The ancestors would recognize the materials, patterns and tight weave of Lisa Telford’s baskets and hats, the softness and warmth of her cedar capes. But her red-cedar bustier titled “A Night on the Village,” with guinea-feather trim, carved bone buttons and cotton cordage might have raised a few eyebrows.
Telford’s contemporary work using traditional materials and techniques is turning heads today—not just as art, but as commentary. Just as Musqueam artist Susan Point studied art designs on Coast Salish artifacts—combs, rattles and spindle whorls—to bring Coast Salish design to life in her artwork, Telford is using traditional weaving techniques to give a Native voice to contemporary items. Telford’s cedar-fiber weavings are strands of continuity in Northwest Coast Native innovation: Cowboy boots, an evening dress, high-heeled shoes, loafers.
She will continue her exploration of artistic expression with renowned Tlingit glass artist Preston Singletary thanks to a $20,000 Artistic Innovation grant from the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation. The two will collaborate on an exhibition of women’s forms in glass.
“I’m a fiber artist, but I’ve always wanted to try glass,” she said. “I’ve always loved glass and found it fascinating.”
Telford’s life has been one of exploration. She was born in Ketchikan, Alaska, but her father was a bridge builder and the family lived in several states. Telford spent much of her childhood in Indiana. After high school, she became a journeyman carpenter. Despite her Indiana upbringing, she grew up connected to her culture, visiting Alaska for traditional gatherings and potlatches and participating in traditional dance.
At the age of 35, she began learning to weave traditional Haida baskets from her aunt, Delores Churchill, and traditional cedar garments from her cousin, Holly Churchill. She was a quick learner. In 1996, her work was featured in the exhibit “Weavers of Git’ans Git’anee,” at White River Trader in Indianapolis. In 1997, Tsimshian artist David Boxley acquired one of her hats for his collection; Wasco basket weaver Pat Courtney Gold acquired her miniature Haida baskets.
In 1998, Telford was a demonstrator at the Suquamish Museum and the Seattle Art Museum, and an instructor at the Sealaska Heritage Foundation and the Kootznoowoo Cultural Foundation. In 1999, she was artist in residence at the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis, the National Museum of the American Indian/Smithsonian Institute, and ATLATL in New York.
In the ensuing years, her work was selected for exhibits in numerous states, British Columbia and New Zealand; and won top awards at major shows in Arizona, California and Washington. Her cedar-fiber cowboy boots won first place at the 53rd annual Indian Fair & Market at the Heard Museum. Her cedar dress with cotton cordage and leather fringe, “Pocha Haida,” was selected as the catalog cover image for “Time Warp: Contemporary Textiles of the Northwest Coast,” at the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art. “Time Warp,” featuring the works of 20 indigenous Northwest artists, challenged the stereotype of weaving as “purely decorative” and conveyed the role of textiles in ceremony and cultural exchange.
“Drummers, dancers and leaders clothed in the products of the weavers’ hands boldly pronounce our stories,” co-curator Evelyn Vanderhoop said on the exhibit Web site. “Textiles are again taking their place in the ever-changing matrix of our evolving culture.”
Quite a resume for an artist who admits coming up with ideas “is kind of tough.” Once, Telford was weaving a pair of shoes and wasn’t certain about the direction the project was taking. “I looked at it for two weeks before the light came on,” she said.
Telford is a meticulous artist. She told the National Museum of the American Indian that as a young weaver she once sat down and counted every stitch on one of her grandmother’s old baskets. “At first my basketry had to be perfect, and then I let it all go and that’s when I found true joy,” she told NMAI. Her respect for her art and the resources it requires is evident from the time she harvests her cedar fiber, carefully removing narrow strips of bark from the right tree, to completion of her project. She travels hundreds of miles from her home north of Seattle; she goes to Alaska for yellow cedar, and to Washington’s higher elevations for red cedar.
“I thank the tree for giving me its beautiful clothing,” she said. “I remind the tree, she will live on in clothing and basketry for all to admire. And the process begins.”
Her projects can be inspired by discussion or by sight. “A Night on the Village” evolved from a conversation with a museum curator in New York, while a pair of cedar loafers with abalone buttons were inspired by shoes she saw in the Burke Museum.
“Lisa has worked a long time to perfect her skills,” said Sue Helmke, owner of Snow Goose Gallery in Seattle, which exhibited “Pocha Haida.” “She’s a perfectionist but she’s also very personable, and that’s helped her develop a large following. She really loves weaving and it shows.”
As she looks for new ways to express herself as an artist, particularly as a weaver, Telford strives to maintain a high standard of perfection.
“Haida basketry was essential for survival years ago. I continue the tradition, celebrating the beauty of nature.”