By Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer (Choctaw Nation), Artist in Business Leadership Fellow 2015
Pauline Klementson (Yup’ik) is a master seagrass weaver. She harvests grass from Nome and Stebbins area, located in Northwest Alaska, and dyes the grass to add color and images to her baskets.
Pauline has periodically been a guest basketweaving instructor at the local high school and demonstrates at the Nome Visitor Center.
Fragile yet tough, delicate yet durable.
Pauline felt the coarseness of the seagrass in her 9-year-old fingers. Her mother and father told Pauline to sit and hold the material, to feel and understand what the seagrass was, then her parents began teaching her how to weave it.
Pauline’s first effort was a small oval-shaped basket in 1969. She sold it for $2.50 — enough for two weeks worth of candy! Excited about the possibilities, she kept weaving.
But creating with seagrass — whether dolls, baskets, ropes, or other unique pieces — isn’t just about the income it provides Pauline today. She wakes up every morning thinking of what she can make, envisioning what the project will look like when she finishes.
“It’s in my blood, I have to do it,” she says. “There are times when I have a down feeling. I don’t want to do it when I’m not making much progress. But it’s mostly upside. You can never make too many things with grass.”
When Pauline received her 2018 First Peoples Fund (FPF) Artist in Business Leadership fellowship, she discovered what it meant to treat her art as a business. Attending the 2018 FPF Fellowship Convening opened her mind to what other artists were doing with their work and businesses.
“It was wonderful getting to know First Peoples Fund,” she says.
With making and selling art, Pauline is also passionate about teaching others the craft. She finds her best students are the young ones. Their eyes light up when they learn something new, something they never knew could be made from grass.
Pauline has a few adults wanting to master the art, including how to harvest the seagrass, something she can only do once a year during the right season and weather. She tells them, “If you follow me, I’ll show you everything you need to learn so you can do it on your own.”
Pauline is currently conducting projects with a local girls and boys club, starting them young as her parents did with her. Her baskets now sell for up to $1,500.
“I am so fortunate to have learned at a young age,” Pauline says. “This keeps me going and active. I am busy from the time I wake up to the time I go to sleep.”