Willamette University

Tradition and Innovation - Marge Steward ’59

Psychology Major > University Professor and Dean > Artist

Marge Steward ’59

“On my first trip to Alaska,” says Marge Steward ’59, “a display of Tlingit and Haida Native American baskets caught my eye. I had never before seen such beautiful baskets. I knew nothing about the weavers, or the designs, or the materials. But it was love at first sight.” This was how it all started — a brush past an art museum gallery during a consulting trip to the Alaska Department of Health.

Twenty years passed before Steward began an art course of her own — in ceramics, initially — after retiring in 1998 from the University of California, Davis to Sitka, Alaska. Having caught the artistic bug in full force, she progressed to basket weaving and was instructed by Deloris Churchill, a Haida woman whose culture of crafting had ignited Steward’s artistic spark in the first place.

“For several years I kept my two craft activities on separate tracks,” Steward says. “I was taught to weave around a mold — my first was a peanut butter jar — to hold the shape while the basket developed.” Initially these molds were basic parts of the production process and were removed once they had served their purpose. But Steward made a discovery when she opted to use her own ceramic pots as the molds. She weaved up and around the sides of the pots, and as she did so the Haida weave patterns hugged the ceramic as if becoming a part of it. Steward was left, as she puts it, with a “ceramic basket” of a type that literally had never been made before. “It worked so well,” she says, “that I just kept doing it.”

So far as anyone can tell, Steward is still the only one who practices this combined form of pottery and Haida weaving. Her Haida weaving instructor and her ceramics professor welcome her contributions to the crafts, and Steward feels a fond connection with the Native American tradition she has come to admire so much.

She still lives and works in Alaska alongside her husband and biggest fan, David Steward ’59. A common sight in the ceramics department at nearby University of Alaska, Sitka, Steward has been known to weave using yellow cedar bark harvested from trees in her back yard. For texture and design, she sometimes adds wool, pine needles or copper wire to the process.

Each piece of art she produces tells a story of tradition; each, of course, is also an innovation.

Marge Steward Artwork 1 Marge Steward Artwork 2 Marge Steward Artwork 3 Marge Steward Artwork 4

Alumni Artistry at Reunion

At last September’s Reunion Weekend, Steward and other alumni from the Class of 1959 produced and contributed to a remarkable art show. The work was on display in the Putnam University Center and generated buzz from almost everyone — administrators, students, fellow reunion attendees — who walked through.

This year, the Class of 1960 reunion committee is organizing an art show of their own. If you are an art lover or a possible reunion attendee this year, consider this one more incentive to join your classmates on campus in the fall.

For more information, visit willamette.edu/alumni/.

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