Artist Profile: Terrol Dew Johnson

terrol dew johnson

Basket Artist Terrol Dew Johnson

by Catherine K. Hunter, Museum and Education Consultant

Terrol Dew Johnson is a nationally-recognized, award-winning  Tohono O’odham basket weaver, community activist and museum consultant. His baskets have won major awards at the Santa Fe Indian Market, NM;  O’odham Tash, Sells, AZ;  Heard Museum Fair, Phoenix, and Southwest Indian Art Fair, Tucson, in AZ. His work is in permanent collections of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, D.C., and the Heard Museum. He founded TOCA (Tohono O’odham Community Action) in 1996 with business partner Tristan Reader in Sells, Arizona.  As an artist and curator, he has collaborated with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, D.C., and New York City; the Heard Museum; Arizona Historical Society and Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. He lives in Tucson, Arizona.

Since acquiring my first Tohono O’odham basket in 2001, I have visited the Tohono O’odham Nation whenever I am in Tucson. I drive west into the reservation to enjoy the landscape and collect baskets. The views from Route 86, the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum, and Kitt Peak National Observatory are spectacular with mountains and saguaro cactuses. I first met Terrol in 2007. After seeing his work exhibited in “All Things Considered VI: NBO Biennial” 2011, I planned to interview him in Sells, AZ, for an artist profile. This article presents a chronology of highlights of his career. You will hear Terrol’s voice in many quotes from conversations and publications. For more information and video links, please go to

1970s-1990s Beginnings

Growing up on the Tohono O’odham reservation, Terrol began basket weaving at age ten, first in Margaret Acosta’s weaving class, then as a student of Lolita Manuel. His O’odham speaking grandparents accompanied him as translators to lessons by Clara Havier who was in her seventies. The support of family and women was absolutely essential because basket weaving was a traditional women’s craft.  The women understood that Terrol had a gift and tradition needed to change.  Terrol wrote about this support:

“Their generosity has helped me learn more than the just the techniques of weaving. It was helped me understand the heritage of hard work, culture and artistic vision that has driven generations of my ancestors to live artfully in the dry desert.” (p. 35, Hold Everything, Heard Museum, 2001)

Terrol explained that his family taught him to appreciate community, communication and opportunity:

“I was brought up to do things, to help people, to help your family–to do different things, to express your ideas, to communicate any way you can. My parents told me to take chances, to create experiences to benefit myself and others. I had nothing to lose if there was an opportunity, and I was fascinated by the world.”

Wanting to learn even more about basket patterns, Terrol discovered another resource in his father’s Reader’s Digest book series about Native Americans. He described evenings when he poured over books and was “haunted” by new designs:

“With a magnifying glass, I studied old photographs of trading posts with baskets, baskets, beautiful baskets….The old patterns are based on old and sometimes painful legends….I learned coyote tracks, squash blossom, the man-in-the-maze and turtle designs…. Then I dreamed and was haunted with ideas to create my own designs… I felt crazy until I could weave my designs….When elders questioned me, I said that the traditional designs were once experimental…..”

That last statement was intuitive, sophisticated and bold for a young man. Terrol was evolving as a weaver whose baskets would emerge from tradition and utility to live artistically, adapting to new tastes and perceptions.

Like his ancestors, Terrol used natural desert plants. Each basket represents a year long effort of harvesting —white yucca in the summer, bear grass in the winter, and devil’s claw in the monsoon season— then days of cleaning, drying and bleaching the plants in the sun. The basket coil is bear grass, a narrow, long, green grass with razor sharp edges and a flowing stalk.  White and green yucca, red banana yucca, and black devil’s claw are used to create the stitches.  When plant materials were difficult to find, community support was essential.  Terrol explains:

“One time my family organized a picking trip….We had to go 100 miles from the reservation. There were five families out there picking in the desert for me. They really helped me understand that this [basket weaving] is what I am supposed to do.”

As an exchange student to Australia, Terrol thrived in creative classes. When he sold baskets with materials he had shipped from Arizona, he felt appreciation and pride for his craft and his heritage. It is ironic that Terrol had to leave the country to gain this perspective. Returning to Arizona, he quit school, worked in a Native art store, learned practical business skills, then opened his own shop. He was always weaving and selling baskets at “those wonderful church bazaars….”

At his first Santa Fe Indian Market, the oldest and largest juried Native American art showcase, Terrol was unprepared and overwhelmed. The next year, he had his own booth and won prize ribbons. All the while he continued teaching basketry to the people of his tribe. His classes grew and moved from his home to a church because “I made a promise to my teachers to teach…”

For Terrol, baskets come straight from the heart. He acknowledges frequently during the interview that basket weaving is the foundation of his personal and professional life, saying “Basket weaving is something I always wanted to do.”

TOCA founded 1996

While only in his twenties, Terrol created a second career as a community activist. He put life lessons into action with business partner Tristan Reader and started TOCA (Tohono O’odham Community Action), a nonprofit community development organization. Together they would revitalize traditional weaving and foods as a means to sustain culture, health and economic development.

Today TOCA programs include Elder/Youth classes and social gatherings to preserve language, ceremonies, and knowledge of the land and plants. A Food System revitalizes traditional foods and community gardening as beneficial to fight diabetes which affects a large percentage of the tribe.

TOCA’s Basketweavers Organization revitalized basketry as a viable economic opportunity and valued cultural practice. The cooperative broke the cycle of exploitation by outside traders, promoted “fair trade” and launched many weavers to independence. TOCA also negotiated permits to harvest weaving materials on federal, state, tribal and private lands. Terrol explained TOCA’s primary role:

“It was a goal from the beginning to get weavers to take charge of their careers, to promote themselves. Membership today is around 65 weavers in the cooperative ….It’s great to see more weavers go independently to fairs with their own business cards and charge card machines.”

After only 3 years, TOCA received the first of several prestigious awards. Do Something organization named Terrol as one of America’s top ten young community leaders in recognition of his contributions to the revitalization of a healthy and sustainable Tohono O’odham community. Terrol describes the process:

“This was my first award. The process was a different experience with nominations, applications, and interviews in New York. It was stressful in New York… I felt the pressure to represent myself and the organization. With the award there was publicity on TV, in Rolling Stone magazine…. The process was unreal, but I was honored and excited; it meant more to me because the award benefited my people.”

Also at that time, Terrol accepted several invitations to collaborate with museums. First he was an Artist-in-Residence at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City, where he researched Tohono O’odham basketry, and explored New York City:

“Previously I had thought of museums as prisons, but here everything was accessible. I wore white gloves to handle baskets and assistants helped me see as much as possible. There were cameras and videos to record the collections for my report. People showed me New York, and I learned about the art experience for professional artists.”

The next museum projects museums were in Tucson. Recognized as knowledgeable about baskets due to his work with TOCA,  Terrol was invited to be guest curator for exhibitions at the Sonora Desert Museum and the Arizona Historical Society.

Smithsonian Museum Exhibition: “Hold Everything”  2001

Terrol was especially honored to be guest curator at the Heard Museum for an exhibition and publication “Hold Everything: Masterworks of Basketry and Pottery from the Heard Museum” (2001). Jody Folwell was curator for pottery. It was a huge challenge to select baskets representing the entire country; however, as a basket maker, it was thought that Terrol would bring “…a unique understanding of the nature of achievement that may be hidden within a piece.” (p. 4)

To select masterpieces, both curators agreed to reject a time-based approach and to reject bias that older is more authentic. They were alert for “context and change” because the museum’s collection has more art baskets than utilitarian baskets, reflecting the tastes of collectors. The curators also recognized the importance of “spirit” (artist’s vision and story) in each piece.  Here is a brief excerpt from Terrol’s insightful essay (co-authored with Tristan Reader) describing his struggles to define “masterworks”:

“In the Tohono O’odham language, we have no word for art. My ancestors never really created formal artwork that was separated from day-to-day life. Instead, Native people have always looked to create artful ways of living, seeking ways to blend beauty and usefulness.  We try to live in ways that bring together the material, spiritual and aesthetic worlds. In basketry, beauty and utility are joined together. Some call it art; most basket weavers simply call it life. This heritage presented me with a challenge in choosing baskets that were ‘masterworks’. How can that one word include everything from a gigantic Pima grain storage basket to my people’s ceremonial wine baskets and today’s ‘art baskets’?” (pp. 34-35)

Before and after the Heard Museum exhibition, Terrol took the initiative to learn to make films. “Weaving Words: Stories of Arizona’s Native Basketweavers” (2000) enters the lives of seven weavers who are Tohono O’Odham, Apache and Hopi. “Weaving Families: Stories of Generations of Native Basketweavers” (2002) presents the Sanipass family of Maine’s Micmac Tribe, the Parker family of California’s Kashya Pomo-Miwok Tribe and the Saraficio Family of the Tohono O’odham Tribe. Such projects enabled Terrol to be creative, travel and revitalize basketry.

Also at that time, TOCA received two prestigious awards. The US President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities presented the Coming Up Taller Award.  Terrol and co-founder Tristan Reader were recognized as one of the nation’s top leadership teams when they received the Ford Foundation’s Leadership for a Changing World Award.

In 2004, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian  opened on the National Mall, a significant time for all Native People. Terrol and TOCA staff were invited as curatorial consultants for the inaugural exhibit, “Our Peoples: Giving Voices to Our Histories,” because the Tohono O’odham was one of eight tribes presented. The following year, the Heard Museum contacted TOCA to assist in a complete renovation its permanent Southwest exhibit and to include one of Terrol’s gourd baskets.


Exhibitions at the Smithsonian, Washington D.C., and the Amerind Foundation Museum in Dragoon, Arizona, gave national recognition to Terrol’s career as a weaver.

Most important was an exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, “The Language of Native American Baskets: From the Weavers’ View”. The exhibition assembled 200 baskets from the museum’s collection. To emphasize that basket weaving is a living and evolving art across the country, the exhibition also featured six acclaimed weavers. The following artists represented woodlands, desert, coastal and high plateau tribal communities: Theresa Secord, Penobscot in Maine; Terrol Dew Johnson, Tohono O’odham in Arizona; Julia Parker, Pomo , and Sherrie Smith-Ferri, Dry Creek Pomo, in California; Lisa Telford, Haida in British Columbia, Canada; and Pat Courtney Gould, Wasco in Oregon.

Known as an innovative artist, Terrol was asked by the Smithsonian to create a wall-hung, installation piece that unified the entire exhibition. The outcome was a brilliant, “Basket Quilt, Touched by Many”, 9 feet by 7 feet. The concept was inspired by his grandmother’s fabric quilts with memories of family associated with each panel. This was a new art form that merged basket and fabric traditions. Terrol described the process:

“I had six months to create a large installation piece. I wanted to combine textures and styles so I started with a panel of Passamaquoddy porcupine stitch, using 1” ash weavers from Maine. The process reminded me of Claire Gabriel who taught me that stitch. Once I made that mat,  the concept of a quilt  was clear.  I gathered materials from each of the artists in the exhibition. Theresa sent me brown ash from Maine; Lisa sent cedar from Washington; Julia sent redbud from California; Courtney sent water grass from Oregon. I made the trays of bear grass and yucca. Two weeks before the exhibition, I moved into a studio in the Customs House in New York City, weaving and experimenting and examining the Smithsonian’s collections whenever I  needed to learn more about techniques.”

Subsequently, Terrol has woven 5 variations of the quilt, sometimes commissioning Tohono O’odham weavers to create trays for him.  Each quilt symbolizes community.

Gourd Baskets

Terrol’s signature work over fifteen years is a series of baskets with gourds that are natural or cast in bronze. “…I decided to apply traditional techniques in new ways as by weaving on top of gourds…” The distinctive gourds have open sections that are partially filled with rows of woven bear grass, parallel and horizontal or curved, concentric and undulating. They convey a wonderful sense of tranquility and rhythm.

Ursula Huber of the Amerind Foundation Museum described one gourd as an “…egg-shaped form, opened as if two hands were holding a precious center…” That precious center could be water, with rows of bear grass suggesting ripples caused when a stone is dropped into water. The surfaces, smooth and woven, quietly express the spirit of water. In the desert environment, precious water has inspired motifs since ancient times.

Terrol explains that Nature inspired him to cast a natural gourd into bronze:

“Hiking 250 miles through the grasslands from Mexico to Arizona, I saw huge rocks rising out of the earth randomly. The grass flowed constantly in ripples, brushing the rock again and again. The unbreakable rocks were softened by the grass. The contrast was important. I like the pairing of opposites: hard and soft, smooth and textured, solid gourd and open work weaving. I wanted a bronze gourd to resemble the rocks…….I cast a large gourd in bronze, worked to get a nice patina, then wove using traditional basketry  materials on top of  the bronze. It reflects my connection to tradition as well as the diversity of contemporary life. This piece [bronze gourd basket] walks in two worlds, just as many Native people do…..”

Bark Baskets   

The “bark basket” was another innovative concept, a collaboration with  New York architects Benjamin Aranda and Chris Lasch. The goal was to explore new materials, construction possibilities and traditional weaving. While the architects designed patterns that could be assembled to create baskets, Terrol experimented with handmade paper but preferred wood veneers such as bobinga, lace wood, and eucalyptus.

The pattern pieces were sewn together with waxed linen or gut, favoring natural colors. Rows of traditional bear grass were added between abutting panels. The concept is versatile; the final form can be changed by increasing or decreasing the number of panels. The baskets are elegant and contemporary. Other design experiments combined glass and steel with weaving materials. “Knot Basket” combines cedar bark, willow and grapevine with steel. The exhibition debuted fourteen baskets at the Artists Space in Soho, New York City.

Basketry and Native Foods Festivals 

Since 1998, TOCA has sponsored festivals for baskets and culinary arts, a natural pairing because baskets have always been used as containers to parch, gather, winnow and store foods as well as to hold liquids for daily and ceremonial purposes. Festivals were hosted by the Heard Museum until 2007, when the festival returned “home” to the new Tohono O’odham Nation’s Himdag Ki: Museum & Cultural Center in Topawa.

In 2009 the festival highlighted cooking demonstrations with invited chefs using tepary beans, prickly pear, cholla cactus buds, corn, pumpkin, agave nectar and saguaro seeds. TOCA’s Desert Rain Gallery and Cafe also opened in Sells, capital of the Tohono O’odhman Nation, with traditional and contemporary menus.

2008-2010 “THE WALK HOME”

The work at TOCA was all consuming, and Terrol requested a sabbatical. A remarkable individual, Terrol was not about to relax; rather, this was an opportunity to lead a nationwide project. He walked 3,000 miles across the United States, starting in Maine,  with his niece and nephew to promote diabetes awareness and physical activity for health. The message was to keep moving on foot, by canoe, bicycle, even horseback! Their route linked native communities to share the message of healthy commitments. Upon his return, TOCA re-organized with Terrol as President and CEO, and Tristan Reader as Special Projects Director.

To conclude our interview, I asked Terrol “How do you balance all that you do? When do you weave? What is in the future?” Terrol responded:

“After ‘The Walk’ I learned to set priorities. Now I have more balance in my work and life. Work is busy.  Together we are planning a Basket and Native Food Celebration for 2013…..Weaving? My own weaving is seasonal; I start in March to weave for the Santa Fe Fair in August. Weaving put me on the map as an artist. I earned the title ‘basket weaver.’ I am rooted in weaving, but I want to do anything creative. [laughing] No one can predict what I’ll do next, or what opportunity might come along! I do know that I have much more to do. I feel blessed and fortunate…..Finding time to weave in my very busy life is very important. Weaving is something I love…..with time for dreaming. The sky is the limit!”

For Terrol Dew Johnson, baskets have the power to express feelings, hope and the future, to foster fellowship and pride, and to change the world.