Weaving the Past with the Present
Half a block off Main Street in downtown Durango sits an art gallery whose story is as broad and beautiful as the Navajo rugs that are displayed and sold there. It is a love story between a family and a culture, and the art form that has brought them together.
Toh-Atin Gallery started as a wholesale rug business run out of the front room of the Pepsi Cola plant, located near the current day post office. Well, really it all started with a trade.
Two Grey Hills Trading Post in the far northwest corner of New Mexico, about two hours southwest of Durango, owed the Pepsi plant about $1,000 and Harry Jackson Clark, Sr. is the man they sent to collect it.
Jackson Clark II, Harry’s son and the current owner of Toh-Atin Gallery, explained that his dad already had a history with the Navajo people and trading post owners.
“My dad had a really unique experience growing up,” Clark II explained. “His father, Fred Clark, used to take the family every weekend down to the reservation. They got to know all of the traders and they even stayed overnight with them.”
When Clark Sr. arrived at the trading post that day, he sadly found the little store almost barren. A few local Navajo sat around waiting on the mail and the owner told him the store was about to go broke, but he invited Clark Sr. to the back for a drink before the long drive back to Durango.
There in the back room though, Clark Sr. saw treasures draping the walls and stacked in every corner, in the form of classic Navajo rugs. In that moment he had an idea.
Clark Sr. offered to trade $2,000 worth of rugs for half the debt owed and the other half for Pesi inventory to be sent to a nearby trading post that could send over flour, sugar and other staples to be sold and get business back up and running.
“That got the guy back in business,” Clark II explained. “It’s the only reason Two Grey Hills Trading Post survived as long as it did. My dad really was the person who saved it.”
When Clark Sr. returned to Durango he sold the rugs to his friends, local business owners, doctors and lawyers, and took the money to McGraw. Thus the rug trading business began.
Clark named the business Toh-Atin, meaning ‘no water,’ in recognition of a group of weavers whom he worked with from Toh-Atin Mesa in northeastern Arizona. Over the next several years it would grow enough that McGraw actually let Clark Sr. use the front room of the Pepsi plant as a storefront. Still, much of the business was completed on the road.
“My sister and I basically grew up selling rugs,” said Clark II. “Every summer we would load a van full of rugs and just drive around the country and sell them to dealers.”
In fact Clark II got the idea to start a gallery while out on the road.
“Being on the road, I’d go to really neat places like Scottsdale or Jackson, Wyoming; places where they had really nice galleries and stores,” Clark said, “and I came back from one trip and I said to my dad, we should start a gallery. So we did.”
Toh-Atin Gallery was originally opened in the building on the corner of 9th and Main in the current day Wells Group building. Then after a few years, in the early 1980’s Clark Sr. purchased the building across 9th where the gallery still lives today.
But the rugs and the gallery themselves are only half the story.
“The reason this business is so addictive,” Clark II explains, “Is you develop these relationships with the Navajo weavers and jewelers, and they are just fascinating, incredible people.”
“My sister and I basically grew up selling rugs. Every summer we would load a van full of rugs and just drive around the country and sell them to dealers.” – Jackson Clark II explains.
You can see Clark II’s love and respect for the people and the culture in his eyes as he speaks and tells the stories of the artists who have made his passion possible. There is the 96-year-old Mae Morgan (pictured above), who has been weaving since she was 11 and still creates and sells her rugs to this day. There is Philomena Yazzie who revolutionized the vegetal dye style of weaving from simple stripes to a beautiful, intricate, geometric design. Or there is also the award-winning Mae Jim, who over the course of her entire life wove only six or seven rare 9½ by 14½ stunning, red rugs; five of which she sold to Toh-Atin.
“Not only are they creative and make beautiful things,” he said, “but they have this different way of looking at life. Things slow down and it’s almost a spiritual connection that they have that I had never really been exposed to.”
In such a fast-paced world, it is hard to imagine the kind of slow, meticulous attention to detail involved in the weaving of a Navajo rug.
“What we are seeing with the Navajo weaving is it’s such a slow process to weave a beautiful rug that that there are fewer and fewer younger people doing it.” Clark explained. “But the really great thing is that these older women are creating pieces that are better than anything that has been created before. They are at the height of their creativity now.”
According to Clark II, over the years as the tradings posts have closed and the weavers have been forced to travel off reservation to sell their arts, they have been exposed to more and more things and with that has come new and different inspirations.
“The reason this business is so addictive,” Clark II explained, “Is you develop these relationships with the Navajo weavers and jewelers, and they are just fascinating, incredible people.” – Clark II explains
“We made the decision early on,” Clark explained, “that we were just going to cary authentic Indian art and some key southwestern artists.” And they have remained true to that goal.
No matter how the business changes though, the heart is still in the rugs.
“The most exciting part of this business,” said Clark II with a twinkle in his eyes, “is when a weaver walks in, whether you know her or not, and she’s got this rug wrapped up in a flour sack or in a towel and you can’t wait to see what’s in there.”
Story written by Sara Knight | Photos provided by The Toh-Atin Gallery