Negotiate, Navigate, Innovate: Strategies Folk Artists Use in Today’s Global Market Place

We were honored to be a part of the Gallery of Conscience at the Museum of International Folk Art.  It was a large investment of time spent with a cadre of New Mexican and international artists, over  the space of several months.  It has been difficult to communicate what we were doing during that time, but the Museum’s website explains.  “The Gallery of Conscience is an experimental gallery in the Museum of International Folk Art where the public is invited to help shape the content and form of the exhibition in real time.

Visitors notice the Gallery of Conscience looks different than the rest of the museum.  In this gallery, visitors are invited behind the scenes to participate directly in the creation of an exhibition.  That is why the space looks informal and unpolished- it’s on purpose.  The Gallery of Conscience team seeks to make visitors feel welcome to write comments, leave thoughts and participate in the exhibition’s creation.

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Negotiate, Navigate, Innovate is about contemporary folk artists and their relationship with their patrons, buyers and collectors. We are especially interested in understanding the pressures they might feel to keep their traditions alive in the face of modern technological advances and new consumer demands. Visitors will see a kind of “mock up” or series of idea sketches. The artworks will come at a later point in the process- after we have heard from visitors, artists and local community members.  Even the exhibition title itself is up for grabs- so be sure to vote on which title you like best, or suggest your own. Come back often and see how the exhibition has changed in response to your ideas.”

There were a number of opportunities for us to interact with the other artists involved.  We also were encouraged to take on an apprentice and create a video documentation of the experience.  That is what you see above.  These experiences have given me a lot to think about over the last several months, and I’ve been anxious to record my thoughts.

About selling traditional arts in a big, well-connected world.

Obviously there are countless approaches.  We were all involved in one of the big summer markets in Santa Fe: the International Folk Art Market, the Spanish Market, and Indian Market.  So we all were aware that there were people who decided who was in, and who was out, of these venues.  It’s not easy to be allowed to show in any of these, there are rules involved, and policies to navigate.  We talked a lot about interacting with the buyers of the products we made, and how those interactions affected our work, and how it affected us on a personal level.

Most interesting to me was how our selling of our work influenced how we understood our traditions.   A list of questions I’d like to explore further in the future, emerges.

  • What do our traditions mean to our community?

Some traditional arts are essential threads of connection in communities.  Others are more pragmatic expressions of comfort, communication, or personal expression.

  • What is the economic role they play? Is it serving to empower community members by providing employment, a creative outlet for self expression, or a role in a community’s sacred interactions?

This is, of course, a question of survival for these art forms.  We met women from countries where creating these goods for sale served as a vital connection to others beyond the walls of their homes.  And their cooperatives created leaders who played essential political roles as voices of the women involved.  For many artists, these forms connected them to their personal and community histories.  Others created objects that were important to a spiritual community beyond themselves.  Some traditions, like ours, have always been primarily in a commercial realm, created for trade beyond the local community.

  • Does it inform and express culture to those within the culture,  or to outsiders?

What I think I heard in our discussions is that this was a very personal question, and how we communicated with those who were interested in our work was at the heart of this.  Who we sold to could be only people who were sincerely committed to the art form or the community, or it could be anybody willing to pay for the product.

  • What about the traditions are sacrosanct and what is changeable?  Are we comfortable with new techniques or different materials, and why?

Again, this is a very personal issue.  But some folks dealt with rules imposed by others regarding what is defined as traditional and what is not.  And others were faced with choices as to how to respond to pressure to make change.  Sometimes change meant making a markedly improved product, like drum heads not damaged by changes in humidity.  Other times market changes might mean using color to appeal in a new market in a way that might go against the community of origin’s intentional use of color.  There were new approaches that helped speed up the process and make it less work intensive, and there was clearly some conflict over the appropriateness of that kind of change too.

  • Do we make changes because of the pressures of outside economic forces?

These forces seem likely to continue to affect these traditional forms, but individuals may choose where they will bend and where they will not.

  • How do we respond to “cultural appropriation”?  And what is our appropriate role in guarding traditions?  Who “owns” these traditions?

As a person who grew up outside of the culture whose weaving tradition I am devoted to preserving, this is a very personal question.  I don’t have any answers to this one.  But I confront it regularly.

In the end, each one of us has to draw boundaries for ourselves, and these questions can help guide our choices.  These are issues that we are often deeply emerged in, and the answers for us have probably grown more nuanced as we have been at this for some time now.  But it was the work we did with our apprentices, and the videos that were made to document that work, that brought me to one conclusion.  Traditions will, and must, change over time.  They are in flux because new people must take them up in every generation. 


There is still an underlying question too, about who supports these traditions, and why, and how.  We have always had moral, if not a lot of financial, support from institutions of various kinds, some governmental and some private.  We are always grateful when these kinds of acknowledgements of the value of tradition are made.  It would be impossible to measure what these things have meant to our ability to keep up our efforts.

Another thing I will always be grateful for about getting to engage with all these artists in this program is that it engenders a sense of common ground and unity of purpose. Each of our opportunities to share with one another were seriously uplifting.  I don’t think I am alone in feeling that way.  For me that is a powerful spiritual thing.

 

 

This was the group of artists and staff who stuck around after the videos were premiered at the end of our project.

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This was a group of us deeply involved in learning how to make videos.  I am grateful for the immersion in a whole new creative process, and hope to apply what I have learned to future projects.

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Jake Trujillo’s Navy Experience

JakeatTreasureIslandThis is from a transcript of an old oral history interview with Irvin Trujillo’s father Jake. It’s a nice thing to have run into today, on Veteran’s Day. When we went to go find a picture of Jake in the Navy we found this picture, which is dated (at the bottom of the picture) November 11, 1944. A lot of Veteran’s Day coincidence.
“In 1942, I was called into the army, I was inducted.  Well when I got my induction papers, I went over to Santa Fe.  At that time my oldest brother was working in Santa Fe.  He was a cook in one of the restaurants there.  And I went over and told him that I had received my papers and he says ” Why don’t you g0 and enlist in the Navy. It’s a better branch. I see the sailors here and I know that are having a lot of fun. It’s a good branch of the service.”  So I went to the Navy induction center and asked them if I could enlist in the navy and they said yes, if you pass the physical exam. So I passed the test and they told me “Report here in two weeks, you’ll be in the navy. S0 I reported there and they sent me to San Diego, California for training. After boot camp they sent me overseas. From San Diego they sent me to San Francisco, and from there to Portland, Oregon. From there they assigned us a ship in the Merchant Marines, a ship, a gun crew of 25 sailors. I didn’t do any weaving during that-period. We were going from Seattle to Alaska, back and forth delivering supplies on a Liberty Ship.  We were taking the supplies to the fighting men in Alaska.  I made about six voyages. Then I had time to come home on leave. Then I reported back to Treasure Island, and from there they gave me shore duty for about four months. I used to work in the offices as a messenger.  After four months I requested if I could be assigned to go to South America. He said sure, so he gave me an assignment to go overseas. So I went from San Francisco to the South Pacific and unloaded there.  From there they sent us to Antipavasta (?) Chili, and to the Panama Canal, and they from there we landed on the USS Virginia. ’When we got there I had a telegram for me to report to Treasure Island for a special assignment. When I reported there I thought they would send me to the fighting. But they invited me into the office and were asking me a lot of questions and they finally said”We have checked your records and found you have been an instructor in arts and crafts. we need you to teach the sailors the different crafts that you know. You will be in charge of the place here. We will authorize you to purchase whatever you need” I thought it was great. I stayed there for about two to three years 44 and 45.”

 

Vallero

The Vallero is the first design within our tradition that actually develops here in Northern New Mexico. It’s named after the beautiful mountain town of El Valle, where there were a number of weavers who had the respected skill of being able to weave these distinctive textiles.  The oldest of these use commercial plied yarns, and tend to be more detailed than later Valleros.  The majority of Valleros were dyed with the early synthetic dyes, but are handspun wool.  Those woven before about the 1920’s are woven in two pieces with a seam down the center.

Trampas Vallero

This is a simple Trampas Vallero. It has five serrated Vallero stars, one in each corner and one in the center. The corner stars are in large boxes. It has a simple vertical border and it uses chained hourglasses to delineate color areas in the radiating diamond . It also shows striping in the radiating diamonds. You can see how similar these are to the Rio Grande Saltillos that preceded them. Valleros pretty much look like Rio Grande Saltillos but with eight-pointed stars added to them.  Not all Valleros have the same five-stars distribution.

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The weavers who wove Valleros were said to have had distinctive border designs that identified who wove the piece.  A majority of the Valleros we have seen have either a “tulipan” border like the piece above, or a “culebra” border like the Vallero below, or some combination of the two borders.

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Dyed in the Wool – New Mexico Magazine article

An Evolution of Rio Grande Weaving

This is actually a fairly complete history of Rio Grande weaving.  A few weeks ago we were a part of a group of amazing experts on the local Hispanic culture of Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado that met in Alamosa, Colorado. The participants are all instructors for something called the Hilos Institute.  The Institute is, we learned, about teaching instructors at Adams State University about the culture that a lot of their students come from, so that they can be do a better job as teachers.  And what they wanted us to understand, was how to organize our knowledge around teaching about Hispanic culture to their instructors.    We learned about “backwards design”, which turned out to be a very logical idea about teaching according to a goal of what you want your students to be learning.  So this idea popped into my mind.  This is (obviously) a spreadsheet.  And it includes pretty much the whole of what we want people to understand about how our weaving tradition evolved through the major historical periods of Hispanic New Mexico’s history.  It’s a little bit disconcerting to put your life’s learning into a spreadsheet like this, but hey, simplifying life is supposed to be a good thing, right?

Each of these images is good for a blog post or two, and has provided inspiration for countless weavings.  So, no, it isn’t really all that simple.  But here it is, anyhow, for your viewing pleasure.  We’re still happy to come show you lots of pretty pictures and explain this all in detail, should you want to invite us to speak…RG weaving historywpics_Page_1RG weaving historywpics_Page_2

Chimayo

Chimayo is the style that Irvin and Lisa learned first, before learning to weave the older parts of the tradition.  There is a logic and a mindset that is central to weaving the Chimayo style.  And there’s all of that going back and forth between shuttle weaving and tapestry weaving.  It may be the first style that we learned to weave, but it isn’t necessarily an easy thing to do.

Let’s start by describing and defining the style the best we can.  A Chimayo has two stripes and a center design.  The bigger the piece is, the more room there is to add more elements.  There are secondary designs, and jaspes one can add to give it more visual interest and fill the space.  The stripes are very much like Rio Grande stripes, and you can think of the center design as a variation on a Saltillo diamond, but sort of squished down so that it is wider than it is tall.

grey chimayo

 

And it’s important to realize the history behind it.  It is very much a post-industrial revolution New Mexican product.  It is woven from commercial yarns on looms with milled lumber and  metal reeds.  It really develops because Santa Fe, and later Chimayo, was becoming a place that tourists were coming to, at the same time weavers were finding that they no longer had a ready market for their blankets once milled blankets became available to people.  The people of Northern New Mexico were becoming part of a cash economy at that time, and this was a skill that the weaving dealers were able to actually pay for.  The weaving dealers provided the materials and sometimes the equipment, and the weavers could work at home, balancing their work with other responsibilities.  The business arrangement has not changed at all since those early days.

There are a group of pieces, and they aren’t commonly found nowadays, that have been called “prototypical Chimayos”.  These pieces are most commonly red, with black and white designs.  They can be seen as spanning the design distance between the Saltillos with dispersed elements and/or corner elements, and the Chimayo blanket that settles in in the 1920’s

Prototypical Chimayo (1 of 1)

The weavers all became specialized, some weaving on big looms, and some on small looms.  We are told that the men working on the big looms got very competitive over their designs.  So we see a lot of very creative ideas spring up, and a huge variation in Chimayo designs.  There is something of a golden age in Chimayo weaving in those early years, the 1920’s and 1930’s, and we have much to learn from those early Chimayos.

Chimayo with amazing design

 

Jerga

A part of the Rio Grande weaving tradition that goes back to Spanish Colonial times is called jerga.  Historically, jerga was woven as a utilitarian fabric, used as a tarp, or carrier, or for wrapping things up.  It was strictly a wool textile.  Someone with wealth might demonstrate that by putting jerga down as a floor covering.  It was woven in long strips and cut and seamed to make a piece of fabric of the desired size.  And many of the jergas that survived to the present are very large.

Old Spanish Loom

The Spanish Colonial jerga was woven on four-harness looms using a straight twill, or, less commonly, as a diamond twill.  Moving into more modern times, the jerga slowly evolved into a uniquely New Mexican variety of rag rugs.

diamond twill detail
diamond twill jerga detail
straight twilll
Straight twill jerga detail

 

 

 

 

 

 

Originally, jergas were probably pretty colorless, but many of the examples that survive have quite lively colors.

Jerga with three widths
Three panel jerga with undyed yarns.

Moving into more modern times, the jerga slowly evolved into a uniquely New Mexican variety of rag rugs.

Jerga with rag weft.
Jerga with rag weft.
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More jerga with rag weft.

 

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Weft-faced rag rug with spun rags used for weft.