Grace “Pam” Parrish often introduced herself as “an Okie from Muskogee.” She embraced Merle Haggard’s now famous song the first time she heard it and was always proud of her Muskogee birthright.
Born July 21, 1924, in Muskogee to Owen J. and Bernice Ione Watts, she became familiar early in her life with the Native American culture that surrounded her in Muskogee and in Tulsa, where she visited relatives often.
Her family moved to Michigan later in her childhood, and she played on a women’s baseball team before beginning a career as a government employee in Washington, D.C.
During the 1970s, Parrish and her second husband, whose heritage was part Delaware Indian, traveled often from their homes in Texas and Los Angeles to Tulsa on Route 66, her favorite road.
Her husband was involved with the Bureau of Indian Affairs at that time, and on one of their trips, Parrish encountered Navajo weavings being sold at a roadside trading post. It was truly love at first sight, and she quickly decided to begin collecting these cultural treasures.
Thus began an extensive collection of Navajo weavings, some of which are on display at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. The exhibit runs through May 8, 2016.
It didn’t take Parrish long to learn the unique qualities of Navajo weaving. She began to collect high-quality rugs from some of the Southwest’s most well-known master weavers — Daisy Tauglechee, Clara Sherman, Rose Gould, Linette Nez, Katherine and Larry Nathaniel. Tauglechee was Parrish’s favorite.
Parrish was fortunate to encounter Bob Payne, an auctioneer in Bloomfield, New Mexico, who became her guide and mentor as she acquired more than 60 weavings, including tapestries, saddle blankets and rugs.
As a beginning collector, she studied the distinctions of the various geographic styles, including Two Gray Hills, Teec Nos Pos, Wide Ruin, Ganado, Sampler, Storm Pattern and Yei.
At the time Parrish was collecting extensively — the 1970s and 1980s — many of the weavers raised their own sheep. They sheared their sheep, did the cleaning and carding and spun the wool for weaving.
Parrish was fortunate that each region developed its own weaving style so no two were alike, making her collection much more valuable.
What also makes her collection distinctive is the creativity of the weavers she collected. They drew inspiration from their imagination or experiences, shunning patterns or styles used by other tribal weavers.
“Each artist’s skill and knowledge is seen in a piece of fine art that is unique, yet displays a family legacy and tradition going back hundreds of years. Of all the regional styles, the Two Grey Hills and Wide Ruins stand out because they used undyed wool or natural dyes to create the designs of each weaving,” Eric Singleton, curator of ethnology at the National Cowboy Museum, said.
Working from nature, they harvested flowers, leaves, roots, bark and stems from a variety of native plants to create the colors in Wide Ruins weavings. The Two Grey Hills artists used the natural color of sheep and goats’ wool.
“Two Grey Hills and Yei are important due to their history and the distinctive designs they incorporate. I also would include the Ganado style. Ganado was one of the first trading posts and the bright red incorporated in their designs is distinctive,” Singleton said.
“All the regional styles are unique and beautiful in their own way. They all developed about the same time. They all have, for the most part, remained true to their regional style and have specific qualities that make each worthy of displaying and keeping for their beauty, skill and the benefit of future generations,” Singleton adds.
Well into her extensive collecting mission, Parrish knew she had created a collection of value. She had acquired, in a 40-year period, a diverse group of weavings, which represented many regions of the Navajo reservation. Some of the large pieces in her collection took more than a year to weave, giving them even more value for her collection.
As an Oklahoma City resident later in her life, Parrish was familiar with the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum and believed the weavings could be used there as teaching tools. She also recognized there was still a strong Navajo weaving movement and thought her collection would be beneficial in researching the differences among the weavers, dyes and designs.
It may have been a bold move on Parrish’s part, but she made a cold call to the National Cowboy Museum four years ago to see if the museum curators might have an interest in acquiring her precious collection of weavings.
It seems prophetic that Mike Leslie, the museum’s former curator of ethnology and now the assistant director, answered her call and listened.
“She had no connection to the museum until then. We struck up a friendship and she began gifting part of the collection during the next three years,” Leslie recalled.
He noted, in a spring 2014 issue of a museum publication, “I’ve had similar experiences where pieces are not quite what the collector thinks and it doesn’t work out. Other times, it’s truly amazing what the collector has and this is one of those cases. It has turned out to be a phenomenal collection.”
By the end of their phone conversation, Leslie considered Parrish’s collection a “must have.”
“So much of the collection is of tapestry quality, with very, extraordinarily fine weaves with thread counts of more than 100 woven rows per inch,” said Leslie.
“The artisans who produced these works are incredibly gifted. But just as important is the documentation that Mrs. Parrish kept along with these pieces. Having the artwork and the information behind each piece is really a museum’s dream come true.”
“The weavers behind these tapestries devote the time and effort to produce something worthwhile, to reap their reward.” Parrish said in that phone conversation with Leslie.
“The yarn has to be just right for tapestries.”
The current exhibit, 22 weavings from Parrish’s 60-plus piece collection, reflects the work of several late 20th-century weavers — Edith John, Nora Shorty, Rena Begay, Larry Nathaniel.
The collection provides what Leslie calls “an enlightening opportunity for museum visitors who may not have an awareness of Navajo weavings. The collection will serve a purpose beyond the exhibit space as well. Because of its diversity, the pieces and documentation can be used as a cultural insight into the Navajo people. They also may serve as an educational tool for current and future artists.”
Leslie also praised Parrish for the excellent way she cared for her collection. She kept the weavings in great condition, he says, often hanging them on walls or keeping them in protective coverings.
For the viewer of this exhibit, Singleton suggests, “If there is one aspect of the show that should not be missed, it would be for the viewer to contemplate the size of some of the pieces. Often, we look at the overall beauty of a piece, but several of the weavings are between 8 and 12 feet. To accomplish something like this, the weaver would need to work on it for nearly a year or a year and a half. That is a remarkable display of not only skill, but patience and fortitude.”
Also included in the exhibition in the museum’s Silberman Gallery, is one distinctive painting from the Arthur and Shifra Silberman Collection of Native American fine art. It is Harrison Begay’s “The Weavers,” depicting two weavers producing a Yei pictorial weaving. There are sheep below them and they are sitting on two rugs of an older design.
“It is reflective of all that goes into a weaving,” Singleton said.
The Silbermans were Oklahoma City residents who loved collecting and documenting the work of contemporary Native American artists, particularly Oklahoma artists. The Silbermans were especially fond of the late Muskogee artist Jerome Tiger. The collection they gave to the National Cowboy Museum included more than 60 Jerome Tiger paintings or drawings.
“A collection of this nature and quality illustrates the passing down of a tradition,” Leslie said.
“Navajo weaving is not a dead or dying culture, especially with most of these pieces being woven in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s,”
Now, with the entire collection in the museum’s archives, Leslie considers it a “historical, priceless stand-out collection — a great asset for the museum.”
In Parrish’s later years, her collecting waned, then ceased. Prior to that time, she had acquired American and foreign coins and paper currency, stamps, small Native American baskets and pottery.
“She loved traveling and collecting. We catalogued all 1,200 pieces of her Native American collection,” Julie Howard, an assistant to Parrish’s accountant, Richard L. Andeel of Oklahoma City, said.
Near the end of her life, Parrish suffered from a degenerative eye disease. Yet, she could still feel the beautiful texture of the weavings she had collected.
Unfortunately, Parrish died March 2, 2015, in Oklahoma City before seeing part of her collection staged in the current museum exhibition.
Following the close of that show, Parrish’s collection will be incorporated into the museum’s Native American and Southwest galleries.
“We want to have examples of Navajo rug weaving among our art collections,” Leslie said
Lesle said, remembering Parrish fondly, “She was an extraordinary lady.”
Photographs courtesy the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.