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Artists showcase tradition, imagination

A woman in a blue dress smiles next to a display of traditional Pomo baskets.
Pomo basket weaver and teacher Corine Pearce stands next to a display of her students' baskets at Grace Hudson Museum on July 5, 2024.

Artists displayed Pomo baskets and beadwork and art made from foraged and salvaged objects at Grace Hudson Museum at a pop-up display on First Friday.

First Friday in Ukiah included a pop-up display of basketry, beading and other artwork by Native American artists who spent a year using a California Creative Corps grant to teach their craft to students in the community, hone their traditional skills, and have fun with found and harvested materials.

Corine Pearce, a Pomo basket weaver from Redwood Valley, covered a wall with work by her students. “Every completed basket up there is just magic,” she declared, including a fully functional cradle basket that was made by her goddaughter, Tanya Ruiz, for her own son. “I started weaving with her when she was nine,” Pearce recalled. She hopes this basket inspires the beginning weavers. “Here's your beginning, your crooked beginnings,” on one end of the wall, all the way “to your perfect basket,” she said with an encouraging laugh.

Monique Sonoquie (Chumash, Apache, Yaqui, Zapotec and Irish), whose artist bio is printed on a banner from a residency years ago, invites her students to join her in using recycled materials. That includes books of poetry, music, photography, and some lighter reading. “We take pages from books,” she explained. “You make poetry out of the page that you're given, and then you can do art around that poetry…It depends on what book you have, too. At one of the events, the book was The Devil Wears Prada. Thank goodness it was mostly adults at that event.” For an MMIP/MMIW event, students put handprints made with beet juice on sepia-toned vintage photographs of Native Americans from around the country.

A woman in a blue flowered dress stands among baskets and paintings that are hanging on the wall, with her left hand on a large canvas depicting a close-up of a bee.
Monique Sonoquie with her artwork at Grace Hudson Museum on First Friday.

Sonoquie’s kelp baskets were also featured at the Mendocino Art Center and the Noyo Center for Marine Sciences field station during kelpfest last month. She started making them one day when she was gathering seaweed for food and had too many things to carry in her hands and her pockets. In a moment of inspiration, she wove a basket with what she had at hand, which was bull kelp. She has been selling and displaying them ever since.

For her traditional Pomo baskets, Pearce said she used some borrowed materials and some from the wild gardens at Grace Hudson Museum. Her display includes photos of a work party at a basket weaving garden she helped start on tribal land in Redwood Valley not quite thirty years ago. She said the weavers built their own sand bed on the acre-and-a-half site to cultivate sedge, and brought in three kinds of willow, redbud, dogwood, and mock orange. It all burned in the 2017 Redwood Complex fires, “And since California plants are really raised on fire, it was very beneficial for the whole garden,” she recalled. “We were able to not only revive the basket garden, but we also added in traditional plants for medicine and for food. It’s very fancy.” She believes it is “the first dedicated traditional garden on Indigenous land for community use that has been done in California.” Gesturing to the wild gardens behind her, she added, “This isn't Indigenous land. This is a museum. Same thing in Santa Rosa. They have it at museums, but not on tribal land.” With access to traditional basket-making materials on private property generally impossible, she concluded, “That's a big deal.”

Michael Racho is a Dry Creek member who has been doing beadwork and basketry “for the last 20 years at least.” He showcased a beaded necklace with a pendant that is a tiny basket, topped with an acorn cap, that has a very special purpose.

A smiling man in a blue shirt holds a pendant in his right hand.
Michael Racho showcases his work, highlighting an acorn-sized medicine basket pendant on a string of beads.

“These are considered medicine baskets for tribal community members or whoever needs a blessing or some care in their life,” he explained. “This one's out of reed and raffia.” The tiny fingertip-sized basket is stuffed with angelica root and sage, two of the herbs that are used in cultural blessings and prayers. “When we present it to that person in need, it will actually give them some form of relief,” Racho promised. “We don't know what, but you know, to the person that's holding it, they love it.”

Racho starts his classes by teaching students how to make a rough draft of their beadwork by lining up their beads before they commit to stringing them. And he shared a key tip about making sure heavy abalone medallions stay in place. “You take your sinew on a needle and you come from behind the medallion and then run it through,” he said patiently. “Then you lay a bead on it and then run it back through the hole, so the bead will hold it. That way, it'll stay flat on your chest. It'll be presented flat.” He reported that all of his students, including the young ones, made beautiful necklaces. Most importantly, though, “Everybody had an extreme amount of fun…And just shared their love.”

Pearce has noted something of a renaissance in traditional basket weaving. “There was nobody doing it for 20 years,” she recalled. She kept offering classes, “and there was nobody coming, but now they’re doing it!” Her ultimate goal is that there will be a weaver in every Pomo family again. “That might be a pipe dream,” she qualified; “But I’m seeing it….We’re almost up to 20, when we went from three. It’s amazing. There’s no limit. Everyone will have a weaver soon.”

Sarah Reith came to Mendocino County in 2008 and worked as a reporter and freelancer, joining KZYX as a community news reporter in 2017. She became the KZYX News Director in March, 2023.