HERE TO CREATE


A story can be told in two ways: the way it happened, and the way it is remembered. The storyteller is welcome at every table, though the story may change with each telling. It really doesn’t matter, it is after all, just a story.

Children are the best story tellers, since they have little recall, the stories they tell are usually created in the moment. If you question the story, they are able to embellish it on the spot. When I was a little girl of four, I created four big brothers. When questioned, they were suddenly locked up and fed bread and water. Clearly a mistake. Are these kind of stories a form of wish? The idea that exaggeration somehow enhances our self-image arrives early.

We are here to create, and all stories do not involve overestimating one’s own abilities, though a stretch of the truth often gives flavor to the imagination.

The creation stories of the Native American cultures, Greek and Roman mythology. and the stories of the Bible are all crossover creation stories. Oral tradition is extremely important, for without it, there would be no story telling. Each tribe, like each family, has its own story, of which there are multiple versions. Just as two or more siblings remember the events of childhood in various ways, our own stories take on new luster in time. More often than not, the Native American stories involve animals or humans who transform and do miraculous things, all explaining the unexplainable mystery of life.


“I Am a Child of the Sun and the Rain” watercolor by kayti sweetland rasmussen

We are all story-tellers; you tell me your story and I will tell you mine. Those stories may change from time to time either from new experiences or from remembrance, but the things we say are mostly true. Taken all together stories form the glorious tapestry of our lives.

CANTALOUP AND KOOL-AID
by kayti sweetland rasmussen

Where is the door to the story?
Can we all walk through it?

A story lives on the lips of
Diego from Hollywood days.
Far from this dusty village
Where nothing happens.
Cantaloup and Kool-Aid
And a bedroll on the floor
In this stone village
where he tells his stories.

Even the tree outside our windows
seems to listen with ruffled
leaves tipping and cooling
in the evening chill.

The pleasant knicker of an Indian pony
through the open window over
heads drowsy with sleep
announced the coming of the dawn.

We sat around the fire pitching our
own stories into the lap of the story teller.
We dropped troubles and pain.
Are they now someone else’s stories?

Advertisements

THE ART OF THE LOOM


Coming into Southwest Indian country for the first time some fifty-five years ago was a revelation in many ways. We drove through the hot desert land of Chumash, Hopi and Navajo before arriving in New Mexico, home of the Pueblo people. My own art had taken a turn toward the Southwest, and we had begun collecting a few pots and pieces of jewelry from indigenous artists.

I was fortunate to have my good friend Georgia Abeita Oliver as my companion while I accompanied her “home” for the summer. Wherever we are born, home-going is a special occasion which never gets old. There were friends and relatives to meet and greet, and a cultural education for me as a guest.

To be steeped and accepted into the culture of another is a privilege for which I have been grateful these past many years.

The domestic skills such as weaving, pottery, jewelry and basketry seem to be practiced primarily by individual villages. Pueblo and Hopi pots, but Navajo weaving and jewelry.


Two Grey Hills rug, Navajo

My husband was staying in the La Fonda hotel in Albuquerque several years before my trip, where he saw a very large Two Grey Hills rug on the wall. The story goes that a customer wished to buy the rug, and he was sent to the Two Grey Hills village to bargain for it. He came back dismayed because though he offered them twice its price, they refused to sell to him. I had a similar situation a few years later when I commission a rug after I was back home. When it arrived, the rug’s colors were not what I had wanted, so I returned it with the hope of another more suitable rug to come; but did not hear from them again. We are, after all, two separate cultures with different views on what is important. I did not make the same mistake again in all my years of travel in Indian country.

Why is it that the Navajo are the master weavers? Why not the Pueblo? The Hopi do weave lovely small runners, though and the men weave their prospective bride a burial shawl. I always thought that was either a threat or a warning.


“How the Navajo Got The Rug” watercolor by kayti sweetland rasmussen

My own interpretation of how the Navajo got the skills to weave is that maybe it just came down from the sky. That is as good an explanation as any. We met an old weaver just outside Taos, patriarch of the Trujillo family, who had been weaving since he was a boy. He made us a nice large room size rug which is in my studio.

It is easy to imagine how so much of the architecture got its beginnings; the whole desert terrain with its mesas and sculptural forms is ever present. Making use of natural materials like clay, wool, and natural dyes keeps people connected to the land. I have always preferred to work with clay for that same reason. It connects me also with my own forebears who were potters for over 200 years in England. It just feels natural to me when I think of the generations before me who made their living through love of clay.

The Saturday markets are crowded with people bringing everything from pickups full of wool to homemade tamales. In fact the best tamale I ever ate was at a flea market in Gallup, New Mexico. In the days I first visited New Mexico and Arizona, one frequently saw the wife’s mother sitting in the bed of the truck with the bundles of sheep skin for sale. She usually was in a large chair like a queen surveying her subjects.

I bought a cradle board made by an old woman who had brought only one to sell. A young pregnant girl was trying to decide if she had money enough to buy it for $40. Seeing me waiting in the wings, she graciously offered it to me. I said I noticed that she might need it more than I did, and she said “But YOU want it.” I have yet to see someone in our society be that generous of spirit.

Native people, whether Southwest or Northcoast, as somewhat suspicious of strangers, but through the years I have known and cared for people from both cultures, I have always found acceptance and love.

BIRTH OF THE AMERICAN COWBOY


“RUSS ANDERSEN, Cattleman ” Watercolor by kayti sweetland rasmussen

“CORRALLED” watercolor by kayti sweetland rasmussen

In the mid to late 1800s, some 10 million cattle would be driven north out of Texas, in the greatest forced migration of animals in human history. It was the birth of the American cowboy.

Though romanticized in book and movie, the life of the men and boys who drove cattle was dirty and hard, sweating in the heat of the day and freezing at night. The miserable conditions in rainstorms bear no description, and certainly take the romance out of the working cowboy.

Cattle had been trailed from Texas to Missouri as early as 1842, and to California as early as 1854. Although the maps depicting these routes suggesting an orderly branch of roads, on the ground the paths taken were often circuitous as the drovers needed to provide water and grass for the herd along the way. This meant following rivers and creeks and tracing the routes of old Indian and buffalo trails.The earliest endpoints were the railheads of the Union Pacific and the Missouri Pacific railroads, which were gradually extending their tentacles of track westward now that the Civil War was over and capital was available for their expansion.

But nothing about this trail driving scheme turned out to be quite as easy as it looked on paper. The first challenge: a cattle drive required horses, but freely roaming mustangs needed to be roped, corralled and broken by a skilled broncobuster.It typically took five to six days to properly break a wild mustang. And to trail cattle north, a journey that could take three to six months, drovers needed four to six months, drovers needed four or five horses per cowboy.

Cattle drive

The second challenge: the behavior and temperament of the wild Texas Longhorn itself. It was a challenge for cowboys to round up these wild cattle. Texas Longhorns hid in the brush during the day and did most of their foraging during the night. Only briefly in the summer, when the tormenting mosquitoes were out in force, did they spend the daylight hours in open areas, where they hoped to find a breeze. Most of the time the cowboys were compelled to ride into the thorny brush to flush the cattle out. But a cow with a young calf was prepared to gore a horse to protect her offspring and the Longhorn bull was notoriously ornery, sullen, morose, solitary and pugnacious, as one cattleman put it; “The longer he lived the meaner he became.”

“HOME ON THE RANGE” oil painting by kayti sweetland rasmussen

Once a herd was assembled, the profit-seeking Texan faced his most grueling challenge: the trail drive itself, since railroads throughout the south had been badly damaged during the Civil War and had never ventured far into Texasl It required a minimum of eight men to drive a thousand head of cattle. The trail boss usually rode a few miles ahead, scouting out water holes and good places to graze the herd. The cook followed on the mess, or chuck wagon. Two cowboys were positioned at the point of the herd, and two along each swing, or flank. The two most junior cowboys brought up the rear and were known as drag riders. Their job was to keep the slow and lame cattle moving along. They were constantly subjected to dust and spatterings of the herd’s manure. They took the full brunt of its noxious odors. One staple of the diet was known as son-of-a-bitch stew, concocted from leftover cattle parts.

On a good day, a trail drive would cover fourteen or fifteen miles, usually with a break at midday for lunch. The greatest threat facing the drovers was a stampede. It didn’t take much to spook the jumpy Longhorns: lightning, the appearance of a wolf, the snap of a towel.

In the spring of 1867, some 35,000 headed up the trails,the next year, 75,000, the year after that 350,000, and in 1871, some 600,000. The great migration of Texas Longhorns, the largest forced migration of animals in human history, had begun in earnest. In all, some ten million cattle would be driven north out of Texas, accompanied by half a million horses and some 50,000 cowboys.

Exerts from “Cattle Kingdom” by Christopher Knowleton

ANCIENT SCRIBBLERS


“WAVE ACTION” Handmade paper by kayti sweetland rasmussen

Drawing is a primal urge. Caveman depicted what he saw by drawing on rock walls. Children, from the earliest years, draw on anything made of paper, but drawing only became a standard art form when paper became available. At the beginning, paper was of poor quality and expensive, and parchment was too difficult to erase. You couldn’t dash off a quick sketch and it had too low a standard to use for serious art. But by the the 15th century, paper quality had improved to the point of opening the possibility of the sketch.

Renaissance artists sketched out their work before they drew, painted or sculpted it. This new ability to plan and toy with an idea raised their art to a new level not known before the Middle Ages.

Just as today, artists came with varying degrees of skill. Leonardo da Vinci was legendary for his skills as a draftsman. Michelangelo was equally brilliant, and many art historians consider him to have been the greatest draftsman who ever lived—though most of his drawing was scribbled chaotically on sheets of paper not intended for public view. The story is told of a sketch by Michelangelo that was displayed in the Palazzo de Medici for art students to copy. Since the sheet, like most of Michelangelo’s sheets, had a variety of sketches on it, students started tearing off pieces of it and they became scattered over many places. Those fortunate students who ended up with a remnant, treasured it.

Michelangelo used a great deal of paper–and almost any piece of paper he used contained a great many sketches. Only a few are finished drawings. A stunning drawing of the resurrection of Christ is also marked with a shopping list. Masterful drawings were folded up with notes of his neighbors comings and goings on the other side. Michelangelo may have been the first to jot down ideas for himself. Letter writing is another practice that blossomed with the widespread use of paper.

Leonardo was notorious in his lifetime for his inability to finish projects. Fortunately there was paper to capture his genius. Though he is usually thought of as a painter, only fifteen paintings, some unfinished, have been found, along with two damaged murals. He also attempted some sculpture, though he never finished one piece. But he left behind thirty bound notebooks. Unlike Michelangelo, he did want people to see this work on paper, including the notes he made in his mirror-image script a curious response to being left-handed. He left drawings depicting all kinds of inventions, and notes on literature, arts, mythology, anatomy, engineering, and more of all nature.

Leonardo also left behind four thousand sheets of drawings of staggering beauty. He was the first artist to be recognized for his drawings on paper. Leonardo’s work became the standard for art in Renaissance Florence. Studying art now meant working on paper, learning to draw. Leonardo had learned art that way himself, in the workshop taught by Andrea del Verrocchio. Artists have been trained on paper ever since.

CONSIDER THE FLOUNDER


“Orange_ watercolor by kayti sweeetland rasmussen

Would you be better off not knowing?

Baby flounders look like any other normal fish, swimming upright with one eye on each side of their face. Then they undergo a bizarre transformation: one eye migrates to the other side of the face. It’s like a fishy facial reconstructive surgery. No scalpels or sutures, though I haven’t talked to anyone willing to try it out.

While you’re digesting that information, it doesn’t take long to accomplish this act. Five days in some cases and less than one day in some species. If a fish can have an awkward adolescence, this is it.

In exchange for this indignation, flounders get fabulous binocular vision. Great if you were scuba diving. You would have advance notice of any possible predator coming your way. Binocular vision would be useful for a lifestyle of lying in wait on the bottom of a sandy or stony bottom dressed in incomparable camouflage watching for an opportunity to snatch an unsuspecting shrimp or other unfortunate passerby.

In addition to the miracle of vision exchange, flounders have the enviable ability to mimic their background. Think of the advantage this might bring to those of us humans who might prefer to remain in the background? In a high school biology example of a flounder who had been placed on a checkerboard, the change began within minutes; the flounder had produced a believable rendition of a checkerboard on its back.

This ability to mimic background by changing their distribution of skin pigment is poorly understood. If one of the flounders’ eyes is damaged or covered by sand, they have difficulty matching their colors to their surroundings, which hints at some level of conscious control by the flounder. These guys may be smarter than we give them credit for.

My grandson is a wildlife biologist, and a world class fisherman. I wonder if he knows all this.

Selected from new book What a Fish Knows by Johathan Balcombe

PERSPECTIVES OF A CHURCH


“Ranchos de Taos”
watercolor by kayti sweetland rasmussen

It’s entire name is “San Francisco de Asis Mission church and it has stood in the plaza in Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico since 1816. Possibly one of the most photographed churches in the Southwest, its rear view has attracted the attention of artists from all over the world because of its smooth sculptural adobe form.

Ansel Adams used the church as part of his Taos Pueblo art book Georgia O’Keeffe described it as one of the most beautiful buildings left in the United States by the early Spaniards. I have been fascinated by its colonial era beauty since I first came upon it in the 1960’s. I have painted it many times in watercolor, oils and acrylic and it changes each time, and each time I paint it, I love it more.

Front view of Ranchos de Taos Church

MAKE YOUR BED


“Downtown Lady” watercolor by kayti sweetland rasmussen

Making one’s bed is pretty basic to most of us, like changing your socks, returning your phone calls and possibly eating your oatmeal.

It happens to be the title of a new book by former Navy Seal Admiral Andrew McRaven, whom I saw interviewed on TV. I haven’t read the book yet, but I began thinking of what a primary life lesson it calls to mind.

As a child, I went with my mother to a Navy wives function at the home of the Admiral in Bremerton, Washington. I remember the Admiral’s wife asking if I cooked breakfast for my father. She said that she cooked eggs each morning for the Admiral. I have thought many times of what a gracious and unassuming action it was.

The bed is personal to each of us. My mother in law rarely made her bed when age made it more difficult, though until the age of 92 she kept going strong in all other respects. A cousin remarked while walking past his bedroom with its unmade bed, that it had become his best friend.

I like to think that making one’s bed is akin to clearing the deck for the rest of the day’s work. This is a lazy day as far as work goes, but I made my bed this morning just in case.