Textile Tuesday: Docent and Volunteer Edition

Navajo Saddle Blanket

Navajo Saddle Blanket

Welcome back to Textile Tuesday, where we’ve been following the fascinating goings-on in the basement of the UMFA. So far we’ve examined the why and the how–now it’s time for an introduction to the who.

Every Wednesday in the basement of the UMFA, a number of people are hard at work. These include members of our staff (Jennifer Ortiz, Collections Manager, and Carol Fulton, Collection Assistant), some of our docents (Harsha Acharya, Bernadette Brown, and Maria Villa), as well as some volunteers (Ruth Ann Gardner and Sabrina Sanders).

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Ruth Ann Gardner at work on a textile

Ortiz first hoped to get docents involved by giving a presentation on the project, and many expressed an interest. As of now, the UMFA is able to offer morning and afternoon shifts on Wednesdays, and docents are welcome to give as much time as they can.

“I don’t want anyone to get worn out,” Jennifer Ortiz says. “It’s a very physical task.”

“You’re moving muscles you never get to move,” Bernadette Brown adds. “Lots of stretching and reaching.”

Volunteers work on a weekly basis, and are asked to give at least three hours.

Ortiz explains that some special skills are valued in those working on the textile project, including an ability to sew: accession tags often need to be replaced. One of the volunteers, Ruth Ann Gardner, assists the team by providing thread counts (the old-fashioned way, it is worth noting).

“There’s got to be an app for that,” Fulton jokes.

Gardner was kind enough to demonstrate her technique, leaning over a textile and counting the threads in both directions of a 2 inch patch. She explained that she acquired the skill during her time with the Embroidery Guild.

Fulton, who has worked at the UMFA for 2 years, was recruited for this project because of her skills with cataloguing the collection and writing condition reports.

“Someday I’ll have seen everything the UMFA owns,” she says, reflecting on her work here. “But… it may take five more years.”

The thing that Fulton has most enjoyed coming across during this project was a quilt made by the Wasatch Quilting Society for the 25th anniversary of the UMFA.

“It was just beautifully done. It was very intricate, and the design was so clever.”

“There were so many hidden things in it,” adds Gardner. “We were like, ‘is that an F?’ And it was then we noticed it spelled out ‘Utah Museum of Fine Arts.'”

“I remember when that was on view,” Brown adds, reflecting on her time as a curator at the UMFA during the 1990s.

“Utah Museum of Fine Arts 1970-1995.” It is signed and says “Milestones c.1995 Utah Designed by Laura Tomita Lyons Pieced and Quilted by Wasatch Mountain Quilters 1975 – 1995”

“Utah Museum of Fine Arts 1970-1995.” It is signed, and says “Milestones c.1995 Utah Designed by Laura Tomita Lyons Pieced and Quilted by Wasatch Mountain Quilters 1975 – 1995”

The enthusiasm for the work on the textiles is palpable: everyone is here because they are excited about the project.

“It’s like Christmas,” says Brown. “you unwrap something, and you don’t know what it is!”

Brown is familiar with projects like this, not only from her time as a curator, but also from experience with caring for pre-columbian pots while still in school. Like the other docents and volunteers, her passion for art is clear.

“When I was a curator, I never got to see these textiles, so I had to see them in the computer database,” Brown explains. “This is going to be so wonderful because now the curators will have these photographs, and know what’s here. Plus, I finally get to see them!”

When I ask what her favorite thing might be that she’s seen so far, she and Fulton talk excitedly about a Chinese textile they saw just hours ago. The textile featured dogs at play.

“And we thought they were gold threads,” Brown says. “But Jen [Ortiz] explained to us that it was actually paper!”

Three dogs at play on a textile in the UMFA

Three dogs at play on a textile in the UMFA

Sabrina Sanders, who had previously volunteered elsewhere in the UMFA, is happy to be gaining collections experience before applying for a Master’s program in the field. She speaks in broken sentences about the textile project, as most of her attention is going toward sewing the correct accession number to a Navajo saddle blanket.

Sanders, who has been working on the project for one month, is thrilled to be at work in a museum. “I’ve never worked in a gallery before,” she explains, “but it seems like museums might have so much more to work with in collections, which is what my primary interest is. And they’re so educational.”

She reflects on a textile she’d seen, something that stuck with her: “I’ll call it a poncho, but it was a traditional dress with a sort of hole for the head. There were these needlepoint squares featuring different animals and figures. It was very interesting. Very different.”

Sanders carefully sews an accession number onto a Navajo saddle blanket

Sanders carefully sews an accession number onto a Navajo saddle blanket as Carol enters data in the background

As the docents and volunteers bustle around the room, sewing, entering data, and vacuuming, I join them in their examination of the saddle blankets laid out on the table.

“A lot of these textiles were used,” Ortiz says. “Some have human hair woven into them, some still have horse hair on them. It’s part of the object now.”

Navajo, Classic Serape Style Wearing Blanket

Navajo, Classic Serape Style Wearing Blanket

For more information on how to become a docent or a volunteer at the UMFA, and get a glimpse of things behind the scenes, visit: http://umfa.utah.edu/volunteer

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