Artist Shan Goshorn has gained acclaim for her inspiring and thought-provoking basketry.
Shan Goshorn’s more recent basketry work has been a springboard for the discussion she wants America to have about human rights. To accomplish this, she uses a contemporary medium but weaves in traditional Cherokee styles.
Shan Goshorn is a human rights activist, a member of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee and a multimedia artist.
Although each of these is a significant part of her life, something amazing happens when she literally weaves the roles together into intricate baskets to honor the culture and stories of Native people.
Goshorn has been an artist as long as she can remember. She considered several other career choices growing up, but her heart was always in her art.
“I figured I had as good a chance as anyone at making a living creating art,” she says.
But she is doing more than making a living. Goshorn has won numerous awards, received prestigious fellowships and is widely renowned for the way she marries photography and handwritten stories into her basketry. Her work has been exhibited in many museums all over the world, including the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and Gilcrease Museum.
She finds her inspiration from many places — museum archives, traditional stories, contemporary issues for Native people, conversations, other artisans and literature. She says everything is fair game, and her work ranges from smithing metal to photography and painting, to beadwork and basketry.
Goshorn was exposed to many of these media in high school while working at the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual in Cherokee, North Carolina. Her job was to photo-document craftspeople. This gave her the opportunity to accompany them as they gathered and prepared their materials and created their pieces.
“After I graduated from college, the Indian Arts and Crafts Board hired me to illustrate 20 pen and ink drawings of traditional Cherokee basketry patterns for a book,” Goshorn recalls. “By the time I finished 12-15 of these drawings, I understood the math and rhythm of weaving and felt that I could weave a basket.”
From the start, Goshorn was passionate about her work and intended to educate people with every piece she created — keeping her ancestor’s stories and issues alive and relevant.
“Some of my earlier work — I don’t know if it was because I was young and angrier — the messages I was going for weren’t coming across like I wanted them to,” she says. “Today, I feel good that my art is doing this work, but in a way that is less angry, less confrontational. It makes me happy that this medium of baskets literally invites an audience to lean in, to study the work and be curious enough about the issues I am presenting.”
Goshorn says her more recent basketry work has been a springboard for the discussion she has wanted America to have about human rights. To accomplish this, she uses a contemporary medium but weaves in traditional Cherokee styles.
“After all these years of working, it’s just coming together like I never would have expected,” Goshorn says.
Her pivotal piece was “Education Genocide” in 2011, a Cherokee double-weave basket created using paper splints printed with historical documents and photographs from the Carlisle Indian Boarding School.
The outside of the basket includes a speech from the school’s founder, who believed one could civilize the “savagery” out of a Native American child — “Kill the Indian, save the man,” he said. Goshorn says the inside of the basket contains splints printed with the names of the estimated 10,000-12,000 children from 140 tribes who attended Carlisle from 1879-1918.
Goshorn finished “Education Genocide” on a Wednesday night, left for an art festival and competition Thursday morning and won best of show. She says a Kiowa elder at the show helped her begin to look at her work differently.
“She came in and listened to me talk about the basket, and she began to cry looking at the faces of the children,” Goshorn says. “She said it belongs in a museum now because it’s a piece that tells our story in history.”
Goshorn has reached a level of recognition many only imagine, says Heather Ahtone, the James T. Bialac associate curator of Native American & Non-western Art for the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at The University of Oklahoma.
“The baskets she has made in recent years transcend any single aspect of the form, the content or the images she resources as materials,” Ahtone says. “The baskets speak to audiences with the wise and gentle voice of a grandmother carrying messages that remind us that our history informs our future. That is a message many might otherwise be deaf to, but her baskets speak to audiences brilliantly.”
And Goshorn’s message is a poignant one.
“I want to inspire audiences to learn more about Native culture rather than the Hollywood version or the sanitized history being taught in our schools,” the artist says. “I want America — and even the world — to see that our rich and sacred culture belongs to us and is not for sale like an advertising gimmick.”
Goshorn has received five fellowships to date, including a recent fellowship with the Smithsonian to review collections and study the archiving process.
In November, United States Artists named her a 2015 USA Fellow through a competitive program open to American artists of all genres. Through these learning opportunities she is discovering the value of documenting the process of her pieces, how her thoughts come together and the story behind each creation. This documentation could come in handy in the future, Goshorn says, because the Smithsonian has already expressed interest in her archives.
— Summer/fall 2014 issue of the National Museum of the American Indian, a publication of the Smithsonian
“Unexpected Gift,” 2015
The piece A basket featuring variations of a Cherokee pattern called “Unbroken Friendship.” Goshorn intends to keep this basket in her family.
Materials Watercolor paper splints printed with archival inks and acrylic paint.
Why? “Indian people are more connected than ever,” Goshorn says.
Inspiration Indian boarding schools forced the removal of children from their homes to “assimilate” Native children into American culture. However, this often resulted in deep, lasting bonds among Native students.
Coming together Included in the basket are a transcript and hand-written memoirs from Goshorn’s mother and grandmother that recount their boarding school experiences. Goshorn’s adopted Kiowa mother also handwrote names of friends she made at boarding schools.
“Hearts of our women,” 2015
The piece One center basket representing a fire, surrounded by 10 smaller baskets.
Materials Watercolor paper splints printed with archival inks, acrylic paint and copper foil.
Why? “Women are the keepers of the hearth, but we are also the heart and the energy,” Goshorn says. “I wanted to pay homage to extraordinary Indian women, both past and present.”
Inspiration “A Nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground. Then it is finished, no matter how brave its warriors or how strong its weapons.”
— Cheyenne saying.
Coming together Goshorn utilized Facebook to ask for nominations of women from all tribes. She received 700 submissions in two days. Each of those names was woven into the interior of the basket.
Weaving a Cherokee basket
TP: From idea to completion, how long does a typical basket take?
SG: This is a question I am repeatedly asked, but the answer is never simple. I am working on many baskets at the same time, often in all the various stages of creation — the conception of a statement, gathering research, preparing the digital documents, painting and cutting splints and then the actual weaving.
Traditional Cherokee basket makers find river cane or a white oak tree of the proper age. They cut it down into workable lengths, split it into halves, then quarters. The wood or cane is split into thinner strips and eventually is divided into workable splints of the same consistent size. The sides are trimmed and smoothed. Plants are gathered and prepared for dying the splints several colors. The splints are boiled with the dye plants, sometimes for days and then hung to dry. Only then is the basket ready for weaving.
By the time the weaving of a single weave basket starts, the basket is 75 percent finished. It is the same with my work, but instead of going into the woods to find white oak or river cane, I spend my preparation time in museums and archives gathering letters, treaties, photographs, maps, etc. I also have to prepare my splints in a time-consuming way.
By the time I begin to weave, a single-weave basket is almost already finished, and I have been known to weave one to two small baskets in a long day. Double-weave baskets take much more time. These are traditional Cherokee baskets that are like one basket with two walls, sometimes described as a basket within a basket. One of the double-weave baskets I wove (“Reclaiming Our Power”) took 1 ½ years to finish; I had to take it apart 12 times to get all 50 photographic figures to line up correctly.