Special atmosphere of Totah Festival traced back to event's late founder
FARMINGTON — The Totah Festival is far more than just an chance for Four Corners Native artists, dancers and drummers to show off their talent each year, according to Navajo potter Yolanda La Mone.
La Mone grew up helping her mother, a jeweler, set up her booth at the festival, which is now in its 27th year. La Mone remembers not just the excitement and anticipation of that task as the festival got started every year, but her mother's reaction when she greeted many friends she hadn't crossed paths with since the previous year's festival.
"It was almost like a reunion," La Mone said. "Everybody would see each other, hug each other. It's like that for me now. You develop friendships not only with artists, but with people who come to the festival every year."
Like many other artists at the festival, which takes place this weekend at the Farmington Civic Center, La Mone wouldn't dream of missing this event. She's been showing her work at the Totah Festival for 15 years, and the Kirtland resident counts it as perhaps her favorite stop each year on a circuit that includes up to 10 festivals.
It's not just the fact that the festival takes place almost in her back yard that makes it special, she said. There's a family atmosphere at the Totah Festival that distinguishes it from many others, La Mone said, pointing to the approach taken by the event's founder, Claudine Riddle, who died earlier this year.
"She made it a point to take the time to walk around and shake hands," La Mone said. "She made people feel welcome. I'll always remember that."
The event is also special to Bart Wilsey, director of the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park, which presents the festival.
"I truly believe in it because it's a celebration of the Native cultures of the area," he said, explaining that the festival is a good reminder of how the area's longtime inhabitants have persevered and hung on to the things that make them distinctive. "Yes, they've adapted, but they're still here, they're still vibrant, they're still open, they're still funny. I just want to invite people to go out and experience that."
Wilsey said he enjoys many things about the festival, but his favorite element is the Navajo rugs that will be auctioned Saturday, Sept. 5 at the civic center. Seeing a new year's collection of such finely crafted items is always an exciting time, he said.
"It's like Christmas when the rugs come in for sale," he said. "It's always something different."
A total of 250 to 300 weavings are featured each year in all sizes, styles, colors and price ranges.
"If you can't find anything there (that you like), you're not looking," he said.
Wilsey said the festival attracts between 10,000 and 15,000 visitors each year, many of whom are collectors who come from afar. La Mone echoed that estimate, saying that 70 percent of her customers hail from out of town and that she sees many of the same faces each year.
La Mone produces pottery items from native clay that she calls "singers," which are small female figures who represent the various roles women play in Navajo families, including teaching and storytelling. They are decorated in the Navajo, Hopi and Zuni designs La Mone was taught by her family members.
"I've been doing this particular style for the last 18 years or so," La Mone said, explaining that she learned it from her aunt before adding her own interpretation.
"We kind of develop our own style," she said. "Even though we may have learned it from somebody else, you want to put your own stamp on it."
The festival also features more than 50 Native painters, jewelers, sculptors, photographers and other artists who work in various media, all set up at dozens of booths inside the civic center. Outside, there is a contest pow wow both days of the event, with dancers decked out in their most dazzling regalia and moving to the rhythm provided by drum circles.
A new feature at this year's festival will be a live painting demonstration in the lobby of the civic center starting at 8 a.m. Saturday. Organizer Kino Zahney said he and three other painters — Veneya Yazzie, Winona Dawn and Eugene Joe — will collaborate on a painting that, by the time it is finished at noon, will be included in the rug auction.
The painting will feature rug designs, he said, and include such symbols as corn and water, both integral elements in Navajo everyday life.
Zahney, who lives in Sanostee, said he got the idea for the demonstration while trying to figure out a way to add some energy to the festival. He was disappointed when the festival's annual T-shirt and poster competitions for artists were discontinued, and he hopes the live painting demonstration offers visitors a chance to see a work of art come to life. He said Capacity Builders and the N.A.T.I.V.E. Project are supplying the materials for the demonstration, and the festival committee agreed to make it part of the event.
Zahney pictures the demonstration as a way for artists and visitors to interact. He invited artists of all media to take part in the painting, and he hopes to make it an annual attraction at the festival, with a different medium each year.
"I want to bring the community and artists together," he said.
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