Story of continuance: The Great Basin Native Artists’ latest exhibit helps ensure that Native art isn’t relegated to a historical footnote  

The exhibition It Started With Willows, now showing at the Bristlecone Gallery at Western Nevada College in Carson City, is a fiercely eclectic show, encompassing sculpture, drawings, prints, collage and basketry—featuring work that has been made over the span of the last 70 years or so.  

It hangs together beautifully. Winnowing trays, seed gathering baskets, cradle boards and fish traps (drawn from the collection of Lloyd Chichester) are hung next to works by contemporary Native artists, ranging from large-scale mixed-media abstractions by Melissa Melero-Moose (Northern Paiute) to playful assemblage sculptures by Phil Buckheart (Absentee Shawnee/Choctaw). The pulse of pattern in the basketry, achieved by weaving darkened willow strands among the naturally lighter ones, emanates outward to the contemporary work, appearing in bold geometrical structures, border or background elements, or depictions of traditional clothing and containers—a vital zigzag of continuity. 

Melero-Moose is the curator of the show, and also founder of Great Basin Native Artists (GBNA), a collective of Indigenous artists stretching across Nevada, California, Southern Oregon, Southern Idaho and Utah. The contemporary artists in the show are part of that collective. Melero-Moose explained that GBNA partly grew out of a desire to tell the story of the continuance of Indigenous culture: “Our connection to the land, and connection to these plants that they turn into these baskets—that are entities, you know.” 

Baskets from the Chichester collection. Photo/Kris Vagner

Talking about the patterns, Melero-Moose explained: “In the beginning, baskets were made for utilitarian uses. And if you’re sitting around making baskets, maybe you get some embellishment going on, and you get some designs, because you’re sitting around these beautiful mountains and all of these beautiful colors. I think that’s how over time, way back in the day, a lot of the designs got integrated into the basketry.” 

The connection between landscape and pattern is made explicit in “Basket Landscape,” a monoprint by David Ipina (Yurok). In it, the curved-edge form of a basket creates a sort of viewing frame—at the right edge, the basket itself is rendered in careful detail, with every section of the woven overlapping accounted for, like tiny sections of cross-hatching. As the eye drifts leftward, and the repeated quadrilateral shape integrated into the basket design stairsteps up and down, it gradually resolves itself into landscape elements—the upper line taking on the geologic weight of a mountain range, while the lower line becomes a jagged-edged stand of coniferous trees. 

Melero-Moose cautioned me not to jump to reductive one-to-one explanations of the meaning of patterns. “I think if you were to talk to five different weavers, or contemporary artists, you might get five different answers. (The landscape is) what I see, and that’s how I interpret it; that’s how I was taught. But if you talked to another family, there are families who have their own family designs, and they have their own purpose for those designs. They might give you a completely different answer.” 

“Grandma’s Corn” is a painting by Karma Henry. Photo/Kris Vagner

Some pieces nod to pop culture with a light touch. In the diptych “Big Foot,” Topaz Jones (Western Shoshone/Lummi/Kalapuya/Molalla) depicts Sasquatch against bright green, pixilated weaving patterns. In the second part of the diptych, Big Foot is shown in the classic, unperturbed, look-over-the shoulder pose from the Patterson-Gimlin film, which froze my blood when I was a kid. In the painting “Grandma’s Corn” by Karma Henry (Fort Independence Paiute), the prominence of a Folger’s can—painted in flat colors—calls up Warhol’s Campbell’s cans. But instead of invoking a commercialized emptiness, the Folger’s can is infused with a sense of family memory and everyday usefulness. Green leaves sprout up from the can, growing a modest harvest in the compass of a container that would otherwise be industrial trash.

Other work channels traditional motifs into distinctive, personal styles. Jack Malotte (Western Shoshone/Washoe) is represented by two eye-popping screen prints, where the usually orderly traditional patterns are part of a chaotic scramble of shapes, mixed with splatters and scratches, swirls of red triangles that shatter across the picture plane, and layered silhouettes that give up their forms only after you’ve squinted at them a bit—geese in flight, antlers branching from a deer skull, raptors with wings and talons outstretched.  

Phil Buckheart is represented by a half-dozen sculptures where animals, dancers and totemic figures are partially abstracted. Recognizable features are mixed in with both natural and manufactured materials, adorned with painted rocks, or topped with a spray of feathers.  

Melding traditional and contemporary 

Not long before the pandemic, I had the opportunity to visit the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and I appreciated the obvious effort that was put into mixing traditional work with work by contemporary artists—creating a visual conversation between, for instance, Kwakwaka’wakw totem poles, large-scale sculpture by the great 20th-century Haida artist Bill Reid, and stop-motion puppets created by Métis animator Amanda Strong.  

It Started With Willows is engaged in a similar conversation. The basketry clearly grounds the contemporary work, setting it in a foundation of tradition and history. The contemporary work, sharing the wall space, breathes vitality into the midcentury basketry—dispelling the stale air of a museum vitrine. We can see the contemporary artists connecting to their own heritage and ensuring that Native artistic expression isn’t closed off in a sort of historical parenthesis—excluded from the present in bad-faith colonial nostalgia. What’s visible, beyond the individual pieces themselves, is the picture of a community reflecting back on itself. In that arc, we can catch glimpses of rituals, landscape, the flora and fauna that define and give shape to a territory, a home—including of course the willows, which are so gracefully bent from nature to culture. 

It Started With Willows is on display at the Bristlecone Gallery at Western Nevada College, 2201 W. College Parkway, through Thursday, Dec. 21. Melissa Melero-Moose has also curated the show Creating Stories: Artwork of the Stewart Alumni, open through Feb. 2, 2024, at the Stewart Indian School Museum, 1 Jacobsen Way in Carson City. To learn more about Great Basin Native Artists, visit the group’s website

Full disclosure. Capital City Arts Initiative supported It Started With Willows, and Chris Lanier sometimes writes essays for CCAI’s exhibitions. 

This article was produced by Double Scoop.