The Old Masters were considered to be the great European painters before the 1800s. They set the style and tone of what was considered 'fine art' for centuries. I have spent many afternoons at galleries peering at these fine works of art, imagining how lives differed in those long-ago times and how they were the same as ours. The works are often rich with color and some of the scenes of happy, domestic life.
However, it was a different group of works of the masters that I visited with on Monday. This group of fine artists passed on mostly without leaving their names on their works, but the fine quality shines through all the same.
DD and I spent the day with The Cutest Niece and Granddaughter in the World, going to visit oldest son (Uncle Cody) who lives in Lake Tahoe... his weekends are Mondays and Tuesdays, and we could only manage to squeeze in the one day, but it was worth it! This year, summer is late in coming to the high country and the crowds were sparse. It was a bit windy and cool, so we decided to visit the Marion Steinbach Indian Basket Museum, which is operated by the North Lake Tahoe Historical Society in Tahoe City.
This museum is a relatively new addition to the Gatekeeper's Cottage, a landmark where the Truckee River flows out of Lake Tahoe. A new wing was constructed just for the basket collection. When Marion, a lifelong collector as well as a basketweaving teacher hoping to preserve the traditional skills of fine basketmaking, passed away in 1991, her family began working with the Historical Society so that the collection could be transferred and displayed together in its entirety in a safe and appropriate manner.
I had known of Marion Steinbach as the illustrator of my favorite field guide, used extensively over the years when hiking in the Sierras, Wildflower Walking in the Lakes Basin. Her love of the plants of our home place was apparent in her delicate and faithful drawings; my field guide has gradually been 'colored in' as I met each plant and added color to the drawings to help me memorize the plants. She applied the same skill to learning about basketmaking, taking painstakingly detailed notes and drawings when she had the opportunity to visit with a master weaver. She collected baskets for most of her adult life, and the collection on exhibit contains at least a few hundred baskets of all kinds, and from throughout the West.
This particular grouping contains basketry of the Maidu, the native people who would have sat on my hillsides, both in the higher-up country (in summer) and in my foothills home... their migratory routes ran east-west, and seldom did a person travel more than 50 miles in an entire lifetime, all on foot.
As I stood in the rooms with all of these works of art, I was simply in awe of the huge amount of skill amassed through these works. There were baskets for carrying peaches from the Navajo (who are known for treasuring their peach trees), baskets for leaching acorns, used throughout California. There are baskets woven to serve as hats, and to give as gifts, and many miniatures woven to show fine skills. There was a piece, much like a gauge swatch, that had been woven by a grandmother as a reference for her just-learning granddaughter. Many of the pieces were labeled with information about their makers, but most were not. While the person was lost to history, their artistry remains on display, every summer season, at this wonderful museum, a tribute to the great skills needed for a culture to simply skip over developing pottery because their basket weavers could meet all of their needs!
If you are heading to Lake Tahoe this summer, make room in your plans to spend an hour or two at this great museum, taking in the wonder of another kind of fiber artistry, and the amazing works of so many hands.
Marion would be happy to know that this tradition has not died out; rather, there continue to be those preserving fine basketmaking and expanding the art form.
This summer, beaded masterpieces from Paiute-Shoshone artist Rebecca Eagle Lambert are on display. These baskets are incredibly rich in design, and while for display only, are woven in the traditional manner. They are some of the most amazing works of art I have ever seen!
Of course, our trip also included walking along the lake's beautiful shore, and introducing our newest family member to one of my family's favorite places.