Rug of the Day: Alice Chischilly Wilson’s Weaving Looks Around Her Home

Alice Chischilly WilsonTempe, AZ I first met Alice Chischilly Wilson in 2003.  The Gallup Inter-tribal Ceremonial, which was perennially in financial trouble, was trying to raise money by sponsoring a monthly rug auction and my friends Hank Blair and Bruce Burnham were the auctioneers.  My friend Jennie Slick and I would go each month and help out.  If we were having a weaving class, we’d take them along.  Sometimes, the class constituted most of the bidders.  Let’s just say it wasn’t as well advertised or well attended as it might have been and the Ceremonial gave up on it after a year.  One of the neat things about the auction, though, was that I got to meet a lot of weavers and Alice was one of them.  Alice came from Oak Springs, Arizona, about 35 miles northwest of Gallup and she said that she was 85.  Hank Blair said that he had met her about 10 years earlier, when she was 85.   I bought another one of her weavings in 2006, when she was 85.   Apparently, Alice was of the opinion that 85 was old enough and I have no idea what her actual age is.

In 2003, I bought the rug that you see in the picture above and Alice agreed to have her picture taken with the rug as long as I was in the picture too.  To give you an idea of Alice’s size, I am 5′ 2″ tall.   She was standing right next to me and was not in a hole.  Alice stood a little over 4′ 8″ tall and appeared to weigh well under 100 pounds, even if you counted the substantial amount of turquoise jewelry that she was wearing.  The rug was a design that Alice wove quite frequently as she got older, and she said that she came up with it by looking at things around her home and at church.  She would combine different commercial and handspun wools in her weavings and some of them were vegetally dyed.  She used a lot of Navajo tea, which is also called greenthread, in her designs.  In this rug, Navajo tea colors the handspun wool that is the background for the trees in the upper part of the rug.   The yellowish green at the very top is probably dyed with sagebrush.

Like many of the weavers of her generation, Alice wove to help provide extras for her family.  It was something that she could do at nearly any hour, but Alice didn’t believe in weaving at night or when it was raining.  She believed in getting dressed up to weave, so you can picture her at the loom dressed pretty much the way she is in the picture sans the jacket and scarf.  Today, it is difficult for weavers to sell the kind of weaving that Alice did, simple and full personal idiosyncratic touches that don’t translate into appreciation of value.  My friend, Bruce Burnham, told me that I was doing my “due diligence” that night by buying the little weaving, helping to support a weaver toward the end of her work or at the beginning of it, but I really liked the weaving and Alice, so while I might have been doing my duty, it was also a lot of fun.   Jennie and I used the rug in class for a long time as an example of how handspun and commercial wools can be combined.  At one class, a student fell in love with it (and maybe with the idea of being 85 for 15 years) and it now lives in southern Ohio.

I bought Alice’s last rug at a Friends of Hubbell auction in 2008 (the tag says she was 85), so I can’t do any more due diligence for her work, but I really like Bruce’s idea that sometimes, you need to throw the ideas of profit margins and investment value out the window and just support the weavers.

Hagoshíí (so long for now)

Mary Walker

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  1. Janet Hoffmann on June 6, 2011 at 11:13 pm

    You might add to upcoming auctions this Saturday’s MNA Navajo Rug Auction at the Museum. Preview 9 am – 1 pm, auction 2-5 pm. I’ll be going up Friday to consign some weavings for sale. I’ve got to start reducing the total number if we ever plan to move. I noted the article at AZ Central, but I’ll be going up as much for the weather as the auction.

  2. theresa on June 5, 2011 at 9:03 pm

    And I agree with Kathy and Paula. Jack Benny came to my mind, too.

    Mary, I so much enjoy it that you are posting rugs that have a special quality beyond the more common rugs I see on the internet or in books. The information and anecdotes you provide for each rug are interesting and entertaining. I really appreciate your taking time to do this.

  3. Paula Pavlovic on June 5, 2011 at 4:39 pm

    I agree with Kathy. I would like to see Alice’s last rug, too. This one may not have investment value but then who knows in 50 years what collectors might want. Anyway I like the combination of traditional patterns with meaningful symbols. I am sure each one of those designs had significant meaning to her as she wove it. She put in it the things that she loves. Like the pine trees at the top and imagine that there are pine trees near where Alice lives in Oak Springs. Nice final touch.

  4. Kathy Bernett on June 5, 2011 at 1:23 pm

    I love the idea of Alice being 85 for so long, kind of like Jack Benny being 39 for years. Alice sounds like she had a great sense of humor, not to mention tremendous talent. That rug is amazing. Do you still have Alice’s last rug? I’m sure we would all love to see that one, too. Thanks again, Mary, for a great story.