Shann Goshorn’s Timeless Art at Gilcrease

Time has slowed during this past year. When one day resembles the next, life, it seems, stands still. For over a decade now, I’ve filled this “Show Buzz” column with the who, where and why info needed to pack one’s calendar. To do it all, you’d need to flit from one thing to the next with hardly time to catch a breath. Sometimes I don’t miss that pace, but most often I do. Next year, with any luck, we will have returned to the whirlwind of concerts, theatre outings and full-stadium activities. In the meantime, we have the opportunity to take life a bit more slowly.
Over the last few months, I’ve come to know Tulsa more broadly. What was there to do, I had wondered, that didn’t include being part of an audience? Among my discoveries are museums that are uncrowded and can be visited comfortably, along with artistic endeavors that, to be fully appreciated, require deeper focus and full attention. In my languid, contemplative moments, I find I have these to give.

SELF PORTRAIT: Native artist and Tulsan Shann Goshorn.

To that end, I have spent time at Gilcrease Museum with the work of Tulsan Shann Goshorn. Shann passed away from cancer in December 2018, not knowing that a major exhibition of her work would occupy Gilcrease’s galleries for a full six months. “Weaving History Into Art, the Enduring Legacy of Shan Goshorn,” opened at Gilcrease last fall. A second rotation of her work went on display beginning Jan. 15 and can be viewed through Mar. 28.
Acclaimed internationally for her art in various media and her advocacy for Native issues, Shann dedicated her last years to weaving baskets. An Eastern Band Cherokee transplanted from North Carolina to Oklahoma, Shann didn’t have local mentors to instruct her in basket weaving. She taught herself to double-weave a basket, a very intricate process, by studying a finished basket for over a year. She created her first in 2010.
In the beautiful catalog that accompanies the Goshorn exhibition, Shann wrote, “It was a thrilling accident to discover that the vessel shapes of baskets are a non-threatening vehicle to educate audiences. But even more exciting, I am observing viewers literally leaning into my work, eager to learn more about the history of this country’s First People, which can lead to the next wonderful step of engaging in honest dialogue about the issues that still plague Indian people today.”
Shann’s technique involved the transfer of historical documents, personal statements and archival photos to delicate (and very light-sensitive) paper splints, which were woven into vessels. Her baskets also incorporate her painting and photography skills. The work is visually exquisite, while addressing such topics as violence directed against women, the cultural genocide engendered by Indian boarding schools, the continuity of culture, and Native sovereignty.
Gilcrease Museum’s Mark Dolph is chief curator of the exhibition. He was tasked with gathering Shann’s work from museums and collectors across the country. The exhibition includes a total of 65 baskets along with the art of four other female Native artists. Unexpectedly, Gilcrease owns only one Goshorn basket, “Sealed Fate” — which was Shann’s first.
Dolph maintains that Shann’s earliest work is every bit as powerful in advocacy as her last basket, and that the use of the word “art” in the exhibition title is very intentional. “So often these kinds of objects are considered craft and not art, and I fully disagree with that. They are art in the hands of someone like Shann, or some of the other women in the show.”
Integrated thoughtfully into the exhibition in a manner that complements the show as a whole is the art of Carol Emarthle-Douglas, Anita Fields, Lisa Rutherford and Holly Wilson. Shann and Fields were contemporaries and traded each other’s work. You can see those traded pieces in the exhibition. The other three accomplished artists thought of Shann as a mentor.
The second part of the exhibition, now on display, has 23 baskets that were not in the first show. “It is a different exhibition with some carry-over between the two,” says Dolph. “I really think the second rotation has more of Shann’s later monumental works than the first.”
When asked to talk about his favorites, Dolph chose “Unexpected Gift.” “It deals with [Native American] boarding schools, which is a very dark subject, like a lot of her subjects. They are heavy. They are dark, but ‘Unexpected Gift’ is like this positive that she finds through the trauma of the boarding school experience. Many of these students found life-long friendships as a result of that experience.”
In the piece, Shann incorporated a class photograph from an early Indian boarding school into the basket along with a traditional Cherokee basket-weaving pattern called “unbroken friendship.” The result is stunning and resonant. “I think the pattern says everything about the meaning within that basket,” notes Dolph. It includes Shann’s grandmother’s recollections of her boarding school experience written by Shann on the blue splints, and Shann’s own mother’s handwritten memories of her time at a Cherokee boarding school on the white splints.
Dolph’s favorite work in the exhibition is “Believe!” It was one of the last works Shann completed. “For me, it shows her very positive outlook on life in general. She created this after learning that she had cancer.” Dolph adds, “I think the other reason that particular work has become a favorite of mine is the wonderful essay written by Robin Tilly.”
A local artist and writer, Robin Green Tilly honored her longtime, precious friendship with Shann in the catalog’s closing essay, titled “Believe.” “She left us love to warp-and-weave through the grief of missing her beyond measure into the brighter version of who we always were in her eyes. She believed in us and a future that could gather the strands and form a better tomorrow. Between my tears of sorrow are woven silken threads of gratitude.”
Like Robin, I’m greatly comforted when art supersedes death and looks forward to another time.