15 September 2014

Spirit Lines

(Words by Nicole Varvitsiotes Photograph by Craig Johnson for Kinfolk Magazine)

Drawing from Navajo legend, the native weavers of Spider Rock have been incorporating purposeful imperfections into their designs for years. Intended as a way to keep their minds unattached and open to progress, this humble practice can teach us a lot about our own creative processes. 

High above the sun-punished floor of Canyon de Chelly in a sandstone spire known as Spider Rock, Spider Woman once wove on a loom that Spider Man made for her out of sunshine, lightning and rain. While the details of this Navajo folklore have become elusive with time, native weaver Emily Malone—whose family has created distinct Spider Rock designs for generations—explains how her people learned to weave:

“It’s only in winter that we tell the story about twin boys who made a journey to their father, the sun,” Emily says. “On the way they met Spider Woman, and she invited them into her house. It was a small home, and the boys asked her how they could fit in. Suddenly, a big opening appeared for them to go through, and inside were all different kinds of weavings. She told them to let their mother come and she would teach her how to weave.”

Through studying Spider Woman’s craft, the Navajo people learned to make blankets that brought warmth during harsh winters and offered new opportunities for trade. As a tribute to her, many weavers deliberately left a hole in the center of their blankets—one that mirrored the hole in the center of a spider web, and possibly the hole through which the twins entered Spider Woman’s home.

But over time, buyers started to see these holes as design flaws: imperfections on products that were otherwise perfect. Closing them would have meant opening the weavers up to potentially adverse spiritual consequences, so as a compromise, some weavers began to include what are now called “spirit lines” into their work instead. A non-structural variation of imperfection, spirit lines are created by using a contrasting thread in the same color as the background to add intentional breaks in a weaving’s geometric borders. Where they’re placed, their length and how many rows they claim are all matters of the weaver’s personal taste; the only common thread is the significance drawn from their intent.

While spirit lines may still be perceived as purposeful mistakes to some, Emily describes them as beautiful. In her culture, they’re referred to as shih nih bi-teen, which translates to “my mind’s road.” Her family believes that spirit lines are intentionally placed pathways meant to release their minds from their handiwork, preventing their creativity from being trapped in the weaving forever. “Spirit lines are important to us,” she says. “They keep your mind open for your next project. Without them, you enclose your designs in one rug and won’t be able to think of the next one.”

Spirit lines are a means of releasing energy, a doorway to the future, a pathway that connects a weaver’s first rug to her last using creative momentum to propel her designs forward. Without that contrasting line, the weaver’s design may appear aesthetically perfect, but reaching perfection has its consequences: If it’s attained, there’s nowhere left to go, no work left to be done.

If a spirit line is a visual reminder to push creative boundaries, then it’s a symbol that can extend beyond the Navajo nation. It can live in paintings or pastries, songs or sculptures. How it takes shape is at the will of the artist, but to those who make art or food or photographs, incorporating tangible evidence of a beautifully imperfect journey offers the mind a road to betterment.

(Second image of a 1940's weaving from navajorug.com)

1 comment: