Photo courtesy Barbara Teller-Ornelas.
Detail of a child's blanket by Barbara Teller-Ornelas. Photo courtesy Barbara Teller-Ornelas.

Woven Through the Generations: Tapestry Artist Navajo Barbara Teller-Ornelas

Lee Allen

More than 200 native artists will be on hand at Southern Arizona’s premier Indian art show, the Arizona State Museum’s Southwest Indian Art Fair (March 28-29)—but only one will be the featured artist: Barbara Teller-Ornelas (Dine), Master Two Grey Hills weaver.

Fresh from success at the 2015 Heard Museum Fair and Market, where she brought home a First Place and a Judges Choice accolade (as well as selling 3 pieces of her work), she’s ready for the next big adventure.

The tone of her biography tells a bit about the kind of person she is: “Barbara’s premature entry into the world took place in the shadow of a tree on a family outing to gather pinion nuts.”  That humble beginning is reflective today in the 5th generation weaver’s studio in Tucson, a small workspace filled with trinkets, mostly sheep figurines honoring her background as a Navajo traditional weaver.

Barbara Teller-Ornelas holding her 'Two Grey Hills' blanket with a child's blanket behind her at the 2014 Heard Museum Fair. Photo courtesy Barbara Teller-Ornelas.

“I’m born for Tabaaha (Edgewater Clan) and for To-aheedliinii (The Water Flows Together Clan) and learned the basics of weaving from my mother while my grandmothers taught me the legends of weaving and my older sister taught me about design.  Weaving keeps my family together, it’s our lifeline, and I’ve had a lot of teachers,” she said.

The internationally-renowned tapestry artist took those lessons to heart.  “Two Grey Hills is a neighborhood trading post where my father traded and I literally grew up at the store.  Weavers from the area had a distinct style of all-natural materials featuring geometric patterns with a brown background.  Everything is hand-spun and hand-carded and our weavings tell a story of what we know and what we see.”

'Two Grey Hills.' Photo courtesy Barbara Teller-Ornelas.

With a sixth-generation daughter, Sierra, and son, Michael, already accomplished and award-winning weavers (and a 13-year-old grand-niece representing the seventh generation), Ornelas is experiencing some freedom from tradition, no longer pigeonholed exclusively in Two Grey style.

Still, tradition is at her core.  She sings sacred songs to her loom while she works and talks fondly about teaching weaving in Canyon de Chelley.  “What better place in the world than where Spider Woman and the basics of weaving came from?  It’s like paying homage when we go back to our roots, sitting in the middle of the canyon, and weaving all day.”

'Spiderwoman's Cross.' Photo courtesy Barbara Teller-Ornelas.

Satisfied that she has fulfilled her grandmother’s dreams for her and that she has accomplished one of her life goals by teaching her own children the art of weaving, “I’m now free to create what I want on a loom using vivid colors.  You always want to have a traditional piece on the table, but you can do other things too.”

Her advice to the next generation of Navajo weavers is to learn the tradition before exploring creative options.  “Look at weaving from the time it began until today because it tells the history of Navajo peoples.  Learn that tradition and hang on to it.  And when you weave, always do your best, never cut corners, because you can’t rest on past laurels—you’re only as good as your last rug.”

An award-winning child's blanket. Photo courtesy Barbara Teller-Ornelas.

As featured artist at SWIAF, the renowned weaver will be joining other creative artists from Acoma, Santa Clara, and Laguna potters to O’odham basketmakers, Hopi katsina doll creators, and Zuni fetish carvers.  “These artists are descendants of ancient cultures, each representing a rich heritage with centuries of tradition,” said event spokesman Darlene Lizarraga.  “Each creation they bring to share with fair-goers is the latest iteration of an ancient art form.”

Barbara Teller-Ornelas with a large 'Two Grey Hills' at the Heard Museum. Photo courtesy Barbara Teller-Ornelas.

Barbara Teller-Ornelas and her sister Rosann with a 'Two Grey Hills' rug and a wealth of ribbons. Photo courtesy Barbara Teller-Ornelas.

Barbara Teller Ornelas. Photo by Lee Allen.

Raw materials for the next award-winning rug. Photo by Lee Allen.

A master weaver's hands at work. Photo by Lee Allen.

Barbara Teller-Ornelas with another masterpiece. Photo by Lee Allen.

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bullbear's picture
Submitted by bullbear on
Thank you Mr. Allen for this excellent article. I particularly like the photos which gives us copious descriptive words. "Take many more photos, include descriptions and keep them in a safe file, Ms. Teller-Ornelas, as you will be featured in many publications to come." Today Navajo rug weaving is still alive and well, but we also see on the horizon that as many youth choose not to follow the traditional way of maintaining flocks of sheep and all the time required to prepare wool for weaving, it will begin to be a lifestyle and art form that will slowly fade. One of the saddest moments I seen was the large rug auctions whereby these handmade jewels go for pennies on the dollar. On the other hand, it is heartwarming when you see them hanging in very prominent public institutions and luxurious homes. If you don't own one, save some greenbacks, visit a trading post in Navajoland and be a proud owner of a piece of history that harkens back to a time when sheep were first introduced in the 1500's. Don't forget to record all the historical facts of your rug purchase and keep it with your beauty. See it is an investment !