Common threads link Polish, Navajo weavers

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The flowers and geometric designs seem to dance off the rugs hanging in Farmington’s Downtown Center Gallery, the Farmington Museum’s newest exhibit space.

Some tapestries feature bold, bright colors. Others offer more subtle palettes: brown, gray and black. Some tell stories. Others simply please the eye.

An exhibit of local Navajo weavings? That might be expected, in this museum in the Southwest, but these are Polish Kilim rugs, brought exclusively to Farmington from the Central Museum of Textiles in Lódz, (pronounced Wootch) Poland.

The 43 tapestries, dating from the 18th to the 21st centuries, make up a show called “Woven Masterworks of Wool,” on display through Dec. 31. The rugs will hang nowhere else in the United States.

“It is absolutely unique to have Kilim rugs in Farmington,” said Paulina Kapuscinska, Polish consul for Culture, Science, Education, and Public Affairs in Los Angeles.

She came to Farmington when “Woven Masterworks of Wool” opened in July, to represent Poland and to recognize Navajo weaver Lucy Whitehorse. In 2003, one of Whitehorse’s rugs went to Lódz, as part of the Farmington Museum’s traveling exhibit, “Trees in a Circle: Navajo Weavings of Teec Nos Pas.”

Recognition to Whitehorse came in appreciation of the artistry of Navajo weavers, and because her rug was the largest in the exhibition.

How did a show of Navajo weavings make its way to Poland? Why did Polish Kilim rugs come to Farmington? The answer is complex. Weaving itself is the best place to begin. In 1905, trader Hamp Noel and his wife, Eva Foutz, started the Teec Nos Pas Trading Post in northwest Arizona. With local weavers, they developed rugs featuring bold patterns and intricate geometric figures.

Ninety-some years later, the Farmington Museum organized the exhibit “Trees in a Circle: Navajo Weavings of Teec Nos Pas” to document the evolution of these rugs, both in design and in construction.

The show became so popular, both at home and as a traveling exhibit, that in 2003 Farmington Museum Director Richard Welch offered it to the American Association of Museums for exchange for an exhibit from another institution, which the AAM would choose. Working with the U.S. State Department, the AAM contacted the Central Museum of Textiles in Lódz, and since Native American culture fascinates Europeans, the trade was on. The deputy director of the Central Museum, Marcin Oko, would bring Kilim rugs to the Four Corners. Navajo rugs would fly to Poland with Welch.

The Navajo rugs went first. Poles fell in love with them, and “Trees in a Circle” drew more than 7,000 visitors. To their surprise and delight, people discovered that Navajo and Kilim weaving had much in common. The Central Museum of Textiles’ director, Norbert Zawisza, wrote Welch exclaiming, “It has turned out that the Polish rugs and those manufactured by the Navajo Indians share… materials and technique, closely related compositions, motives, and ornamentation sequences.”

In addition, the similarities included both the use of horizontal looms, and strong Oriental influence in design. The commonalities in design come from the fact that both cultures had contact with the Orient.

“Traders showed Navajo weavers rugs from the region we call the Near East today,” explained Welch. “They asked the artists to make something similar.”

The artists responded by blending Oriental elements with patterns they had always used. Polish Kilim rugs got their Oriental influence in a more direct fashion.

“Poland is connected with the West and the East,” said Oko. “In the 16th Century, our king imported Old Testament tapestries from Paris.”

He started a craze. The nobility bought silk rugs from Europe, then Persia and Kazakhstan. Before long, middle-class Poles wanted tapestries, too. So did poor people, though neither group could afford imports.

The king ordered Polish nobles to set up weaving shops across the country, but particularly in Lódz, a textile center. Guilds, cloisters, and families began producing rugs with a linen warp and a woollen weft. Kilim weaving had arrived, in a blend of Eastern and Western patterns.

“Kilim is an interesting word.” Kapuscinska smiled wryly. “It comes from Turkish. Polish and Turkish culture exchanged, sometimes (through) wars and invasions. Sometimes we managed to trade.”

The nature of Lódz itself influenced rug-making. “It’s in the center part of Poland. In the 17th and 18th centuries lots of factories were run by Polish managers, Russian managers, Jewish managers, German managers.”

Kapuscinska made a stirring motion.

“(It’s) very much a melting pot of different cultures and natures.”

The original Kilims featured chevron designs in natural tones. Those are still common, but so are images of flowers and birds, in lots of colors.

Today, no one pattern can be called typically Polish Kilim. But like modern Teec Nos Pas rugs, Polish Kilims often balance geometrical designs with complex systems of outlined images.

Like Kilim rugs, Teec Nos Pas tapestries have undergone design and color changes in their hundred-year history. Muted tones dominated the early ones. Color appeared later. Today, Teec Nos Pas works feature rich color saturation. “Woven Masterworks of Wool” is “a fascinating look at different times and places,” Kapuscinska said.

“‘Trees in a Circle: Navajo Weavers of Teec Nos Pas’ is one of the most popular exhibits we’ve ever had,” remarked Oko.

In his letter to Welch, Zawisza wrote that the exchange shows how two cultures can find common themes.

“Distant in time and space, we still share something in spite of separate traditions,” he wrote.

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From Arts & Entertainment, September 2005.