In reflections on the remarkable life of Fran James, the master Lummi weaver who passed away this week, her friends and family and admirers noted her connection with nature and its cycles, through her mastery of weaving.
As I talked to museum curators who admired her work, and fellow weavers for Mrs. James’ obituary today in the Seattle Times, I learned that weavers, perhaps singly among artists, come to know the natural world of their homeland through the necessity of gathering materials for their work.
Che top ie, her Indian name, knew the surroundings of her home on the Lummi reservation intimately, having grown up on Portage Island and learning the art of weaving and gathering from her grandmother.
With her son, traditional chief Bill James, she would lead gathering trips for materials, remembered Becky Blanchard, co-director at the Stonington Gallery in Seattle, which exhibits and sells Mrs. James’ work.
“The weavers hold such a special base of knowledge for the culture, they are collectors of the materials, the husbandry of materials, when do you go out and get cedar bark, maidenhair fern, beargrass, the weavers are totally in tune with that,” Blanchard said.
“And they do it often as a group. Bill and Fran would take the most extraordinary gathering trips and when they come home there is the drying and the splitting, often done with other weavers. That knowledge of when do you harvest bear grass, how do you use cherry bark, in many ways weaving holds the key to understanding the culture. For me, if a people’s weavers are healthy and the weaving is productive, that is a really good indication of the health of that group of people.”
Among her gifts was Mrs. James’ work ethic. Never was the time a visitor would find her idle at her home. I have many memories of sitting at the picnic table she and Bill kept up in their sitting room, listening to the metal of the wood stove tick with heat, and the soft rustling sounds of their hands splitting cedar for weaving.
Bill and Fran made museum-quality work out of a simple workroom off the kitchen. Any day of the week would find them out on the deck twining wool fringe for a shawl, spinning clouds of wool into yarn, teaching, or traveling to gather material or join other weavers in the many gatherings that came along with the revival of the weaving arts that Mrs. James help bring about.
She wasn’t the only one, of course. The late Bruce Miller at Skokomish, like Mrs. James, used to say he would teach anyone who came to learn, not only about weaving, but gathering materials. I remember well sitting with him on the tailgate of a pickup truck one summer afternoon, as his apprentice Edwin Pullen of Quilleute, worked nearby gathering grass for basketry.
The grass was called the Sharp Tongued Woman, not only because of its sharp edges — but because, like a sharp tongued woman, Bruce told me, it is always found alone.
Well who could argue with that?
With her soft and gracious ways, Fran James was never alone, but surrounded not only by the things of beauty that she made, but the many who loved her: apprentices. community members at Lummi, and the many people who came to learn what she knew not only about weaving, but about living a life well-lived.
She always greeted guests with food — a bit of smoked salmon, an orange — and her birthday was celebrated at Portage Island with a picnic on the beach where diggers harvested the clams she so loved. She was looking forward to another beach celebration this year, with 89 horse clams, instead of candles.
That birthday would have been her 89th, and it was not to be. But the memory of those good times, lived richly in a homeland she knew so intimately and generously shared, lives on.
So does her work, in museums and private collections all over the world, and most importantly, in the hands of her many students.
“She was always willing to share what she knew,” said apprentice Maria Roberts, 68, of Lummi. “The first adventure was when she got raw wool. We were using old tubs, bath tubs, to wash it, and it stunk. That was really raw wool, right off the sheep. We must have worked on it for about three days, and it was wonderful, there were about five of us young ladies, we went to Orcas Island and got the wool and came back, then we got to see the final product, washing it, carding it and spinning it and making a shawl or blanket.
“Whatever you made, she always told you how it looked beautiful, even though you know it didn’t. But you always felt proud. She instilled that there were not many of us that know how to clean, card, spin, and make something. She was always wanting us to give anybody that knowledge that wants to learn. Teach the children. She is one of the main people in our community that kept it alive, it was her determination, her love and caring, not only for the art, but for the people.
“Not just for one generation, but through the generations, down the line.”
Mrs. James is being laid to rest today at the Lummi Nation Cemetery. But in her work, her teachings, and many friends and loved ones, her spirit lives.