It’s easy to look at the colorful creations that come from the looms of Navajo weavers and admire the craftsmanship and beauty. But for Fleurette Estes, an artist and photographer based in San Antonio, Texas, the rugs, blankets and other items created by the weavers, have a much deeper importance and meaning. They carry with them the proud and resilient history of a people struggling to keep their customs alive.
“I’ve seen blood, sweat, and tears poured into their looms and felt the struggle to keep culture and tradition thriving,” said Estes, a member of the Navajo Nation, who refer themselves as Diné.
Estes has spent the past few years documenting the Diné weavers as part of an ongoing project to show that the Navajos and other Native Americans are still here contributing to their culture, communities and country. Last year, Focus on the Story awarded Estes its 2021 Emerging Storytellers Grant to help her continue the work. The grant included a $2,000 award and camera gear provided by Fujifilm.
The result is her exhibition, Behind the Loom, which will open at Lost Origins Gallery in DC during this year’s Focus on the Story International Photo Festival.
Originally from the Navajo Nation Reservation in the southeastern part of Utah, she moved to Tyler, Texas, after graduating from Harding University in Arkansas and worked in retail while painting and creating hand-lettered signs for businesses. Later, she moved to San Antonio where she developed a full-time career in multiple art forms, including photography, painting, sewing, jewelry, and embroidery.
Estes sat with Focus on the Story to discuss her journey from the Four Corners of the American Southwest and her upcoming exhibition.
Fleurette Estes’ exhibition, Behind the Loom, will be at Lost Origins Gallery during the 2022 Focus on the Story International Photo Festival. Join us at Lost Origins for an opening reception on the evening of June 2 and for an artist talk on June 5.
See the full schedule of this year’s festival events here.
Mike Lee: Tell us about yourself. Where you grew up, giving us a sense of place, family, and influences when growing up.
Fleurette Estes: I will introduce myself as a Diné (Navajo) woman. I am from the Tangle People, born to the Red House People; Water Edge is my maternal grandfathers, and the Leaf Clan are my paternal grandfathers. This is how I am a Diné woman.
While we are known as Navajo, we traditionally introduce ourselves as Diné when we meet people.
My childhood was spent on the Navajo Reservation in a small community called Aneth and Montezuma Creek, near the southern border of Utah and Colorado. I remember being a child and soaking up the sun and the dry wind brushing my hair.
If you know anything about the Navajo reservation, the scenery is amazing, especially the sunsets. The skies are painted with the most amazing colors.
My teenage years were spent in Arkansas. This is where my interest in photography began. I always carried around my point and shoot 110mm disposable cameras. I had so much fun. I found my calling then.
I am naturally an introvert, so being behind the camera made me happy. I loved taking my disposable camera and getting it developed. It was fascinating to see what I was capturing and see what teenagers were doing, I have moved several times and don’t know where those photos are now.
I would go back to the reservation to see my family on holidays and during the summer. During these times, I would take my camera and photograph my family because I didn’t have a family album while growing up, and the photos that I have taken are the memories that my family always remember. I have an extensive family. I love my family, and they are my inspiration for my photography and this project.
My adult years were spent in Tyler and San Antonio, Texas, where I purchased my first “real” camera, the Fujifilm XT2, before heading on vacation to London, UK. I didn’t have much time to play with my camera, but I remember taking a night photography class because I wanted to prepare myself for London at night. Unfortunately, I did little of this because I didn’t bring a tripod. My fault.
ML: What inspired you to become a photographer?
FE: I have loved photography, especially black and white photography, and I was inspired by Ansel Adams and Edward C Curtis when I was younger.
But I wanted to be a photographer because of my family. I loved taking snapshots of my family and creating photo albums and sharing them with my family. Many years later, my family would giggle, laugh, or cry when we looked through my photo albums.
Those memories are very special to me to this day. I am also happy that I did take those photos of my family, my maternal grandfather passed away recently, and I will always cherish those photos of my grandparents. Things are different today. Everyone has a camera on their phone, so it is easier to capture, but my favorite thing is to hold a photograph in my palm and then share those stories. This inspired me to become a photographer.
Today, I am inspired by many more photographers, such as Eugene Tapahe, who I met at the Native American Indian Museum in DC several years ago, and I am in awe of his current work, the Jingle Dress Project, capturing a series of photos of his daughters and friends dressed in traditional jingle dresses with the most beautiful places where natives once lived.
And Chip Thomas, a photographer whose work is displayed in various locations throughout the Navajo Reservation of black and white photographs of the Diné people on large formats pasted on abandoned buildings water towers, and beautifully done.
ML: Who are your touchstones in your work? Other photographer’s work? Nature?
FE: Growing up, I remember looking through coffee table books at Barnes and Noble and would just awe over the Edward C. Curtis photographs. He traveled extensively through the country, taking photos of native peoples. Pretty impressive for that time. Edwards’ photographs pushed me to want to see the other side of the camera, the part he didn’t photograph, the surroundings. As a native woman, I want to photograph my people, indigenous peoples, in their natural environment.
I am drawn to impressionist, abstract, and pop art paintings. I play with a form of pointillism to create colorful and vivid Southwest landscapes of sacred Navajo geography that celebrate the natural beauty of these locations.
I rely on traditional Navajo color palates and, sometimes, bold, bright colors in my abstract works. I celebrate Navajo expressions and foods in bright, pop art paintings that share her sense of humor and evoke a sense of home.
As a crafter, I incorporate Navajo and Plains Indians-inspired textile patterns into modern, functional attire and accessories, such as ribbon skirts with pockets and COVID-19 masks with Native American motifs.
ML: Could you explain how you integrate your photography with your other artistic forms—how is this reflected in your creative work in the medium?
FE: I am also a painter and dabble in other arts and crafts, but most of my paintings are inspired by my photography. I love to recreate an image that has inspired me. I use my landscape photography as a study for my landscape paintings.
I also love playing with my images, especially with double exposures. For example, I created a piece by layering a photo of the Shiprock on the desolate Navajo reservation with a sea of water surrounding Shiprock. It’s beautiful in that it was like that once. I also created another piece with the US capital building with a teepee inside it.
ML: What led you to engage in the project, and how did you go about creating and choosing the presented series?
FE: We talked about what inspired me. Well, my family and culture inspired my project. I am a huge cheerleader of my sister, Pamela Brown, a generational master weaver. She makes these fantastic pictorial rugs.
The process in which she works is rich with cultural teachings. From shearing the sheep, dying and spinning the wool into a string consistency to begin weaving, then start warping the loom, and it continues.
These photographs are about the Navajo weavers behind the loom. Telling their stories and processes and a glimpse of the Navajo weaving community.
When Covid-19 hit, my sister’s firstborn, Devin, was graduating high school. She wove a rug that inspired her Covid-19 mask pictorial rug. A young man with a facemask on clouds drifting in the background. This rug was about “brighter days ahead.” I loved it and had to buy it.
ML: In terms of subject matter and emotion, what was the most difficult photograph you have made?
FE: I interviewed a young man named Malcolm in 2019 for my project at his home just south of Shiprock. Malcom introduced me to this grandmother, Mary. She only spoke Navajo and was kind of shy, but you can tell she loved and supported her grandson through his weaving endeavors.
Mary was beautifully dressed in her Navajo skirt and turquoise jewelry. We talked to each other as I flexed my Navajo tongue as much as I could. She teased me a few times because I mispronounced some of my words. That short moment of meeting and talking with her was one of my favorite moments.
I think at that moment, she reminded me of my paternal grandmother, Helen.
When I caught up with Malcolm, he told me that his grandmother passed from Covid-19. It was heartbreaking to hear, but I was happy to be in her presence once. And this is another reason why I wanted to be a photographer, to capture the beauty of loved ones and honor my culture.
ML: What project are you working on now?
FE: My weaving project is ongoing, but I have been working on another project about Navajos today, talking and interviewing the Diné people of today, what they are doing, how they are contributing to the Navajo culture, surviving Covid-19, the life on the reservation, life off the reservation, etc. I want people to know that We, Are. Still. Here.
Mike Lee is a photographer, labor editor, journalist and writer based in New York. His photography was featured in several group shows in the last several years. His short fiction is published in a myriad of journals, including The Avenue, The Ampersand Review, Reservoir, Ghost Parachute and The Airgonaut. A collection of his short stories, The Northern Line, is available on Amazon and other online bookstores. You can see more of his work on his website.