"Fabric of Tradition: Navajo Blankets and The Louie Ewing Portfolio"

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Gallery handout for Fabric of Tradition: Navajo Blankets and The Louie Ewing Portfolio.

Gallery handout for Fabric of Tradition: Navajo Blankets and The Louie Ewing Portfolio.


Another item from the David and Carol Farmer archive, this gallery handout for Fabric of Tradition: Navajo Blankets and the Louie Ewing Portfolio is an important document not only about the history of Navajo (Diné) weaving, but also Work Progress Administration (WPA) projects in New Mexico and the life of artist Louie Ewing.


In 1939, the curator of the Laboratory of Anthropology in Santa Fe, Kenneth Chapman collaborated with Russell Vernon Hunter and artist Louie Ewing on a WPA project centered on the Laboratory’s collection of Navajo weavings. For the project, Ewing painted fifteen Navajo blankets from which he created silkscreen prints. Ewing printed each of the fifteen silkscreens two hundred times, and the resulting prints were compiled into portfolios that were distributed to universities, libraries, and museums.[1] After the WPA-funded project was complete, Ewing was able to parlay his success with screen printing the portfolios into a successful business for himself; as he told an interviewer for the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, “it worked out very well for me.”[2] In 1989, on the fifty-year anniversary of the weaving project, the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture (MIAC) in Santa Fe opened an exhibit about the project, which they named Fabric of Tradition: Navajo Blankets and the Louie Ewing Portfolio. In this exhibit, for which the foldout in the Farmer archive was created, curators displayed twelve Navajo blankets from the project paired with their corresponding Ewing silkscreen print.[3]

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"The Silk-Screen Process: A Circular Presenting the Technique of the Silk Screen as a Medium for the Creative Artist, Describing the Pro-Film and Other Methods Employed," (Washington, D.C.: W.P.A. Technical Series, Public Activities Circular No. 20, July 22, 1941).

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"Foreword" to "The Silk-Screen Process: A Circular Presenting the Technique of the Silk Screen as a Medium for the Creative Artist, Describing the Pro-Film and Other Methods Employed," (Washington, D.C.: W.P.A. Technical Series, Public Activities Circular No. 20, July 22, 1941).

Born in Pocatello, Idaho, in 1908, Louie Ewing became determined from a young age to become an artist. Furthering this dream, he underwent artistic studies at both the University of Idaho as well as the Santa Maria School of Art in California.[4] Following his education in California, which began in 1933, he moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, with his art professor from Santa Maria, Stanley Breneiser. After transplanting to Santa Fe in 1935, both Ewing and Breneiser taught at the short-lived Eidolon Art School. However, Ewing’s following Breneiser was not all for naught. Rather, he married Breneiser’s daughter, Marrie, the same year that they moved to Santa Fe, where the couple decided to remain after their marriage.[5]


After his move to Santa Fe, Ewing joined the Federal Art Project (FAP), a Works Progress Administration division, and began working under Russell Vernon Hunter, who would later collaborate with him and Kenneth Chapman on the Laboratory of Anthropology’s Navajo weaving portfolio. Hoping that he would spread the artistic technique throughout the Southwest, the FAP’s Washington, D.C., headquarters sent Russell “a group of materials on the process of silkscreening.”[6] The Farmer archive boasts one such FAP pamphlet on the printing process. Subsequently, Russell chose Ewing to both master and demonstrate the technique other artists, which resulted in Ewing’s heading Santa Fe’s WPA printmaking workshop. Quickly, Ewing got the workshop up and running, and artists throughout the Southwest began to utilize the silkscreening process in their practices.[7]


Ewing self-professes and is viewed by some as one of the earliest U.S. artists to “work creatively with serigraphy [silkscreening]” on books and posters.[8] He asserts that, “I was one of the first ones to experiment with silk-screen printing…And our first print, I think, took us about three days to produce. [Laughs.]”[9] Reminiscing on his early silkscreen process, Ewing remembers using a squeegee made from a car tire, “because there wasn’t a squeegee invented then,” before he was able to collaborate on one with the manufacturers of silks screening materials.[10]


Throughout the Great Depression and the early years of the Laboratory of Anthropology, from 1933 to 1943, the institution collaborated with the FAP on multiple projects.[11] In 1938, the FAP of New Mexico (NMFAP) funded a portfolio dedicated to Spanish Colonial design in the state. Ewing was asked to work on this project, and with his participation, “he began a long series of book publications in which his original silk screens were tipped into the books.[12] One such book publication was the Laboratory’s series of silkscreen plates of Navajo weavings published in the portfolio, Portfolio of Navajo Blankets. In addition to Ewing’s prints, based off his original paintings, the portfolio contained a six-page pamphlet penned by Chapman that described both an overview of the project as well as a short history of Navajo weaving.[13] After supervising the project and penning his pamphlet, Chapman distributed two hundred copies of the portfolio to “tax-supported and tax-free institutions” such as Gallup and Farmington’s public libraries, university libraries in Albuquerque and Las Cruses, and museums such as the Roswell Art Museum and Taos’s own Harwood Museum.[14] Ewing estimates that it took “about a year, I guess” to create Navajo Blanket's portfolio of prints.[15]


For Navajo Blankets, Ewing utilized screens made from silk cloth, with separate stencils for each of the weavings’ four to seven colors created. To make his images, including the one seen on the Farmer’s gallery foldout, Ewing pressed paint through his silk stencils onto paper, with each separate stencil having to line up perfectly with the ones preceding it.[16] Following his work with the WPA, the Laboratory of Anthropology continued to ask Ewing to create silkscreen prints for them in an acknowledgment of his mastery of the craft. As he continued to work in the medium, Ewing developed continuously new applications for silkscreen printing. As Ewing’s wife Marrie recalls, “So as far as he knew, Louie was the first artist to do illustrations for books by the silkscreen process.”[17]


Beyond the images that he created for books and portfolios such as Navajo Blankets, Ewing also designed and produced a variety of posters, include those for Gallup’s Intertribal Indian Ceremonials, which he designed for thirty-three years. In addition to making posters for Native gatherings, Ewing taught the silkscreen process to Native artists at the Santa Fe Indian School during the 1940s. While the display of his work was almost completely confined to New Mexico, Ewing’s use of silkscreening influenced a great number of Native, Euro-American, and other artists throughout the Southwest. Aside from printmaking, Ewing was also an accomplished landscape painter—working in oil, gouache, and watercolor—as well as sculptor and tile artist.[18] After living in Santa Fe for over fifty years, Ewing died in late 1983.[19]

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Verso of gallery handout for "Fabric of Tradition: Navajo Blankets and the Louie Ewing Portfolio."

For the Laboratory of Anthropology’s Navajo Blankets portfolio, Chapman selected a wide range of Navajo blankets spanning from 1840 through 1900. With such a large time period, weavings from each of the scholarly defined “Classical, Traditional, and Rug Periods” are represented.[20] Yet, it took almost fifty years, with the display of the Fabric of Tradition exhibition, for the blankets to be paired alongside their silkscreen prints from Navajo Blankets.[21] On the back of the Fabric of Tradition handout, MIAC gives brief background information on the FAP portfolio and Ewing’s life before delving into the “History of Navajo Weaving” and details from each of the three described weaving periods. The blanket on the foldout’s front is described as a “Transitional Period Chief’s Blanket” from the School of American Research’s collection in Santa Fe. The following is the curators’ descriptions of Navajo weavings from such design period:


"During the early 1860’s, the Navajo people were taken from their native homelands to spend four years in forced exile at Bosque Redondo [Ft. Sumner, or Hwéeldi] in eastern New Mexico. This event marked a turning point in Navajo history resulting in explosive changes in Navajo textile design and technology. During their confinement (186[3]-1868), the Navajo were introduced to new clothing and wearing blankets. Adoption of manufactured clothing resulted in fewer traditional garments woven for Navajo use. Additionally, trading posts were established on the Reservation shortly after their return from Bosque Redondo. The traders had marked influence not only on the materials used by Navajo weavers but on the form and design of the blankets brought to the posts for trade. Transitional Period (1865-1895) blankets demonstrate the introduction of colors, yarn types, and complex and foreign design elements influenced by Anglo-American demand and tastes. However, despite these influences and changes, the Navajo weavers continued to produce their own unique textile products."[22]


While informative, this succinct description fails to emphasize the death and destruction associated with Navajo peoples’ exile to Bosque Redondo, which should not be understated or overlooked. Navajo weavers have been and continue to be immensely talented weaving innovators, and not too much credit should be given to the Euro-American influences on their practice for their successes.


[1] “Louie Ewing Biography,” The Annex Galleries, accessed July 1, 2022, https://www.annexgalleries.com/artists/biography/2786/Ewing/Louie.

[2] Oral history interview with Louie H. Ewing, 1964 Jan., Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

[3] Louise Stiver, “Fabric of Tradition: Navajo Blankets and the Louie Ewing Portfolio,” El Palacio 95, no. 1 (1989): 61.

[4] “Louie Ewing,” artcloud, accessed July 1, 2022, https://artcloud.com/artist/louie-ewing-i.

[5] “Louie Ewing Biography,” The Annex Galleries.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.; Oral history interview with Louie H. Ewing.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Oral history interview with Louie H. Ewing.

[11] Stiver, “Fabric of Tradition,” 61.

[12] “Louie Ewing Biography,” The Annex Galleries.

[13] Stiver, “Fabric of Tradition,” 61.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Oral history interview with Louie H. Ewing.

[16] Gallery handout for Fabric of Tradition: Navajo Blankets and The Louie Ewing Portfolio.

[17] Stiver, “Fabric of Tradition,” 62.

[18] “Louie Ewing Biography,” The Annex Galleries.

[19] “Louie Ewing,” artcloud.

[20] Stiver, “Fabric of Tradition," 62.

[21] Ibid., 61.

[22] Gallery handout for Fabric of Tradition: Navajo Blankets and The Louie Ewing Portfolio.

"Fabric of Tradition"