Charlie Willeto was a Navajo medicine man trained in the ancient art of the illness doll—a ritual figure employed to draw sickness and suffering away from a human victim. In the last four years of his life, Willeto subverted the tradition of the illness doll, making some 400 figures that drew on this tradition, but carefully sidestepped the taboo of keeping these ceremonial figures within the realm of the living.
His art worried tribal leaders at first, but soon he became recognized as a healer and artist of great vision and power. Willeto’s figures range from just a few inches tall to carvings measuring over four feet. He began carving late in life and produced a significant number of spirit figures and other works between 1960 and 1964.
Forty-six Willeto carvings have been acquired by Kohler Foundation from several sources over the past years. Each piece was carefully evaluated, meticulously cleaned, and conserved as needed. Conservation treatment was provided by objects conservator Meghan Mackey.
The collection now resides at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center. Among the recent acquisitions of Willeto pieces was a generous gift from Margaret Robson. These two pieces are stellar examples of Willeto’s work, particularly the large fifty-inch carved weaver spirit figure with concho belt. An additional two works by Willeto were added to the collection in 2014.