Evelyn Keen thought she might find her family in The Art Museum at the University of Kentucky. Or at least she might see work by her family in the exhibit Native American Weavings and Jewelry.
"One of my friends sent me a link saying there will be Native American arts and crafts there," says Keen, who lives in Woodford County. "So I went, and the first picture I saw, there was my family. Then I saw my mother's rug."
That rug was Sand Painting (From the Water Chant) by Alberta Thomas. It was one of many pieces her mother made as a weaver, often starting at her loom early in the morning and working until late at night.
Weaving ran in the family. The exhibit includes a piece by her grandmother Despah Nez and her aunt Anna Mae Tanner. All three worked for Red Rock Weavers, a trading post near the Four Corners area in northern Arizona.
What makes it a particular thrill for Keen to see her ancestors' work is that she doesn't own any. The rugs were woven to put food on the table and pay the bills, so they were all sold. Some eventually ended up in the permanent collection of the Kennedy Museum of Art at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, the source of the exhibit at UK.
The UK museum's curator of collections and exhibitions, Janie Welker, says the exhibit came to the museum through a casual conversation with her counterpart at Ohio. They were discussing some photos the museum wanted to borrow from UK, and they began discussing the museum's Native American weavings and jewelry, Welker says.
"We are always happy to bring in shows that highlight different cultures," Welker says, noting that recent exhibits have covered art from Japan, the Middle East and Australia, among others.
She finds it particularly fascinating that the weavers worked without patterns, but their work ended up in tight, detailed, nearly geometrically perfect designs.
The patterns were often dictated by the trading post, which would instruct the weavers on what could sell. Some of the later pieces were blatantly commercial, depicting marketable scenes and icons, but Welker says, "it was a commercial trade all the way back to the 1880s."
When she brought the exhibit in, Welker had no idea there was a local connection to the work until Keen visited. She talked to one of the guards at the museum about her connection to the work, and word was passed along to Welker.
"I was fascinated by Evelyn's story because it encapsulated so many aspects of Navajo life," she says.
Keen was sent to a government boarding school at age 6 and was away from home for school through her youth, graduating from a Native American school in Phoenix. Her father worked in uranium mines near their home, and he soon developed cancer and died. Her mom wove to support the family.
Many of her family's pieces were bought by Edwin Kennedy, who came west to work at the mine. He eventually donated them to Ohio, which has 27 weavings by Thomas, 24 by Tanner and 21 by Nez.
Keen, 61, served in the Army, where she met her first husband, a native of Paintsville. That's what brought her to Kentucky in 1973. She now lives in Midway.
She said Ohio University invited her and her grandmother, the last of the three women who were alive at the time, to come see the collection.
"They were all sold," Keen says, "so it was really wonderful for her to get to see them again."
For Keen, it was a revelation, too.
"I'm really proud," she says. "I never realized what beautiful, intricate work my mother did. Some of these took months to complete.
"I would have loved to have learned to weave the way they did."
Being away at school made that impossible, and she says that when she was around, she wasn't interested in learning.
Now though, she can show her family her heritage and the work of dozens of other Native American artists.
Welker and the museum's publications and public relations director, Dorothy Freeman, say the exhibit has been well attended since it went up earlier this summer.
"You can tell how good an exhibit is when we don't want it to go," Freeman says, "and we don't want this one to close."
Keen would heartily concur.
"We never thought these would end up in a museum," she says. "It's a real testament to their work."
Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @copiousnotes.