While home on breaks from college in the 1970s, Toh-Atin Gallery owner Jackson Clark returned to Durango to work in the family store. He recalls coming into his dads office in the old Pepsi Bottling Company building where they bought and sold rugs and meeting a woman named Irene Pete. Thus began a rewarding relationship marked by random and infrequent visits.
After successfully selling her rugs for decades, Navajo weaver Pete took a long hiatus because of health problems. Now, she is back at it again, weaving herself back to health. And if your timing is perfect, you just might get your hands on one of her creations.
The spin on her wool is heavy and tight. She weaves rugs that are meant to be used on the floor. The color of her wool resembles the chalky landscape of northwestern New Mexico.
About once or twice a year, Pete, accompanied by one of her daughters to serve as driver and translator, would bring a weaving to Toh-Atin. There was never any advance notice, and Clark never knew when she would return or how to contact her. The relationship wreaked havoc on the traditional concept of supply and demand.
Her weaving style is characteristic of the Two Grey Hills style: nice pattern work, an even geometric design and an earth tone palette. Blacks are combined with whites to get various shades of gray; brown wool is combined with white to make tans and beiges. It is not uncommon to see several shades of gray, brown, and tan in the same rug. Her use of those natural colors developed into the regional style named for the prominent land feature located on the east side of the Chuska Mountains on the Colorado Plateau in the Navajo Reservation
The rugs are made of hand-spun yarn from the fleece of naturally colored local sheep in shades of gray, brown, black and white. Many sheep in this area are bred specifically for the trademark colors that they produce. Today, these rugs are some of the most expensive and highly prized rugs being made. Collectors boast that they are known around the world as the finest in Navajo weaving.
Although Clark says that Pete was not one of the finest Navajo weavers, she was very consistent and wove pieces that were solid and pleasing.
We sold a lot of her weavings, he said.
Then came the long gap in the Pete family visits when she wasnt weaving much.
Coming from the northern Navajo reservation, Clark never knows when Pete may arrive. Living the old ways, she has little interaction with white society. It is customary within the Navajo culture for the elderly to move back in with their children or for their kids to move back in with them. This is the case for Pete as she now lives with her daughter.
Its fun to see her come back, Clark said of Petes most recent visit last fall.
Now 90 years old and having suffered long-term effects from a stroke five years ago, Pete is using weaving as a form of therapy. Experiencing trouble with her hands, her doctor said that she needed to exercise them. Weaving is her exercise of choice.
Her latest work sat in the middle of Toh-Atins rug room since Petes last visit, and every day it reminded Clark of how important it is to keep going, to press on.
As he wrote in his gallery newsletter, It is a special example of what doing what you love will do to make your life worth living!
Immediately after the publication of the newsletter, Petes rug sold.
I dont know how many more rugs she has in her, Clark said.
I actually thought about taking it home for a long time but decided that I had already had the opportunity to enjoy it, and I should pass it on. One of the downsides of being a dealer, he said.
And while no one knows exactly when or where Pete will next be seen, rumor has it shes working on a new rug that will be ready in about six months.