100 Creatives

Velma Kee Craig on Making Her First-Ever Woven Art Sale to the Heard Museum

Every other year, New Times puts the spotlight on Phoenix's creative forces — painters, dancers, designers, and actors. Leading up to the release of Best of Phoenix, we're taking a closer look at 100 more. Welcome to the 2016 edition of 100 Creatives. Up today is 64. Velma Kee Craig.

Velma Kee Craig weaves stories. It's in her blood.

Born and raised on the Navajo reservation, in Tuba City and Window Rock, respectively, Craig grew up watching her paternal grandmother weave and admiring images of her maternal grandmother's woven works. The latter had stopped weaving by the time Craig was born. But "she did everything else — the cleaning, shearing, dyeing, carding, and spinning of the wool," Craig says. "I sat next to them as they did all of this, and the process — beginning to end — is a hypnotic one. I loved it and wanted to learn."

Despite that desire, Craig felt deeply connected with the process of writing and pursued it instead. Storytelling, she decided, was for her.

"As a child and an adolescent, I was able to immerse myself into poems and stories by certain writers and feel as if I was understood or that I could now understand aspects of the world better," she says. "This is empowering, especially to a young person whose world experience is limited due to financial obstructions. This was my first introduction to creative works, and I wanted so much to also be a maker of worlds, especially for young Native children."

Now 39 and based in Mesa, Craig has written screenplays for indie films and penned poetry. But when the opportunity finally arose for her to learn the art of weaving as an adult, she couldn't resist. 

"My coming to weaving from a multi-media storytelling angle, I think, influences my work very much," she says. 

This melding of tradition and contemporary ideas gives Craig's work a distinct feel. And she's garnered attention for it. In fact, the first weaving she ever sold was bought by the Heard Museum, the Southwest's premier institution for Native art and culture. 

"When I brought it with me to the Heard Weavers’ Market, it wasn’t yet complete, so I didn’t expect to sell it," Craig recalls. "I was bummed, but took it to show anyway because I had worked so long and so hard on it. I couldn’t let it sit at home. Long story short, it’s now part of the museum’s permanent collection, and I’m excited to see what they decide to do with it. I hope they don’t wait too long."

When it comes to Craig's creative output, things have had a way of working themselves out, reflecting glimmers of her past, and, eventually, coming full circle. 

Currently, she's working on a series of meditations surrounding sound and how it plays into creation. But a nascent project inspired by her late paternal grandmother has been on her mind, too. "She loved to play video games and was even gifted a Game Boy by my younger cousins," Craig says. "I have a memory of her in her traditional dress and jewelry, jumping and screaming, nearly ripping the game controller out of the console, as she played with them. It makes me smile every time I think of her."

I came to Phoenix with my husband and our three children. Since moving here from my husband's homeland on the White Mountain Apache reservation 18 years ago, we've been joined by our youngest son, two dogs, and two cats.

I make art because I believe in its ability to heal, illuminate, and inspire change. I hope people pay attention to the art I create, and to whoever does, I am grateful and humbled. But this is only a portion of why I make it. I believe in the making of art. I believe everyone should allow themselves to be stolen by some creative project as much as they can be. It makes us better people, allows us time to ourselves to build and tear down, build and tear down — because we all know this is the process for every piece of art created. We’re pushed intellectually and emotionally when we create, and are sometimes forced to enter spaces within ourselves that maybe other things in our lives really don’t give us an opportunity to.

I'm most productive when … I wish I had this figured out by now. I’m most productive when I have decided to be, I guess. I have periods of inactivity, and then there are those stretches when weaving or writing consumes me, those periods when I leave my project only when I have to. I’d like to be more consistent in when I’m most productive. I’d like to never have an unproductive season. Help me?

My inspiration wall is full of quotes or lines from stories/poems telling me to embrace fearlessness, gifts from other artists, little things my children have left me, and reminders of past triumphs. I keep a running list in my phone of bits of conversations overheard; sparks that pop into my head; links to articles or images; lines from movies, etc.; or just my reactions to things I’ve come across. Items on this running list get combined and re-formed, and then turn into completed works, eventually.

I've learned most from diving in. I’ve taken on many projects which might have seemed above my skill set. I didn’t think so, of course, but that could’ve been me being naïve. In some of those instances, I had problems develop with my weavings that I had to stop and fix before I could move on. In each case, I was slowed down a lot and maybe became frustrated, but afterwards, I’ve always felt so amazing. Like, unstoppable. And, of course, I learn… But this doesn’t always help because, I’ve also come to know that (at least for me), each weaving comes with its own set of impediments.

I’ve also learned so much from other artists. In both my writing and weaving community (neither of which is local), I’ve come to know many Native artists at various levels of development, and it is so refreshing to have this network of encouraging people I can go to for troubleshooting and for support or encouragement.

Good work should always … [blank stare].

The Phoenix creative scene could use more resources — networking opportunities and sponsorships or financial support for artists.

The 2016 Creatives so far:

100. Nicole Olson
99. Andrew Pielage
98. Jessica Rowe
97. Danny Neumann
96. Beth Cato
95. Jessie Balli
94. Ron May
93. Leonor Aispuro
92. Sarah Waite
91. Christina "Xappa" Franco
90. Christian Adame
89. Tara Sharpe
88. Patricia Sannit
87. Brian Klein
86. Dennita Sewell
85. Garth Johnson
84. Charissa Lucille
83. Ryan Downey
82. Samantha Thompson
81. Cherie Buck-Hutchison
80. Freddie Paull
79. Jennifer Campbell
78. Dwayne Hartford
77. Shaliyah Ben
76. Kym Ventola
75. Matthew Watkins
74. Tom Budzak
73. Rachel Egboro
72. Rosemary Close
71. Ally Haynes-Hamblen
70. Alex Ozers
69. Fawn DeViney
68. Laura Dragon
67. Stephanie Neiheisel
66. Michael Lanier