IDYLLWILD, Calif. — Barbara Teller Ornelas deftly inserts colored thread between warp threads that run vertically on an upright Navajo loom. Using a hand-carved comb, she firms the horizontal thread on the warp with swift downstrokes. As the textile tightens, a pattern slowly emerges.

Ornelas’ sister, Lynda Teller Pete, sits nearby, crafting her own small textile as she gives tips to one of their eight students. Some of them have taken the class from the two sisters for several years.

Ornelas and Pete, members of the Navajo Nation and award-winning weavers, are part of a longtime arts center that has nurtured budding and experienced artists and sustained many Native artists for more than 70 years in a bucolic mountain setting.

The weavers meet in the Krone Library, named for the founders of Idyllwild Arts, a longtime arts school and center. The exterior of the building, like others here, resemble the original wooden lean-tos where classes were originally held in the open air when the center first opened after World War II.

Idyllwild Arts sprawls on a 200-acre campus in the San Jacinto Mountains, amid mixed conifers and oak trees. There is evidence of a long-term relationship between the local Cahuilla bands and the lush land that once provided foods, basketry materials and relief from the searing heat of the desert floor below.

Students and artists from around the world know the center as a place where their talents and passions are nurtured. It emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic ready to serve even more budding and established artists. 

Idyllwild Arts is expanding its reach and focus to engage with more Native artists, inspire Indigenous students to take advantage of its world-class arts high school and intertwine itself more fully into Native communities.

Idyllwild opens its doors wider 

Like the town that shares its name, Idyllwild Arts is about 12 miles southwest of Palm Springs on a map, but an hour’s drive over sometimes-treacherous mountain roads.

The goal of Idyllwild’s founders was to create a place where the universal language of art and music could heal the wounds left over from World War II, said Heather Companiott, director of Native and summer arts programs.

“Idyllwild is a place where people can create, work and write together,” she said.

The arts center includes an international boarding high school with more than 300 students, summer arts programs for adults and kids and presentations by artists, academics and arts influencers. There’s also an art gallery featuring exhibitions in a variety of art forms. 

Over the decades, Idyllwild Arts has regularly engaged with Native artists during the summer, Companiott said. Maria Martinez, Blue Corn, Lucy Lewis, Fred and Michael Kabotie and Fritz Scholder are some of the most well-known Indigenous artists who have worked there over the years.

“We would bring in master artists during the school year, but there wasn’t the same level of commitment and recognition that it should be a year-round thing,” Companiott said. “As long as you’ve got all these students from around the world and the country here, let’s infuse this program everywhere.”

That drive to more fully open the door to Native art was also driven by the center’s longtime tribal connections. Since Idyllwild is sited on Cahuilla land, Companiott said the move to expand the Native arts program and offerings was a natural evolution of the center’s mission. Several tribes and private funders support the increased focus on Native arts throughout the year.

In 2019, Idyllwild brought on Shaliyah Ben as assistant director for the Native arts programs and community outreach. Ben, a Diné and Navajo Nation member, is a longtime arts educator and former education director at the Heard Museum in Phoenix.

Ben’s nearly three-decade connection to Idyllwild fueled her own career in the arts. She’s the daughter of Navajo artists, painter Joe Ben and Wendy Weston, an arts educator, curator and artist. She and her sister Jennifer have spent their entire lives surrounded by art and artists.

“Both my parents were involved with participating in the program and teaching workshops in the 1980s and ’90s,” she said.

Ben’s parents also helped organize gallery space and a Native art sales space. But the Ben sisters’ favorite thing about coming to the mountain community was Idyllwild’s summer camp.

“Jennifer was always in the arts,” said Ben, “and I was into musical theater and ceramics.”

The girls spent many happy weeks at the camps, meeting like-minded youth from across the globe before, in Ben’s words, they were dragged back to Arizona.

After a career in the arts and museum world for some 20 years, Ben was ready to carve a new role for herself. She feels her position at Idyllwild is like returning to the place where her creative spirit was born.

“I’m so humbled that this place has trusted me to carry that forward and usher in a new era that will skyrocket what we do here,” she said. 

Art under the sky, art under the lights

Idyllwild’s school closed for the 2020 spring semester because of the pandemic, and summer programs had to go online. Although the school was open for the 2020-21 school year, only about 100 students lived on campus, while others took online classes. That delivered a financial hit to the nonprofit school, and Indigenous artists who would have normally taught hands-on classes also lost income.

This year, Idyllwild brought the adult classes back with COVID-19 guidelines in place. The classes were restricted to about half of the normal number of students in outdoor settings, although a summer rainstorm drove two of the classes indoors into large rooms that provided social distancing. Masks were required under current California school standards.

But nothing could dampen the spirits of the teachers and students, who were elated to resume Native arts classes.

Under a large circular cover made from parachute cloth, Rose Ann Hamilton guided her five students as they worked deer grass, juncus and other grasses into baskets. Some of the materials were gathered just across the way on a hillside, as Cahuilla people continue to engage with their ancestral land.

Hamilton, a member of the Cahuilla Band of Indians, has taught at Idyllwild since 2009 after the death of Donna Largo, the Cahuilla elder credited with revitalizing Cahuilla basketweaving.

“I was here in 1993 learning Cahuilla baskets from Donna,” said Hamilton. She had to “climb the ladder” by doing jobs like gathering and splitting juncus and yucca and then learning twining and cordage techniques. Hamilton’s apprenticeship led to her becoming an expert. “Donna did that for us,” she said.

Hamilton said she was excited to see the next generation of younger people learn to weave, recalling her own experience. And she said she’s glad to be able to come back to Idyllwild after the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We couldn’t leave home for about a year,” Hamilton said. “I just kind of took a break for a whole year. But then I pushed myself to make a little medicine basket.” Her own brother succumbed to COVID-19 shortly before the vaccines came out.

Hamilton estimated she lost more than half her income in 2020 because teaching opportunities dried up, so the Idyllwild job will help get her back on her financial feet.

“We love Idyllwild Arts, and they’re back up and running,” she said. “It’s home, and it’s really nice here. I like coming back here.”

Nearby, master potter Tony Soares guided students through the process of creating a Cahuilla-style pot. Soares, a longtime student of Mojave and Sonoran/Colorado Desert pottery, isn’t Native but is acclaimed by tribes across Southern California and the Colorado River Valley as an expert teacher and artist.

He oversaw his six-student class as they made pinch pots, simple pots that are made by hand. Then they moved on to pots using the paddle and anvil method. Those pieces ranged in size from fist-sized to more than 12-inch-high ollas.

Soares also helps students choose which color to use in decorating their creations. He points out a variety of vegetal dyes and minerals used by Indigenous artists to decorate their ceramics, including manganese, which makes a pale pink tint, and galena, a lead oxide. He also showed how different clays affect the vessel’s color.

Like other instructors, Soares’s business suffered during the pandemic, so he was glad to be back teaching. 

Native Arts Festival features exhibition

Idyllwild also supports Native artists during a summer Native American arts festival. Like other events affected by the pandemic, last year’s festival went online, featuring presentations by Native artists and cultural practitioners. Subjects ranged from the effects of climate change on cultural arts to water issues and the digital divide.

The arts center also hosted an invitational arts exhibition, @creation. The multi-media exhibition was organized by independent curator Nina Sanders, an Apsáalooke who is a member of the Crow Tribe.

The exhibition, one of two organized by Idyllwild over summer 2021, features master artists Eliza Naranjo Morse of the Santa Clara Pueblo and Kevin Pourier, who’s Oglala Lakota, together with emerging artists hailing from Alaska to upstate New York. 

“The exhibition resulted from conversations Shaliyah and I were having about how COVID was transforming and was going to transform art and the way artists see themselves, and the art markets,” Sanders said. “We played with lots of different ideas and platforms and mediums.”

Sanders also appreciated the arts center’s long experience with creating exhibits and with the arts in general.

“I think the best part of working with them is that they’ve been doing this for a long time, and they’ve been working with Native people for a long time,” she said. The staff was open and flexible to new ideas and how to integrate video and visual art with a mixed media installation that filled the center of the gallery. 

Ben envisions Idyllwild as a “Mecca” for Native arts. “This is where you come to expand, to learn as an artist, share your artistry with our students, to meet and be inspired by other artists,” she said.

That’s why Idyllwild is in the process of creating a Native American arts center, Ben said. “We can support Native artists year-round, provide a venue for groups like the California Indian Basketweavers’ Association or United Native Indian Tribal Youth to hold small-scale conferences,” she said.

Ben said Idyllwild also provides a limited number of scholarships for Native students to attend both the summer programs and the high school.

“The scholarships for the school are based on financial need and the incomes of both parents,” she said. “We have some students who receive partial funding and some students who receive full scholarships based on need.”

Inspiration, friendship mark Idyllwild classes

Velma Kee Craig found her inspiration and reconnected to her family’s weaving legacy at Idyllwild.

“I learned about Idyllwild by accident,” said Craig, a member of the Navajo Nation. “I was friends with Barbara Ornelas’ kids Sierra and Michael, and I wasn’t aware that weaving was done by people my age.”

Although both of Craig’s grandmothers were weavers, that lineage had been broken. “I assumed I would never have it back,” she said.

That changed when, in 2010, Craig decided to take a weaving class from Ornelas and brought her own daughter along. “It was my first time at Idyllwild,” Craig said. “We learned how to weave together.”

After taking more classes, Craig had grown her expertise and in 2017, started teaching others the age-old craft. Then she learned about a new opportunity, a fellowship at the Heard Museum.

Although she never considered a museum for a career path, Craig said she took advantage of the opportunity.

“After three years as a fellow, I’m now an assistant curator at the Heard, and I still get to work with textiles,” she said.

Craig said she’ll continue to engage with Idyllwild. “My son and I went back to take another class,” she said.

Back at the textile weaving class, held in the school library because of the rain, Leslie Chatwin wielded colored yarns in earth tones, creating her version of an eyedazzler textile pattern.

Chatwin, a former potter who had to give the artform up because of arthritis, took up weaving to fill the void.

“I think this is my 22nd time here, and I took seven workshops from Barbara and Lynda elsewhere, so I’m gradually getting the hang of it,” she said.

Chatwin, who lives in Ojai, California, said she took the class to learn more about Navajo culture. “We all have the privilege of a picture into the life of the Navajo,” she said. “This is an extremely simple piece of equipment with extremely complex weaving.”

She continues to take the classes because they’re so much fun. “The sound of Lynda laughing is something that makes me feel like I’m coming home,” she said.

Ornelas said other students learn weaving so they can learn more about the Navajo rugs they collect, and to serve as allies to advocate against counterfeit Native art that continues to flood the market.

She was happy to be back at Idyllwild after she and other family members fell ill with COVID-19 in 2020.

“In April, my nephew, who made all the tools, including combs and looms, for the class, passed away,” she said. “My son Michael spent 50 days in a coma on a ventilator and I spent three weeks in the hospital.”

But weaving helped Michael, who’s also an award-winning weaver, weather the storm, Ornelas said. “He would get agitated and have a hard time, and I would get on the phone with him and calm him down by describing how we’re weaving and we’re using these colors and such.

“Weaving saved us.”

Debra Krol covers Indigenous communities at the confluence of climate, culture and commerce in Arizona and the Intermountain West. Reach Krol at debra.[email protected] or at 602-444-8490. Follow her on Twitter at @debkrol

Coverage of Indigenous issues at the intersection of climate, culture and commerce is supported by the Catena Foundation and the Water Funder Initiative.

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