2 July 2024

Weaving Earth and Sky

Tyrrell Tapaha balances the past
and future of Navajo weaving

 

by Caitlin Lorraine Johnson

1.

Before my interview with Diné weaver and fiber artist Tyrrell Tapaha (he/they), I watch a film they made with The Museum of Contemporary Art Flagstaff

In the opening scene, Tyrrell sits cross-legged on a rock and rolls a skein of wool towards (and then away from) their torso. Tyrrell explains that they spin inward to receive blessings from the sheep.

Their practice continues the movement some Diné creation stories describe: “As I spin, I take the clouds from the sky and I channel that into my hands, into my body, into the ground, into my spindle.”

Tyrrell’s outstretched left hand holds a long strand of wool.

2.

In addition to weaving, Tyrrell has been traveling to promote their work, teaching, curating, and acting as a Native consultant for institutions such as The Fowler Museum in Los Angeles and The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York. 

“There’s a large push, specifically with culturally related items, to bring in people from those demographics and re-contextualize the works.”

Tyrrell says the pace of traditional Navajo weaving is fundamentally at odds with the quickness of many other aspects of their career.

“I have a really slow medium. I hand weave and nothing’s mechanized, so it’s just me. The process moves slow enough that even when I sketch out ideas, it always changes at warps [the vertical threads within a weaving].”

To meet deadlines for two shows last year, Tyrrell spent three weeks weaving in fourteen- to sixteen-hour shifts—a large piece can take months to complete.

“Dye season is probably my favorite part of the process, because I get gratification that day. Weaving in the winter is so defeating, especially bigger ones, and especially when I use finer yarn. I’ll weave for eight hours and be lucky to get an inch.”

3.

I am curious about the physical process, so I watch another scene from the documentary. As Tyrrell prepares to weave, they describe the components of the loom and their corollaries in nature—the top of the loom : Father Sky :: the bottom : Mother Earth :: the vertical warp strings : rain.

“As I weave, this [loom] represents life as it is and how we, as organisms on this planet, really thrive and live solely off of the interaction [between earth and sky]. And in reference to the third gender, that’s what this top dowel represents. It represents that, at least in our creation stories, they gave up a lot in their lives in order to sustain and support everything else in this natural world.”

As they speak, I watch a single thread move horizontally across the loom.

4.

Tyrrell notes people have a tendency to refer to Navajo weaving in the past tense.

“Traditional Navajo weavings have a repeated pattern that’s reflected. The economy for Navajo textiles in the past century has always incentivized that type of weaving. So in terms of historical and familial background, [reflected patterns] were a huge design element that carried through, but honestly, took away a lot of creative freedom from weavers.”

Tyrrell uses traditional techniques passed down six generations. However, their work explores contemporary narratives, such as resource extraction in the Greater Four Corners region.

“I have always been interested in mixing things together. Honestly, it’s really difficult to weave a lot of my designs, because the pattern doesn’t repeat, and you have to think about how the yarn sits and lays with each other … So in terms of composition, these are questions I play with—what has made Navajo weaving what it is, what does it look like right now?”

5.

Tyrrell remembers the name of every sheep in their family’s herd, when each was born, its grandmother and mother, its favorite snacks.

“We’ve had Churro Sheep ever since contact [in the sixteenth century], but because they’re a heritage breed, they are a little more wild. Churro Sheep are more like deer than generic, fluffy white sheep … even down to their color. Our sheep have upwards of thirty different color fleeces, so even without dying, you get a whole rainbow of colors to work with.”

Tyrrell says the repetition and responsiveness of sheep herding helps balance the chaos of being a young artist. Tyrrell also has more control over the material, because they forage, dye, and spin most of their fiber by hand. 

“I absorb a lot of the environment I’m in and put it into the work. From a cultural and spiritual perspective, that’s the point—you’re supposed to be a still mind even if you’re in a hectic space. There’s always warnings to be careful how much of that you put into your work, because it’ll affect you long term.”

 

6.

After our conversation, Tyrrell sends images to accompany the text.

Among them is “Diné Rhapsody,” a weaving that incorporates three text bubbles. The first two are received messages, the third is outgoing:

“Where you are is so freaking amazing”

“As are you”

“ … ”

 

Find more on Tapaha’s Instagram.

All images courtesy of the artist.

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