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WOVEN WONDER: The Creation of Shan Goshorn’s Color of Conflicting Values

Much has been written about the decidedly modernist baskets created by Shan Goshorn but little, if anything, has documented her artistic process so that viewers can understand how these marvelous works of art (perhaps best deemed sculptures) come to be.  At first glance, Goshorn’s baskets appear to be benign, even traditional.  What draws viewers in is a form that they perceive as familiar and artistically accessible.  It is on closer inspection that they realize that the artist has taken a classic form and used it in decidedly contemporary ways.  Where once baskets were used to store and carry various items – particularly food – Shan Goshorn’s creations hold and convey ideas – food for thought.  To mainstream audiences it may seem strange that the artist has chosen baskets as a medium to explore profound social, political, and historical themes, some of which are quite controversial, but by doing so, Ms. Goshorn has found a way to engage an audience in a non-confrontational manner, allowing for a discussion of difficult and often painful subjects.  The fact that the artist uses traditional basket making techniques with contemporary materials suggests that topics examined in her art are part of the Native consciousness and are also inexorably woven into the fabric of American society.  Although she is proficient as a photographer, painter, silversmith, glass worker and storyteller Goshorn stated, “. . . I consider myself an artist who chooses the medium that best expresses a statement, usually one that addresses human rights issues, especially those that affect native people today.”

1. Color of Conflicting Values
Collection of E. J. Guarino.  Photograph courtesy of the artist.
Color of Conflicting Values by Shan Goshorn, Eastern Band Cherokee, Arches watercolor paper printed with archival inks, acrylic paint, gold foil, app. 14x 14x 13(2013).

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Color of Conflicting Values by Shan Goshorn (detail)
Photograph courtesy of the artist.

Ms. Goshorn learned to weave in a non-traditional way.  After she graduated from college, she received a commission from the Department of the Interior/Indian Arts and Crafts Board to illustrate in pen and ink twenty traditional Cherokee basket patterns. “These drawings,” Ms. Goshorn explained, “taught me the math and rhythm of basket weaving and convinced me that I could probably make a basket, but I never had a desire to try until 2008.” The usual way Native people learn craft skills is from an elder, usually a member of their family but no one in the artist’s family wove baskets.  “I taught myself by carefully examining a finished basket,” Goshorn said.”

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Color of Conflicting Values (interior)

In the course of one of our many Email correspondences, I asked Ms. Goshorn if she kept a notebook or sketchbook and was not surprised that she did.  I asked her when and in what ways she employed such books with regard to the baskets she created.  “Mostly I use these notebooks to help me remember my ideas,” Goshen stated.  “I started keeping more earnest notes once I received my Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship because I was so bombarded with ideas I didn’t want to forget any of them.  Once I came home from the second part of my Smithsonian trip . . . I took a legal pad and created a sheet for each idea I thought of . . . .  I pinned each of these sheets up in my studio so I could review and ruminate on them more easily than if they were in a book.  It took me a couple of weeks to organize my thoughts and notes after that last trip, so as I was reviewing all my images of historical photographs and documents, I would write down the reference number on each relating sheet so I could find it more easily when I was ready to use it.  There was no way that I was able to work on all these ideas at once . . . .”While Ms. Goshorn’s early art pieces and the accompanying lectures she gave about stereotypes and racism strongly expressed a Native point of view, audiences found them off-putting.  “They weren’t as successful in educating and encouraging dialogue as I’d hoped . . . .  the more common response was for an audience to retreat as soon as possible, or more unpleasantly, to engage in hostile finger pointing,” Goshorn stated.  “Fortunately, I had an idea in 2008 about creating a work that addressed sovereignty and decided that a traditional single-weave basket shape would be an interesting way to present the friction between state and tribal government. This paper basket was met with surprise and interest, encouraging me to pursue this technique by tackling the more difficult double-weave.”  Double-weave baskets are very difficult to create since they must be started on the interior bottom and then the sides are woven to the desired height. Then the splints are turned and woven back down the sides and finished on the bottom, making the weaving pattern appear to have no beginning or end.  The artist’s first double-weave basket, Sealed Fate: Treaty of New Echota Protest Basket, took the artist over a year to figure out and was completed in 2011. This was the beginning of what has become Shan Goshorn’s signature form of expression.

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Shan Goshorn
s sketchbook with notes on Color of Conflicting Values.

“As I continue to do research in other institutions,” the artist added, “my ideas seem to always stay way ahead of what I am able to create.  I have since expanded my use of small notebooks to keep track of my ideas on sheets of archival sketchbook paper, which I am filing in separate folders pertaining to each basket.  I was so grateful for notes that made my research easier while in the Smithsonian archives that I determined I wanted to leave such a map after me for future researchers.  I try to keep track of ideas as they change, alternate choices and anything else that influences my final outcome.  I write general themes, title ideas, document choices, color sketches of possible basket layout, which help me visualize which documents/photos will go where.  I sometimes specifically record the brand and colors of paint I use, especially if I am mixing colors for washing splints.”

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Shan Goshorns first sketches for Color of Conflicting Values.  (From the artists sketchbook.) 

Referring to a specific page in her sketchbook, Goshorn pointed out the following: “It is interesting to see from my notes that I was considering the title ‘Sold Out’ for quite a while.  [See upper right of image.]  That may actually morph into another basket.  Based on my notes, I was thinking about using the dollar bill with the stereotypical list of the ways that Indians are mis-appropriated in this country. That could still happen; it seems like it would be good piece.”

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Sketches and instructions for the man who prints images for the artist.
 

            “You should also note,” Goshorn continued, “that my original notes on this piece were on typing paper (this was before my Smithsonian experience); the legal pad sheet is what I used to convey the dimensions/layout, etc. to my printer guy.”

Having seen a great deal of Shan Goshorn’s work, I assumed that the first step in creating one of her baskets was coming up with a concept.  “Coming up with the concept is not always the first step,” the artist explained.  “Sometimes I am motivated by an image, document or title and I create the concept around it/them.  But assuming the concept does come first – as it did in the case of this piece – I first think about text/images that will best express it.  It might require doing some research or requesting information.  For this basket, I already had lots of photos of the Great Smokey Mountains (the Cherokee’s ancestral homeland) but I had to cull through my photo library to find an image that fit, most notably one that featured the predominance of green that I was visualizing.  I chose to use the text of the Indian Removal Act of 1830 because this legislature became law under Jackson’s leadership and Jackson chose to interpret it to mean that he had final authority to force the removal of Indians when he actually only had the right to negotiate land exchange.  I prepare the digital files the best I can and then work very closely with my printer to fine tune the documents.  Spacing and measurements must be exact so images and details line up perfectly when woven together.  It was necessary on this piece to double-expose the currency with the forest as well as some technical manipulations so the basket would work as a double-weave basket.”

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U.S. $20 bill and Shan Goshorns painting of this currency.

In addition to dealing with the usual technical problems of creating one of her statement baskets, the artist encountered an additional complication as she was creating Color of Conflicting Values.  “While working on this piece,” she explained, “I learned that digital scanners are not able to copy US currency so, in order to meet my deadline, I had to race home from the printer’s and paint my own version of a $20 bill to use in this piece.  My printer takes a couple of days to further prepare the documents and then he provides me with the final sheets of paper printed per my specifications.  I often add washes of acrylic paint to these sheets to create the richness of color that I don’t feel is possible in a digital process.  In this piece, the exterior printing of the woods was used as printed, but I washed the sheets to be used on the interior of the basket with the same variegation of greens adding the glimmer of gold foil to represent how the discovery of gold on Indian land was the final impetus to remove the Cherokee. These sheets are then carefully cut by hand into strips (splints) which are then woven in the technique of the traditional baskets of my people.” 


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Sheet of paper printed to Shan Ghoshorns specifications for Color of Conflicting Values.  Note the “mirrored” image of photo about 1/4 way from the bottom.  This is where the splints were turned to become the bottom base of the basket.  This is the full sheet prior to cutting into splints.

All of Shan Goshorn’s images are printed on Arches watercolor paper, which is acid free.  The images for a double-weave basket are then cut into splints on the diagonal.  “Figuring out the exact dimensions of all the parts for my printer guy is a huge challenge for me,” Ms. Goshorn said, “my brain does not easily work that way.  These sheets always throw me off too.  Sometimes basket ends up larger than I think, other times, smaller.”

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A B
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C D
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E F 

Color of Conflicting Values under construction

         As a collector, I was particularly interested in what steps Shan Goshorn follows when she makes a basket, particularly one of her large statement baskets.  I wanted to know what exactly are the steps to creation?  In other words, after the idea, the sketch, the research, how does the artist actually make the basket?  I asked Ms. Goshorn if she could make a list of steps she follows.

“Before I start,” she replied, “ I need to determine the shape, the colors and pattern of the basket. Some things, like the color or order or multiple documents, can be changed while weaving but it is a smoother process if this is predetermined.

  1. Create digital files for printer.
  2. Pick up printed sheets.
  3. Paint, if necessary. Usually several coats of washes, often both sides.
  4. Cut into splints
  5. Glue any splints together that need to be longer. (I am limited by printer capability to sheets that are 22 X 30” unless I special order paper on a roll which is VERY difficult to work with.)
  1. Create the base weave. This is true for both single and double-weave baskets but with a double weave, only one side will be seen. I typically work with an “over 3, under 3” pattern on the bottom of most of my single weave baskets and “over 4, under 4” on the double weave.
  1. Turn the corners and start weaving up the sides.
  2. For a single-weave basket, once I get to the desired height, I put a rim on it and I am finished. For a double weave basket, I turn the splints once I get to the desired height and start weaving back down the outside. I then turn corners again and finish on the bottom.”

“This is a very simplistic list.” Ms. Goshorn went on to explain.  “There are many, MANY other things that I am thinking about and monitoring while I am working.  Details like the shape (i.e. is it time to start changing the diameter for a tighter or wider neck?); balance (is basket maintaining consistent height around perimeter? Does it lean to one side?); tension/tightness of the splints; are key words showing up throughout basket; are colors working the way I visualized?  I always try to remain cognizant of whether the basket is expressing the statement which I originally had in mind. That does not mean I will take it apart to start over (although sometimes I do); it might mean that I keep working to see where the basket will go without my direction.  Sometimes when I am ’in the zone,’ magic happens all by itself.”

IMG_7341Shan Goshorn’s work space with Color of Conflicting Values in progress.

Once I had acquired Color of Conflicting Values, I wondered what had inspired the artist to create it.  The artist explained in detail why she felt compelled to create this piece.  “I have always felt there is a significant chasm that divides Native people from non-Natives in regard to views of land relationship vs. land ownership that began at first contact and continues to this day,” the artist stated.  “I can’t think of anything more important to Native people than land because it is the very land that links us to our ancestors; consequently, it is what binds us to our families.  Unlike the prevalent attitude of harnessing the earth’s resources for financial gain, Native people consider the earth a relative – our first mother- and our relationship to the plants, animals, rocks and soil is familial as well.  Few, if any, of our government leaders share this outlook but President Andrew Jackson demonstrated a particularly tyrannical approach to removing Indians from their homeland for personal profit, displacing most of the SE tribes to lands west of the Mississippi so settlers (and he personally) could claim the land.  It is galling that his portrait should be on the $20 dollar bill but perhaps this usage best sums up what was valuable to this man.  It seems a bitter irony that US currency is the same color of the beautiful lush mountain forests of my people’s rightful homeland.  I created this piece to bring awareness to this dichotomy (contradiction?).”

For emphasis Ms. Goshorn added, “Andrew Jackson has a special place in Cherokee history.  Before Jackson became president, a Cherokee warrior saved his life at The Battle of Horseshoe Bend and Jackson swore eternal loyalty to ‘his Indian brothers’.  However, once elected president, it was Jackson who overruled Justice Marshall’s decision that the treaty used as the basis for removing the Cherokee from their homeland was unconstitutional.   Using federal military strength, Jackson forced the Cherokee to leave the mountains and march to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma).  Over 1/4 of Cherokee people died along the way from starvation, exhaustion, disease and heartbreak.  The march is now called ‘The Trail of Tears’.  America thinks Jackson was a great leader and celebrates his accomplishments by placing him on our national currency.  The Cherokee consider him to be a traitor of the worst kind.”

IMG_7348Shan Goshorn creating Color of Conflicting Values.

            Shan Goshorn is a visionary artist in multiple ways.  She has not only singlehandedly transformed the medium of basketmaking from craft to cutting edge contemporary art but also has an overview of her place in history.  Ms. Goshorn expresses her commitment to future artists and curators by carefully documenting her artistic process through notebooks, sketchbooks, and photography.  The pieces she creates are beautiful, thought provoking, controversial, and address multiple social, political and historical issues while remaining deeply rooted in Native American culture.  Ms. Goshorn has not only mastered the technical aspects of her art but is also able to create objects that are powerful yet accessible.  Her work is unique in all of contemporary art.

The author would like to thank Shan Goshorn for her invaluable help with this article.

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