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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
"Weaving a Revolution," a new contemporary Navajo baskets exhibit, is set up by Geoffrey Leonard at the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013.

SALT LAKE CITY — Behind the sleek, glass exterior of the Natural History Museum, a visitor is transported to the sweltering heat of southern Utah.

It's an exhibit that shows how a cluster of Navajo families quietly revive a dying art: basket weaving.

"We wanted to help people feel a connection to and familiarity with artists in a culture that isn't dead and gone, but alive and vibrant," said Lisa Thompson, manager of public programs at the Natural History Museum of Utah, pointing to a bright red basket. "Some of them are just so big."

The 7,000-square-foot exhibit "Weaving a Revolution" showcases an explosion of geometric patterns, stylized figures and colorful sacred beings from origin stories. The pungent smell of sumac, a plant used in basket weaving, pervades the room as Navajo artists talk of their work in video clips and, this weekend, in person.

"Mary Holiday Black has agreed to come to the museum," Thompson said, explaining that the matriarch of the most prominent family in Navajo basketry was someone worth meeting. "She's a legend in her own time." 

The baskets are a visual representation of the Navajo culture, said Carol Edison, retired state folk arts coordinator and a freelance folklorist. "They're the expression and preservation of a culture ground in tradition but poised for adaptation."

Dating back to the early history of the state, the Navajo Tribe has been a central part of Utah culture, Edison said.

"They are as much a part of Utah culture as any of us," she said. "We are all a part of the same story."

The basket collection came from Steve Simpson, co-owner of the Twin Rocks Trading Post in Bluff, San Juan County. Simpson set aside baskets he liked as they came through.

"We collected those that signaled a new direction or were most interesting to show to artists for new ideas," he said.

The influence of the Navajo culture is relatively small in Utah, Simpson said.

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"But there are certain flashes of brilliance, and I certainly view this Navajo basket revolution … as one of those bright spots, a sort of artistic nova," he said.

Thompson said she hopes the exhibit will spark interest in what happens next and that many will continue to follow the revolution.

The exhibit opens to the public Saturday with the regular price of admission and will be on display through April 28 in the Museum's Special Exhibitions Gallery on the third floor of the Rio Tinto Center, 301 Wakara Way. Special activities in the exhibit will be planned throughout January. For more information visit www.nhmu.utah.edu.

E-mail: rlowry@desnews.com