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Katie Sickles, Iroquois, Oneida. Fancy basket, 1996. Woven black ash splints and sweetgrass. Gift from the Edward J. Guarino Collection in honor of Josephine Guarino, 2010.13.15

Ethnobotany and Native American Arts

Today’s post comes from Justine Paradis, Class of 2013 and Art Center Student Docent.

Katie Sickles, Iroquois, Oneida. Fancy basket, 1996. Woven black ash splints and sweetgrass. Gift from the Edward J. Guarino Collection in honor of Josephine Guarino, 2010.13.15

With more than 18,000 objects in the collection of the Francis Lehman Loeb Art Center, it is always a special treat to explore the rich resources held on site in storage vaults. On a recent day in February, Professor Mark Schlessman of Vassar’s biology department and Diane Butler of the Art Center facilitated such an opportunity for a group of students interested in ethnobotany. They collaborated in a presentation of Native American works including pottery, baskets, ceremonial figures, and intricate beadwork.

Pottery and basketry are interesting in a particular sense: the artwork is based on a set of skills necessary for survival. The pieces are not merely representational, but also functional. The relationship between maker and botany can be symbolic, but is often quite visceral in that plant materials are necessary for the function of the piece. Professor Schlessman presented several contemporary pots from the Mata Ortiz community near Paquimé, Chihuahua, Mexico. The first work, a black-on-black pot made by Ruben Lozano in 1998, was distinct for its intricate yet subtle shiny black embellishments over a black glaze. The color may have come from a species of the genus Cleome called the Rocky Mountain bee plant. The seeds are ground to create a substance called guaco, used as black pigment. Students also examined a brown-on-white Mimbres design pot made by Saul Veloz in 2000, which was adorned with representations of flowers, snakes, and stylized corn. As Diane Butler emphasized that there’s no substitute for examining artwork firsthand, she turned the pot upside down. On the bottom was a little surprise for the curious viewer: a depiction of a bee and the head of a snake.

Professor Schlessman and Ms. Butler also touched on the influence of the tourist industry on Native American art. Many of the works from the early 20th century were small, suitable for transport over long distances in a suitcase. As cheaper shipping became available, miniaturization of traditional forms was less necessary, and it is now possible for artists to produce larger pieces for tourists. The group examined an example of a miniature artifact: “Prairie falcon katsina” (unknown artist; Hopi) made of the root of a cottonwood tree. Katsinas (or kachinas, as they are often spelled) are religious icons, not playthings. Professor Schlessman explained that cottonwood is conducive to carving because of its quick rate of growth and accordingly large plant cells, making the wood easy to carve.

The variety of materials employed within the selection of baskets was striking. The group studied a Nuu-chah-nulth canoe baler made of cedar bark by Andrea Waters in 2001. Other materials used for baskets included black ash, sweetgrass, birch bark, and buffalo grass. The variety of shapes and functions it is possible to create using plant materials was inspiring. This group of ethnobotany students had a fascinating look at the creativity and craftsmanship of both past and current Native American artists, lending insight into the deep relationship between art and plants.


This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Julie

    This is a fascinating perspective of art, especially in regard to how the biological structures can affect material choices of the artists, as in the case of the cottonwood. This article really serves as a reminder of how powerful multi-disciplinary thinking can be- and creates a much more dynamic narrative than a purely art historical analysis.

  2. Ani

    I agree with Julie about the power of multi-disciplinary thinking: in this case, it can cure us of the conviction that nature and culture exist in opposition. The idea of ‘designing with’, not against nature is a powerful and relevant one today. Native American art and the techniques to make it are a good place to draw inspiration for this. I wonder if there is a way to learn the specific weaving or beadwork techniques?

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