Native Arts | Carol Naranjo


“My baskets evolve of themselves,” Carol Naranjo says. “When I’m weaving, I like to be alone in my kitchen. If I run into problems, I ask the grandmothers, ‘Please help me—there is no teacher here.’ And it comes.”

Six years ago, at the age of 57, and under the tutelage of Santa Clara Pueblo basket maker Joseph V. Gutierrez, Naranjo began making red-willow baskets. Whether bowl-shaped or vase-like, traditional or contemporary, her baskets are delicate, airy, and lacy yet sturdy enough for practical use. She will caution you to lift them by the rims and handle them “like fine china.”

Naranjo is one of only a few artists practicing the genre, which once thrived in the Pueblo and Mission cultures from which she descends. “When the railroad came through and brought manufactured goods, people quit making baskets,” she notes. “Today it is a dying art. Because of the introduction of china and Tupperware, people have little use for baskets other than for decorative purposes.”

The difficulty of crafting these baskets has likely also contributed to their demise. Red-willow shoots can be collected only in winter months when the plant is dormant. Bushes that produce long, slender branches are hard to find or are located on private or federal property where cutting is prohibited. The weaving itself is arduous, requiring lengthy periods of drying with the danger of breakage in the process.

When Naranjo and the friend she is now teaching venture out to hunt for suitable stands of red willow, they begin with prayer. “We take corn meal and tobacco and make an offering to the plants,” she says. “We thank the Creator for allowing us to gather the willow. Everything on this earth is a gift.”

They take care to cut only a little from each plant and generally return home with no more than the two or three large handfuls needed for a single basket. After the shoots are bundled by size, they are cured for a year so they will thoroughly dry, then soaked just prior to weaving. The traditional way is to gather willow in the morning and make the basket in the afternoon, but Naranjo’s experiments have taught her to wait in order to achieve a tighter weave.

Before beginning she’ll bend the willow to test its flexibility, trying to protect against breakage later on. She forms the base of her baskets with four sticks over four, gently plaiting and twining. The final braiding, she says, takes a lot of practice.

“The scary part is when I turn the basket upside down and take my foot and kind of mash it,” she explains. “I’ll put weights inside to hold the basket down until it dries.”

Although relatively new to baskets, Naranjo has always made art. Until she met her first husband’s surrogate mother, the acclaimed Pueblo painter Pablita Velarde, she liked to crochet and knit. Velarde bought Naranjo five or six bolts of fabric and ribbon and encouraged her to make Native American clothing. In her early 20s, living on the Navajo reservation, Naranjo raised sheep, carded, spun, and dyed her own wool, and wove on a Pueblo loom. Later she attended the University of Albuquerque, where she took classes in ceramics, metalsmithing, etching, and art history.

As a youngster, Naranjo had hoped to become a nurse. Despite her winning two scholarships, her mother refused to send her to school—girls, she believed, need not pursue professional careers. After raising three children of her own, in 1989 Naranjo fulfilled her childhood dream by graduating from nursing school. She worked on the Gila Indian Reservation in Arizona and at the Santa Fe Indian Hospital in New Mexico.

Too eager for art-making to retire, when she’s not studying micaceous pottery or lost-wax casting in her advanced jewelry class at the Poeh Center at Pojoaque Pueblo, Naranjo is searching the stream beds, ditches, and arroyos of New Mexico for tall stands of red willow. From late October to mid-March, this award-winning artist braves the wet and cold, the angry landowners and packs of dogs, to hunt down her supplies.

“I guess you would say I have a passion for these baskets,” she says, smiling. “I wish I could go back and have a lifetime of doing this. I get a sad feeling because I have to go through the whole summer without contact with willows.”

Naranjo’s baskets can be seen at the Eight Northern Pueblos Arts and Crafts Show in New Mexico and the Pueblo Grande Market in Arizona.

Featured in July 2002