Weaving Traditional Crafts Into Contemporary Art

 

By Teri Vance

A professionally trained artist who has traveled much of the country, Ben Aleck is now looking closer to home for inspiration. “I’m reaching back to my roots,” said Aleck, who now lives at Pyramid Lake after retiring as an educator in Reno. “Where I’m at now, I want to use my art to do Great Basin images.” A Northern Paiute, Aleck is a mixed-media artist who weaves traditional arts into his contemporary images. “I use willow to frame out some of the work I’m doing,” he said. “That comes directly from the basket weavers. It’s really soothing to go out to gather it. It’s a whole process to make sure it’s done right — when to gather it, how to clean it.”

He is one of the artists featured in the Great Basin Native Artists exhibit at the Carson City Visitors Bureau, 716 N. Carson St., through June 19.

Aleck was drawn to art from a young age, first getting recognized in elementary school. “People noticed I could draw and paint, so I had a lot of support from my teachers,” he said. “All the way through school, I was encouraged to do art.” While attending Wooster High School, he also participated in the Upward Bound program at the University of Nevada, Reno, where students lived on campus and attended classes during the summer.

 

“Not too many Natives or minority kids were going to post-secondary education,” he said. “It acclimated me and the others to look at post-secondary education.” With the confidence of the program and help from a high school counselor and art teacher, he went on to the California College of Arts and Crafts after graduating from Wooster in 1968. “All of the Native kids I graduated with didn’t go to post-secondary, they were drafted,” he said. “Most of my friends went to Vietnam, and I went to the Bay area.”

Being in Oakland, he said, he was embroiled in the women’s movement, anti-war protests as well as civil rights and American Indian movements. “That was a radical time,” he said, “and it influenced my work.” He graduated with a degree in painting, specializing in oils.

“I got a formal education in art from one of the best schools on the West Coast,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate in all the help I’ve gotten.” He worked as education director of the Reno Sparks Indian Colony, but continued to create art on the side.

 

“I’ve traveled to a lot of different reservations,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of influence that just comes to me through my experiencing different places.” After retirement, he moved to Pyramid Lake where he served a time as director of the Pyramid Lake Museum.

“I enjoy being out here,” he said. “I like the open space. You can see the stars at night, and the lake is beautiful. My whole family is from here.” Much of his work includes figure drawings and geometric designs of baskets. In one piece, entitled, “Washoe, Paiute, Shoshone,” three woven figures rise up from the water.  “Water is the basis of all life,” he said. “Water supports the fish. Water supports the people. It supports all life. Some people don’t comprehend that.”

He said his art reflects mostly environmental and cultural issues, all reflecting the central theme he’s learned through his life of travel and meeting people.“I see things differently because of that,” he said. “I’ve learned that when it comes down to it, we’re all human beings.”

If You Go

WHAT: Great Basin Native Artists exhibit

WHEN: Through June 19

WHERE: Carson City Visitors Bureau, 716 N. Carson St.