If Rugs Could Talk

Artist Will Wilson’s software-generated Navajo weaving


On a recent trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico, I headed up to Museum Hill to take a look at some Native American art. I grew up in Colorado with parents who collected Native American pottery and rugs, and I’ve always particularly loved Navajo rug designs, which look as if someone captured the colors of a Southwestern landscape, abstracted the mountain forms, and flattened it all into a weaving.

So when I got to the hill I headed for the Wheelwright Museum, which specializes in Navajo art, hoping to see the greatest hits of traditional hand-loomed tapestries.

Instead, the first piece that greeted me was a weaving so enmeshed with modern technology, it couldn’t have existed a century — or perhaps even a decade — ago. The work’s title, eyeDazzler, references the diamond patterns found in traditional Navajo rugs and blankets, and it shares the jagged-edged geometry of its ancestor, as well as the size, shape, and jewel-toned colors. But instead of wool, the entire tapestry is created out of tiny, shiny squares of glass, as if an old rug had been digitized and rendered as visible pixels.

Catching the light with all those pieces of glass, the tapestry shimmered. But it wasn’t just the material that made this eyeDazzler such a modern artifact. Its creator, Navajo (Diné) artist and photographer Will Wilson, had woven a startling deviation into the center of the traditional pattern: Two QR codes. Conditioned to take a QR code as an invitation to scan, I pulled out my smartphone, but then hesitated; there was no photography allowed at the museum. Did that mean no scanning? Were there any museum guards who would notice?

I scanned. Then I headed to the bathroom, so no one would see me looking at my phone.

The QR scan revealed a video created by Navajo filmmaker Dylan McLaughlin, along with Wilson. The film opens with close-ups of a traditional rug — the exact same design and dimension as Wilson’s eyeDazzler — panning across the texture of the fine wool and the precise edges of the diamonds. Then the perspective shifts to a computer screen showing a digitized rug, and photos of contemporary Navajo women with dangling silver earrings and green and purple fingernails, weaving the tapestry out of the tiny square beads. The different eras represented visually are pulled together by the soundtrack, which is Wilson’s mother, Lola Etsitty, and his aunt, Margaret Edgewater, discussing the weaving process in Navajo.

After I watched the video, I noticed that the wool rug, woven by Wilson’s grandmother, Martha Etsitty, was also on display, providing museum viewers the opportunity to see his original point of reference.

Wilson grew up near the Grand Canyon watching his grandmother weave rugs. He was fascinated by the process: she raised the sheep, sheared the wool, cleaned, carded, and spun it by hand, then dyed the yarn. She warped the traditional Navajo vertical loom, stringing fine yarn in vertical lines on the frame to create the bones of the rug, then wove the weft with intricate patterns.

“Growing up around the entire process always made me want to create my own version,” Wilson said. But as an artist who uses technology to update traditional Navajo (Diné) arts and crafts, his version wasn’t going to be a simple change in design. “I wanted to bring new materials and technologies to the weaving process, and to be able to relay interactive content through the piece.” By integrating QR codes, he transports the viewer quite literally to a different dimension, and takes the age-old Navajo tradition of storytelling into the realm of digital video.

Wilson recreated his grandmother’s pattern using software he developed for a mural project, along with artists Josh Sarantitis and Greg Barton, in which he designed a large-scale mosaic for the Barrio Anita Mural Project in Tucson, Arizona, using 3/4-inch square Venetian glass tiles. Their open-source TilePile software converted the pixels of a digital image into the color palette of the glass tiles for the mural, then showed where to put the tiles on a grid to create the 4000-square-foot piece.

“As soon as we designed the software I knew that I wanted to create a Navajo textile design,” he said. He used the software to digitize his grandmother’s rug and figure out how to weave the beads on a loom.

The glass eyeDazzler is made from 76,050 square beads of the same colors as his grandmother’s rug. He decided to use the square beads after his friend and former student, Erica Lord, showed him a burden strap (she’s Inupiat and Athabaskan) that she beaded with square Japanese beads; the image was the DNA microarray analysis of a genetic marker for diabetes. “Once I saw that piece I knew what material to make my textile out of,” said Wilson.

Wilson describes his artistic practice as “trans-customary” — a term he says he borrowed from Robert Jahnke, a Maori artist and scholar who studies cultural identities and the ways they shift and change according to context. “My work references customary design and technique,” Wilson says, “but also illustrates how traditional artwork is always about being innovative.”

Wilson worked with several collaborators to create his tapestry, which was commissioned by the Art in Public Places program of New Mexico Arts, including Joy Farley and Pamela Brown, two Navajo women who grew up weaving; as well as Jaime Smith, a Cherokee/Choctaw community organizer and educator. The tapestry was created on a commercial Mirrix Loom, whose designer credits the Navajo stand-up loom as an inspiration. It took the collaborators two weeks to create the beaded rug, with weavers working 10–12 hour days. “It’s comparable,” says Wilson, “but I think the original rug took more work.”