Obituary: Fran James, master weaver, beloved Lummi Nation elder
Fran James is credited with the revival of Coast Salish weaving through her own work and teaching. Her pieces were coveted by collectors and museums all over the world.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The busy hands of master weaver Fran James have stilled.
Born May 20, 1924, on Portage Island, Mrs. James died Sunday (April 28) from complications after surgery for blocked arteries. She was 88.
Mrs. James leaves a legacy of generations of weavers she tutored since the 1970s in the arts of her ancestors, weaving cedar bark and wool. Her pieces were coveted by private collectors and grace museums all over the world.
She worked from a simple studio off the kitchen of her home on the Lummi Reservation, using tools she and her son, Bill James, crafted from scraps, thrift shops and hardware stores. Her needles were handmade from yew wood, passed on from her grandmother, from whom she had learned the weaver’s arts.
Visitors to her home never found her idle: “Keep your hands busy,” was one of her sayings, as was, “Just make it,” no matter what was needed, be it something warm to wear, or a tool.
Heather Johnson-Jock, of Bonney Lake, one of Mrs. James’ many apprentices, treasures a gift that Mrs. James made for her: the bottom of an office chair, adapted perfectly for winding spun wool quickly and smoothly into skeins.
Gail Joice, museum-collection manager of the National Museum of the American Indian of the Smithsonian Institution, said it is the revival of Coast Salish weaving that Mrs. James helped spark through her teaching that is one of her greatest legacies — in addition to her work.
“She is one of the most well-known contemporary Salish weavers, both for her beautiful wool weavings and her basketry work,” Joice said. “She did so much to revive and keep the traditional patterns going and teaching others. She is of national stature.”
The museum acquired in its permanent collection a wool blanket made by Mrs. James and her son in 1984.
Barbara Brotherton, curator of Native American art at the Seattle Art Museum, said Mrs. James was an artist who transcended barriers to teach anyone who would come to learn, and enrich a vast circle of artists, scholars and apprentices, native and not.
“She is one of those remarkable ones; she almost single-handedly in Northern Puget Sound kept those traditions vital, and trained the next generation of weavers.”
Bill James noted that his mother “shared her life with everyone and taught all who wanted to learn.” She spoken often of “weaving together the fabric of our lives.”
One of her most lasting teachings was her way of knitting people together as surely and gracefully as her artworks. “She would say our culture is that fabric of our life, and she encouraged us all to weave and come together. That was what her work was about,” said Tim Ballew, chairman of the Lummi Nation.
Her greeting was “Love, love,” remembered Candice Wilson, vice chairwoman of the Lummi Nation, usually accompanied by a soft touch to the face. “It was always truly from the heart. Love was how she worked, who she was, and what she believed in,” Wilson said.
Some of Mrs. James’ most valuable teachings weren’t about weaving, but about life, said Jamestown S’Klallam elder Elaine Grinnell, Mrs. James’ niece.
“She was teaching right up to the end, to be dignified, to have respect and to honor what you have.”
Raised on a sheep farm on Portage Island in Bellingham Bay, Mrs. James as a young girl working alongside her grandmother learned firsthand the process of transforming raw sheep wool, and in earlier times, mountain-goat wool, through the process of washing, carding, spinning, dyeing and weaving.
“In Fran’s hands, expertly twined or twilled creamy white expanses are punctuated by passages of brown, gray or red geometric designs, simple, elegant, perfectly balanced,” Sheila Farr, former Seattle Times art critic, wrote in a nomination for one of Mrs. James’ many awards.
Mrs. James was inducted into the Northwest Women’s Hall of Fame, and her work was featured in exhibits at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, the Seattle Art Museum and Seattle’s Stonington Gallery. She and her son in 1991 were awarded a Peace and Friendship Award by the Washington State Capitol Museum for their contributions to Lummi culture.
Busy to the last, Mrs. James was teaching weaving at the Burke in April, noted curator Robin Wright. Mrs. James gave generously of her talent, enriching a wide community, Wright said.
In addition to her son, Mrs. James is survived by her sisters, Ernestine Gensaw, Rena Ballew and Beverly (Jack) Cagey; and brother, Glen Lane. She was preceded in death by her husband, Norbert James.
A funeral Mass will be held at 10 a.m. Thursday at St. Joachim Catholic Church at Lummi Nation, with burial to follow in Lummi Nation Cemetery. Lunch will follow at Wexliem Community Center.
Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or firstname.lastname@example.org