A Woven History: Teaching and Appreciating Art at Tohono O’odham Community College

Aug 12th, 2013 | By | Category: Arts & Language, Online features, Web Exclusive
By Martha S. Lee

“Listen carefully these baskets have a story to tell, for they were woven in the desert of the Tohono O’odham Nation.”

Tohono O’odham Community College (TOCC) faculty promote hands-on learning in many creative ways. When teaching art last spring, instructor Gina Cestaro realized that the best way to help students appreciate art is to give them the opportunity to present it to others. With guidance from the Tohono O’odham Nation Cultural Center and Museum’s public programs specialist, Jennifer Juan, she arranged for the six students in her course to curate a basketry exhibition at the museum.

Tohono O’odham baskets feature a tight weave, accented with designs influenced by traditional stories or everyday life. Hardy plants of the Sonoran Desert are used when weaving them, including bear grass, yucca, devil’s claw, and desert willow. Basketry remains an important tradition among the O’odham and students in Cestaro’s course appreciate its significance.

Museums normally have curators and professional art handlers install exhibits, but TOCC students worked together to brainstorm on a theme, select the baskets, plan placement of the art, create labels, position display risers, clean the vitrines (the glass cases), center the artwork on  pedestals, and lower vitrines into place. For example, student Ulrick Francisco helped choose baskets from the museum’s collection to share with the public. He also designed the exhibition labels, which included his photography. Aimee Gonzales, who learned about basketry from her two grandmothers before enrolling at TOCC, carefully examined the baskets chosen for display and completed condition reports on them. The reports catalogued measurements, materials, and any stains or marks on the baskets. Jean Hazen, who is of German and Chippewa ancestry, wrote the exhibit’s introduction. She has been attending TOCC for two years and credits her instructors and the many friends she has made in the local community with helping her develop an understanding of Tohono O’odham art and culture.

Students noted that the process of curating helped them appreciate art and artists more than ever. Gonzales and Hazen are planning careers in art therapy, while Francisco hopes to work toward community development or sustainability. Juan and Cestaro have been invited to speak about the curating project on the “Finding Common Ground: Academics, Artists, and Museums” panel at the College Art Association’s 2014 conference in Chicago.

In addition to the curating project, Cestaro has experimented with other teaching approaches that encourage students to engage with the community. She brought in two local artists, Gloria Benavidez and Elizabeth Ortega, to share their knowledge of basketweaving and traditional pottery. And through a digital storytelling project, students explored regional issues, such the effects of the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border and how the introduction of fiber optic cable to remote O’odham villages is enriching lives.

Recognizing the interest and talent of the local community, TOCC is committed to expanding its fine arts program. “We had an intense three to four weeks together, and the students did a great job. I’m hoping this marks a beginning of our museum working closely with Tohono O’odham Community College,” said Ms. Juan. By giving students hands-on experience, TOCC is enriching lives and fomenting an appreciation of the cultural traditions of the Tohono O’odham Nation.

Martha S. Lee is a grants and publications consultant who works with Tohono O’odham Community College.  She is inspired by the experiences of tribal college students, faculty, and staff and enjoys sharing their stories.  Martha holds a B.A. in English from St. Olaf College and an M.B.A. from Cornell University.  She lives in Tucson, Arizona, with her family.

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