It might be easy to think that the production of folk art isn’t really “work.” But whether or not folk artists make a living through their creativity, their labors require hard-earned mastery of skills. Learn about two Utah women whose art was their work.
Across Utah, folk artists create hand-made treasures that are used and valued by their communities. Many artists train for years to master their art forms, relying on knowledge passed down through generations, and sharing those skills in turn. Folk artists provide a unique and important community service – their job is to preserve cultural traditions.
One such folk artist was Goshute basket weaver, Molley McCurdy. In the early 1900s, Molley grew up near Ibapah, Utah, watching her aunts make twined willow baskets. Essential for survival, Goshute baskets were used to gather traditional foods or hold water. Or roast pine nuts and winnow off the husks. Or even cradle babies. Women spent hours gathering willow and young stalks of sumac, which was no easy task in Utah’s arid West Desert. Young girls such as Molley helped prepare the plants by splitting the stalks into thin strips using their hands and teeth. From there, they learned how to weave baskets of different shapes for different jobs. Before her death in 1994, Molley was among a few remaining weavers who could create traditional basket forms. Her works are still valued for their beauty and roots in tradition.
When Nina Grimes moved her family from rural Georgia to Utah in the 1950s, she brought along her prized possessions. These included quilt frames inherited from her grandmother, as well as the skills to make use of them. Nina learned to quilt from helping her grandmother, a tradition she passed on to her own granddaughters. A founding member of the Utah Quilt Guild, Nina became certified through the National Quilter’s Association and taught hundreds of students. She wrote books, accepted commissions, and worked ten-hour days to produce quilts that remain highly valued for their artistry and skill.
During their long careers, both Molley and Nina received the Governor’s Folk Art Award, which honored their contributions to Utah’s diverse folk traditions. Their work strengthened their communities and continues to inspire new generations.
Mikee Ferran for the Chase Home Museum of Utah Folk Arts © 2017
Image: Western Shoshone (Gosiute) weaver Molley McCurdy with a twined, open-work berry basket. She received the Utah Governor's Award for her basketry in 1986. Photograph by Carol Edison, 1986. Courtesy of the Chase Home Museum.
See the State of Utah Folk Art Collection for artist profiles and art information; Hal Cannon ed., Utah Folk Art: a Catalogue of Material Culture, Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1980; Nina Grimes obituary, The Union Recorder, June 7, 2010; Dennis Defa, “The Goshute Indians of Utah,” Utah State Historical Society, History to Go website; Larry Dalrymple, Indian Basket Makers of California and the Great Basin, Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 2000; We Shall Remain curriculum and Utah American Indian Digital Archive.