Crane Day, Osage, says the loom is his mistress. The award-winning hand weaver knew it from the time he first sat at the loom, 50 years ago. "There was a feeling over my universe that I had never felt before," he says
“I do what I call Pueblo Gothic, blending Native American colors and designs with Medieval heraldry, and over the last half century, I’ve stuck with it through thick and thin. And there were a lot of thin times.”
Day, of mixed French and Native American ancestry, grew up on a ranch on the Osage Reservation near Pawhuska, Oklahoma. Instead of joining his father and two brothers riding horses in the outdoors, he spent time with his mother’s book of the month, reading about the finer things in life and falling in love with knights and heraldry.
Then there was the pageantry of the Catholic church. Day was an altar boy who later went to an Augustinian Prep School and on to Notre Dame. "The Cathedral of the Osages was a huge, beautiful church with fabulous stained glass windows and Sunday mass was the best show in town," he says.
His full appreciation of art and the concept of creativity started small, with nuns allowing an hour of coloring on a Friday while students waited for school buses. "Nothing on the subject in high school, nothing in college except for an art history class," Day says. "When I later studied interior design, I had to take a weaving class, and that was where I discovered both myself and my creativity -- in my mid-20s."
Like most young men searching for their ultimate career, Day's early ideas ranged from pre-med studies to hotel and restaurant management (where he discovered an aptitude for cooking), but it was textiles where he finally found his niche.
"I enjoy tapestries because you can put a lot of yourself into the project," he says. But ponchos and scarves (what he calls "wearable art") "are more the bread and butter of my work, in which I try to shine a new light on ancient traditions based on designs of garments worn by native peoples of the Southwest and Mexico."
Working out of a studio in an old Tucson, Arizona manufacturing building now known as the Historic Warehouse Arts District, Day creates rugs, table runners, and a colorful mohair poncho he calls "The Abrazo" (Spanish for "embrace") that can be worn like a traditional poncho or a more creative sari or dress.
"An artist is a midwife," he says thoughtfully. "They make the happy relationship between their materials and what those materials want to say."
His studio walls are covered with photographic examples of past creative successes -- among them his first weaving, a blanket for his Palomino horse, Gideon, and his second experiment, a Lawrence of Arabia robe made of silk with a satin lining, a project so difficult that Day has never since worked with silk.
Another unique creation involved rayon that ended up as a religious garment called the Disco Chasuble, a copy of which was taken to Rome and delivered on a silver platter to Pope John Paul II. "You can’t tell how rayon is going to drape, and when I cut it, it fell like a tassel or horses tail that would swirl with every turn. I met a Jesuit priest who had been trained as a dancer and felt it would make a great vestment." The unique creation won a first-place award in a showcase of religious art in Washington, DC. "The rayon designed itself," Day says. "I just followed along and helped assemble it."
Alas, the Disco Chasuble never quite made it as an acceptable garment for the clergy, so Day removed the crosses and fashioned it into the Ultimate Cocktail Poncho, one of his most successful garments.
In his studio, piles of design ideas await the burst of activity that will turn inspiration into creation. “I’ve had many concepts involving crosses and the Osage Hands of Friendship, some that go as far back as 30 years ago," he says. "I have a feeling I have more ideas than I do years left, so I’d better start getting busy. I don’t know what I’d do if I weren’t planning another weaving or a rug or a tapestry. I’ll probably die at the loom. Weaving has always been a part of my life and will continue to be so right up to the end.”