Back in the '90s, when Southwest style was all the rage, my wife and I were trendy for the only time in our lives.
During our graduate-school days in Albuquerque, N.M., in the mid-'80s, we started decorating our home with Native American arts and crafts. The Southwest style, based around an ethic of hand-craftsmanship, mixes Spanish colonial, Mexican and cowboy influences, as well. But our love was always for the Pueblo pottery, the Hopi kachina carvings — the Navajo rugs.
Our first purchase, a 32-by-29-inch rug from a reservation gift shop, cost us around $300 — a small fortune for two people earning pittances as teaching assistants at the university.
To fund our arts addiction, we became aluminum hunters, roaming a swath of Albuquerque with plastic garbage bags in hand. There was no deposit on beverage cans in those days. You could sell aluminum by the pound at collecting stations throughout the city.
Every six months or so, we'd buy something nice with the money we'd saved. It's amazing how many beer cans you can find around a major university campus, if you're willing to get a little dirty — and aren't afraid of getting trapped inside a dumpster.
By the time Southwest style had migrated out of the desert and was sweeping into Manhattan and L.A., we were already living in Southern Oregon, where the craze was slow to catch on.
Yes, all the lifestyle magazines said we were hip. But our coolness never registered with our friends, who regarded the objects on our walls and shelves with mute indifference.
Nevertheless, we continue to cherish our collection and could tell you the story — the occasion, the place of purchase, how many cans it took to buy it — behind every piece in it.
During a recent return trip to New Mexico, we fell in love with Navajo rugs all over again, while attending the monthly rug auction in Crownpoint — a predominately Navajo community 50 miles from a sizeable town (Gallup).
We had always wanted to go to the auction but had never made it out to the remote location while living in Albuquerque.
Held in the elementary school gym, the event takes place every second Friday, with the preview starting in the late afternoon. The selling gets underway at 7:00 or so, and could go well into the night, depending on the number of rugs up for sale.
Rug makers from all over Navajoland — a vast region covering parts of New Mexico and Arizona — head to Crownpoint with their latest creations, "hot off the loom."
It's a quicker and more direct way for them to sell their works than dealing with shop owners. They can go home with cash in their pockets (no credit cards accepted) instead of waiting for a check to come in the mail.
For collectors, there's the lure of scoring a great deal on a rug, possibly. If you need something in the Two Grey Hills style to complement the Wide Ruins and Ganado weavings hanging in your den, maybe you can get it for $800, instead of the $1,400 you'd pay in a Santa Fe gallery.
In the old days, Navajo women got the wool for their rugs from sheep they raised themselves, and they colored the wool with natural vegetal dyes. Their looms were made from tree trunks.
Though most weavers now use more modern methods and equipment, a few of the women at the Crownpoint auction might have been present when mythic Spider Woman first taught the Navajo how to weave. They looked ancient, dressed in traditional flowing skirts and velveteen blouses, their faces deeply wrinkled with age.
At the check-in table, one such old-timer pulled a magnificent rug — easily 6-by-4 feet — from the cloth sack she was carrying. Vividly colored and featuring a complex design of abstract yet symmetrical patterns, it elicited appreciative "ahs" from everyone in the preview area.
"That one's gonna get a lot of attention tonight," muttered the guy next to me.
Most of the weavers, after checking in, kept to themselves. Many spoke in Navajo. An exception was Pauline Begay, a young woman who enjoyed rubbing elbows with potential buyers.
"I made that," she declared proudly, whenever someone touched one of the three rugs she had brought to the auction.
For her most dazzling piece, Pauline had used 54 different colors. But there were more austere rugs to consider during the preview, too — studies in gray, black, brown and white, for example.
By auction time, I was told, there could be as many as 150 to bid on. Something for everyone's taste, if you could afford it.
"How long did it take you to make each one?" I asked Pauline.
"About a month," she said.
Weaving since she was 13, she's been at it for 17 years now. Her sister had entered a rug into the auction, too. Both learned the art of weaving from their mother.
"Are you and your sister competitive?" someone asked Pauline.
She chuckled before admitting that, yes, they are. But they are also supportive of each other's efforts, she added.
"I send her pictures on my phone to show her what I'm working on," she said. "And she sends me pictures of hers."
Thirty years ago, I was hearing about the demise of Navajo weaving. So it was heartening to see Pauline, along with several other young artists, participating in the auction.
Each rug that my wife and I held that afternoon was beautiful in its own way — and a testament to the strength of tradition. But we left empty-handed — before the auction even started, in fact.
We had sworn on the drive to Crownpoint that our goals were to admire the weavings and to enjoy the cultural experience, and not to get into a bidding war with some rich Texan.
If we ever make it to the auction again, maybe we'll be buyers instead of lookers. In the meantime, we need to get busy collecting cans.
Paul Hadella is a freelance writer living in Talent. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.