternal and paternal grandmothers who wove Navajo rugs as well as several aunts and cousins. Miranda’s maternal grandmother, Annabell Earl, specialized in several style of rugs double weave saddle blankets, and Wide Ruins and Klagetoh designs. She used wool from her own flock of sheep and prepared the wool from shearing the sheep, the many steps of making the wool to yarn, and collecting natural dyes that created the awesome natural colors of the yarn. Annabell and her sister at times would combine their talents on the exceptionally larger rugs. One comes to mind, a chief’s blanket at 8’ x 12’ which took them approximately six months. Miranda witnessed most of her grandmother’s activities as a child, and her grandmother never tired of explaining what she was doing. I’m sure as young as Miranda was at that time, she still remembers a lot. Her paternal grandmother, Helen Delgai, is a weaver of rugs and she also makes sash belts which is done on a loom almost like a rug. Mrs. Delgai specialized in the Ganado style of rugs, and she too prepared the wool from her own sheep from start to finish.
Navajo weavings are executed from bottom up on an upright loom that has no moving parts; the warp is one continuous length of yarn, that does not extend beyond the weaving as fringe. Unlike traditional Navajo weaving designs which are primarily based in pattern and fourfold symmetry, Delgai’s work is more akin to the pictorial Navajo weavings of Mary Kee or the Begay family. Delgai constructs a highly personal narrative by depicting imagery from experience and memory, detailing her daily activities, interests, or recollections of family life on the reservation in Ganado; present are birds, domestic landscapes, occasional figures, and sheep. The recurrence of sheep in her work is significant, considering their prominence in the Diné (Navajo) culture:
Diné philosophy, spirituality, and sheep are intertwined like wool in the strongest weaving. Sheep symbolize the Good Life, living in harmony and balance on the land. Before they acquired domesticated sheep on this continent, Diné held the Idea of Sheep in their collective memory for thousands of years…In the high deserts and wooded mountains of Diné Bikéyah (Navajo Land), Diné pastoralists developed the Navajo-Churro breed, which assumed a central role in the People’s psychology, creativity, and religious life. With songs, prayers, and techniques taught to them by Spider Woman and looms first built by Spider Man [using sky, earth, sunrays, rock crystal, and sheet lightning], traditional Navajo weaving evolved to utilize the special qualities of the glossy Navajo-Churro wool. source
Delgai’s work proclaims not only a technical prowess with this medium, but also the joy of making. Focused and committed in her practice, Delgai meticulously works on one piece with few interruptions until it reaches completion (usually spending 8 hours a day, 5 days a week in the studio). The process of weaving is an inherently repetitive and intensive endeavor; inevitably, Delgai’s pieces evoke the virtues of labor, time, and dedication to hand craftsmanship.
Anni Albers articulates fundamental concepts and methods surrounding this medium in On Weaving:
The horizontal-vertical intersecting of these two separate systems of thread is of great consequence for the formative side of weaving. The more clearly this original formation is preserved or stressed in the design, the stronger the weaving will be in those characteristics that set it apart from other techniques. Just as a sculpture of stone that contents itself to live within the limits of its stone nature is superior in formal quality to one that transgresses these limits, so also a weaving that exhibits the origin of its rectangular thread-interlacing will be better than one which conceals its structure and tries, for instance, to resemble a painting. Acceptance of limitations, as a framework rather than a hindrance, is always proof of a productive mind.
There is endless potential for experimentation and design within the limitations of the grid, so weaving requires much planning in order to achieve the desired visual outcome. Delgai creates a preliminary drawing in color, which she places behind her loom as a visual aid, but isn’t rigid in its translation; she has an improvisational approach to imagery and color choices while working, indicating an incredibly intuitive and skillful relationship with this slow and systematic process. Delgai has a natural ability to balance both the complex structure and flexibility inherent in weaving, successfully allowing the material to “just be” within this system, indelibly marking the object as hand-made.
The viewer is drawn in to closely examine the surface of the weave and rewarded by Delgai’s intricate work. Each work openly exhibits the origin of its making; the weft often wavers and is quite exaggerated, causing imagery to distort and shift perspective (at times verging on abstraction). Glitches and striations emerge in deceptively simple compositions, highlighting the identifiers of her inventive, idiosyncratic vision – a sheep with five legs, birds perched on a corn stalk in her unconventional re-interpretation of the Tree of Life design, or the placement of a horizon line that is both an elegant expression of the vertical weaving process and the southwest desert landscape in which she lives.
Problematically, most research of Native American traditional arts has been dominated by an anthropological discourse rather than an art historical one, without an emphasis on technical or artistic excellence. As a result, much of the work has been presented at encyclopedic museums in a manner that perpetuates a static history and colonialist point of view. Only recently have some installations started to reflect a more accurate, contemporary context. Much like Jeffrey Gibson or Wendy Red Star, Delgai is an artist whose work is grounded in identity, place, an authentic current experience, and liberated processes – a definitively contemporary perspective that transgresses the expectations of a Native American aesthetic and the traditional.
Miranda Delgai is a Native American woman born in Ganado, Arizona in 1969. Miranda comes from a traditional Navajo family. Miranda has worked in many mediums, such as weaving, pottery, drawing, painting, embroidering, fabric work, batik, other silk textiles, painting and designing. Her first love is working with textiles. She weaves on a traditional Navajo loom with wool. Miranda comes from a well-known family of rug weavers; therefore, her love of that medium is natural and successful, yet retains a uniqueness particular to her disability. Miranda’s close attention to detail draws her more and more into her creation, making it difficult for her to pull away from it. Miranda has participated in many local group shows and has been featured in calendars, galleries and various art shows.
Disparate Minds is an ongoing interdisciplinary project that discusses the work of self-taught artists in the context of contemporary art. Through their research, writing, lectures, and curatorial projects, Andreana Donahue and Tim Ortiz share insight informed by many years of experience in this field as practicing artists, artist facilitators, dedicated advocates, and most significantly in building and co-managing a studio for eighty self-taught artists in Nevada. They spent 2015 as Artists-In-Residence in Alaska, creating their own bodies of work while implementing progressive facilitation methods and contemporary practices in an integrated studio in Juneau. Disparate Minds is the recipient of a Puffin Foundation Grant and AWB Harnisch Foundation Grant. Donahue and Ortiz have maintained ongoing professional and creative collaborations since 2011. Their most recent curatorial project was the exhibition Mapping Fictions: Daniel Green, William Scott, Roger Swike, and Joe Zaldivar at The Good Luck Gallery in LA this past summer. Visit the blog here.
Andreana Donahue (born 1981 in Chicago, IL) is an artist, art handler, and independent curator who earned a BFA in painting and sculpture from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She has curated and exhibited in group and solo exhibitions in Alaska, California, Chicago, Nevada, Miami, and South Carolina. Donahue’s project-based practice engages a wide range of methods and concepts, while reflecting an ongoing investigation of labor-intensive processes and simulacra. By highlighting connections between outwardly unrelated disciplines, historical events, and narratives, her site-determined installations form a hybrid lexicon. Donahue is the recipient of a 2015 AWB/Harnisch Foundation Grant and 2015 Puffin Foundation Grant for Disparate Minds, 2016 residency at 100 West in Texas, 2014/2016 Nevada Arts Council Professional Development Grants, 2014 Artist Grant/Residency from the Vermont Studio Center, and 2011/2015 NAC Jackpot Grants. Visit her website here.
Tim Ortiz (born 1985 in Burlington, VT) is a painter and writer. Ortiz’s training was in traditional landscape painting and Contemporary Photorealism. Presently, his work reflects a commitment to the practice of painting from a minimalist perspective – seeking the absolute through the deconstruction of mark-making, while rendering space and form in an abstract context. Ortiz began working with adults living with developmental disabilities in 2008, spending 2 years working with a caseload of over 100 individuals as a case manager for a job training program before joining Andreana in a progressive art studio. He has also developed art programming for Special Education and High School students with Autism, and spent one year creating and providing weekly art-making sessions for seniors in a psychiatric hospital. He is currently a certified nurse aid and a home and community-based personal care provider for adults with developmental disabilities. Ortiz is the recipient of a 2015 Puffin Foundation Grant and AWB/Harnisch Foundation Grant for Disparate Minds.
All images of the Miranda Delgai weavings courtesy Disparate Minds.
Posted by Wendy Kveck