Martha (Marty) Gradolf
Idea Weaver

By Rachel Perry
photo by George Bredewater

Marty Gradolf’s woven pieces often make silent comments about society. And the way the weavings are interpreted reveals much about the individuals who respond to them.

A self-described “contemporary nontraditional Native American” artist, Mrs. Gradolf is proud of her full-blooded Winnebago ancestry. She creates weavings focused on the stereotypical images of American Indians that continue to exist in our country’s culture. One of her most controversial pieces, titled “Savages,” is adorned with plastic Indian figures. Some are dressed as warriors and others are posed in the old Western movie “How” greeting (one arm bent at the elbow with palm facing forward). Integrated in the weaving are the words, “Savages” and “How.”

“About twenty percent of the people interpreted this as real instead of a joke and were offended by it,” Marty explained. “The pieces are not meant to harm anyone, just to make people think about what’s going on.”

Another piece titled “Made in Japan” features hand-dyed strips woven simultaneously in two layers. Ceramic Indians (old-fashioned salt and pepper shakers made in Japan) adorn the top of the piece and brass cone-shaped jangles fringe the bottom. “I like to use ‘found’ objects in my work,” she said. As she smoothes the weaving, the jingling border is reminiscent of clothing worn in Native American dances.

Perhaps Marty Gradolf’s best-known weaving is “According to Webster,” recently chosen as the signature image for the 10th anniversary Indian Market 2002 at the Indianapolis Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art. The piece uses an American flag motif with two flags sandwiching a cream-colored mid-section. The upside down flag at the top features a Native American Medicine Wheel fashioned from copper and brass beads where the stars and blue background appear on a conventional flag. The flag at the bottom depicts the Colonial American flag with the original thirteen stars. Woven into the mid-section are the words, “treaty—a formal agreement between two or more nations or sovereigns.”

Athough the omnipotent symbol of the American flag is used frequently since September 11, 2001, Mrs. Gradolf had used the flag in her weavings prior to the terrorist event. “I used the American flag motif a few years ago because I wanted to do one and then did a few more,” she offered. “The third one I did just happened to be the right time (to be chosen for the Eiteljorg Indian Market).”

Marty Gradolf uses various items to augment her unique weavings, but these collected objects do not necessarily provide the inspiration for each piece. “Usually I’m not really sure what I’m going to put on it. I draw a plan on graph paper just to get the gage, but it doesn’t always end up as I started it,” she said. “I’ll have a little idea of something I want to do and I really recently have grown to trust the creative process. Once I start weaving, ideas will just start coming…I think it’s true for any creative artist. Once you start playing music or weaving or writing, the ideas just flow.”

In order to create so seamlessly an artist must first master the medium, and Marty has spent approximately twenty years perfecting her art. “I became interested in weaving when I was very young. I saw a movie and a woman was weaving,” she remembered. “Although I didn’t quite know what she was doing, it struck something in me. I was always kind of looking for it as I grew.”

Marty spent her youth in Indianapolis and married her high school sweetheart, Kim, twenty-five years ago. They moved “because we did not want to live in the city when we married. We looked around for a house and just happened to find one in Brown County and have stayed since.” Within a few years, the couple was blessed with two sons, Martin and Cody. Preferring to stay at home with her children, Mrs. Gradolf took up weaving, beginning with table runners and placemats for sale.

Around five years ago, space became available in Nashville’s Village Green Building and Marty happily moved the unwieldy looms and shelves of yarn out of her living room. Although she continues to create practical items, wall hangings have become her primary focus. And Indian Markets are her main selling venues.

“A lot of people come to the Indian markets who are open-minded and educated, so there’s a market for contemporary work,” she declared. “There’s such a movement of Indian artists that are doing things that are not from a traditional stereotypical genre.” Marty typically prepares inventory to show in four juried Indian Markets each year, including markets in Arizona, Illinois and Lawrence, Kansas, as well as the summer Eiteljorg market.

At the Indian Markets, competitions take place with awards ranking the work in various categories. Martha Gradolf’s pieces have received prizes in the “Three Dimensional Art” category at the Cahokia Contemporary Indian Art Show 2002 (Collinsville, Illinois) and for the past three years in the “Non-Traditional Weaving” category at the Eiteljorg Museum Indian Market. As a result, Mrs. Gradolf has developed a following of enthusiastic buyers who collect her work.

In addition to her creative projects, Marty teaches occasional workshops. Using hand-dyed yarns of wool, hemp and other natural fibers, she has taught workshops for Indiana University/Purdue University, the American Indian Center of Indiana and the Indianapolis Children’s Museum, as well as mini-classes for Brown County elementary schools. In 2001, Mrs. Gradolf received an Individual Artist Grant from the Indiana Arts Commission to pursue her muse.

Judging from her creative woven projects in the Village Green Building, it appears that the state grant was well spent. Marty Gradolf’s studio is open only by appointment. Call 812-988-7393 or e-mail <>