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.


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.


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.



Always Greener

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Always Greener came out of my developing awareness of how the two sides of tapestry weaving, pictorial and geometric, relate to each other.  It always seems like there’s just a shade of jealousy about “the other side” having it easier, either making or selling their work, or just getting respect for it.  And I really am uncomfortable with any kind of “us versus them” mentality.

This piece was about taking naturalistic shapes and making them geometric.  It’s about how they relate to each other.  So I revisited this body shape that I’d done in a handful of pieces before.  And I let the bodies do things.  They float, they play with the lines that encompass them, and they turn into geometric shapes.  I was told that the upper right body is doing something akin to “downward dog.” I even divided bodies up for their geometric components.

It was woven in 2000.  It uses all natural dyes,  and it’s here in the shop at the moment on consignment from the owner.

Clearly we are solidly in the camp of geometric tapestry weavers.  Pictorials have been around in our tradition, but, other than things like thunderbirds and roadrunners, haven’t really been a big part of it.  It isn’t that our techniques aren’t amenable to imagery, but they really are very much designed around things like symmetry and pattern, and our techniques train our brains around logical thinking that just doesn’t much apply to naturalistic forms.  These thought process are certainly a big part of what I like so much about weaving.

Weaving imagery requires having something to say in imagery.  That “picture painting a thousand words” thing is something I have always found mildly intimidating.  And I’m sure I’d always have the nagging sense that maybe just painting it would be faster and more appropriate for whatever I would want to say with an image.

And once, a few years after I completed this weaving, I was told that what we do wasn’t actually tapestry weaving.  She had learned a different kind of methodology and apparently couldn’t mentally encompass what we do as being tapestry, despite the fact that it very much fits the definition of tapestry.

So, in my mind, getting respect for tapestry as an art form is challenging for all of us.  I’ve watched people talk about it as an issue, a challenge, for tapestry artists, but I don’t have any answers as to how such a thing is ever going to come about.  I know that there are tapestry weavers that promote their work really well, so I guess it could happen that someday a tapestry weaver, or a few really great ones, will push the envelope of artistic respect beyond where it sits today.  I don’t know that there’s any reason to think that geometric forms or traditional design should be any more or less likely to garner respect for tapestry than imagery or boundary pushing new tapestry forms.

I’ve heard from pictorial weavers that those of us weaving in a tradition have it made, that we have an already developed market.  Which is, sort of, true.  But I’d argue that, as individual artists, we have to build a market for our work in precisely the same way that any other artist does.  Our work has some credibility as an authentic outcome of an old tradition.  I wouldn’t say that that was really a simple thing to achieve, but it is something that adds value to our work based on work done by those that have gone before.  So maybe they have a good point there.





“Bubbles” – Lisa Trujillo, handspun indigo dyed and undyed wool, 60″ x 90″, 1993

This morning the people who own this piece came to visit us.  They were happy to talk to me about it, telling me about where it lives and what good care they are taking with it.  Clearly it means a lot to them, in part because of the connection it makes between my family and theirs.  They remembered that I had told them that I had woven it when I was pregnant with my daughter Emily, and they have a daughter Emma who is a bit older than my Emily.  The similarities of our daughters’ names and, I’m assuming here, the fact that our daughters mean so much to us, has made this piece something worth revisiting today.  Actually, there’s a lot to be said about this piece.

The background of the piece, as well as the blue patterned diamonds in the border design, are made with ikat-dyed yarn. Ikat is a very specific technique that plays a small part in the Rio Grande tradition but is something that a variety of different weaving traditions around the world use.  Here’s the Wikipedia entry on ikat, in case you have an interest.   I’m sure that one day we’ll write something more about ikat here on the blog.

In our tradition, ikat was used in Rio Grande stripes.  Over the years, Irvin and I have done more ikat in the context of tapestry.  We have yet to find any other weaving tradition that combines ikat and tapestry, but now know of another tapestry weaver who is combining these techniques.  We usually have done ikat with an indigo dye which has the advantage of being easy to sort of reproduce the same color.  So the diamonds in the border and center design were all dyed for an earlier piece called Hyperactive.  I did the background ikat especially for this piece.  It is simply an evenly spaced resist, so that during the weaving process I could line up the resisted areas as I pleased.  And it worked!  But it meant I had to come up with a sort of  randomly blended area towards the white of the border.  I still remember that being an ongoing challenge during the piece, but it certainly looks fine to me with a couple of decades having passed since doing it.

The really important part of this piece is that it was woven while I was going through that huge transformational event in life – pregnancy.  It did not occur to me when I started in on the two-pieces-seamed weaving that my pregnancy would impact the piece, but it did.  As it turned out, my growing belly made it hard to tension the warp the same as I progressed through the piece.  So one side is a bit longer than the other.  I must have figured out how to get the center seam to work out, but clearly didn’t figure out how to make it all square.  Although I would’ve liked to have woven a perfectly flat and rectangular piece, I think it’s a fitting reality that my weaving turned out to be so accommodating to that major life change it happened to coincide with.  I think that the shapes I used look a bit pregnant too.  I named it “Bubbles” more for the background design than anything else, but it turned out to be an adjective that I think many would apply to my daughter, as her spirited, light-hearted personality is perhaps her most prominent feature.  I think she might have earned “Bubbles” as a nickname at one time.

This piece is an important reminder that my work is not separate from the rest of life, but an integral part.








The Art is the Cloth



We are honored to be participants in an exhibit called “The Art is the Cloth”.  The opening at the New Hampshire Institute of Art was attended by 20 of the artists in the exhibit, whose smiling faces you can see in the above picture. It is a tapestry show meant to explore that central reality of tapestry, that we aren’t manipulating a piece of cloth to create our art, we are creating the cloth as we create our art form.    There are a few other components of the art form that are pretty much a given, i.e. warp and discontinuous weft threads.  But beyond that, we are clearly thinking differently about how we approach this art form.  We saw tapestries made from all kinds of different fibers, variations on thicknesses of yarn, and every color imaginable.  The exhibit was divided in an appealingly logical way.  But I’ve been thinking about it differently, about how these tapestries diverged from my comfort zone, or didn’t.  Which is to say, why would or wouldn’t I have woven a piece like that?  So I thought I’d share my thoughts and see if I can learn anything about my own thinking/philosopy on tapestry weaving.

Rectangles and the Perpendicularity of warp and weft-.  The two groups of weavings that have “eccentric” weft are the wedge-weave pieces and the 3d onesAnd when you do these things you leave behind the familiar rectangle that most of us weave.  The rectangle is the natural way things come off of a loom.  But some of these pieces had edges that followed angles and curves, and a couple were particularly three-dimensional.  Although Irvin has a piece here in the shop that has a stepped bottom side, neither of us has purposely done anything much that isn’t a flat rectangle.  There is a logical reason for that, because the equipment we use constrains the side-to-side movement of warp yarns.  We’d have to abandon the use of the reed/beater to do most of the not-flat, non-rectangular possibilities.  There’s infinite possibilities in the non-rectangular world, but I’m not sure that I’m particularly curious about what lies out there.

Weft-faced-Almost all tapestries are weft-faced.  There weren’t many exceptions to that in the show, but Irvin and I have both tried out tapestry in the context of twills, but haven’t pursued that idea much.  A balance weave could also easily accommodate tapestry, and there was a gorgeous example of that in the show.  Still, having warp visible means all weft yarns have to blend with the warp color/s and that will actually limit color use pretty significantly.

Story-telling-Story telling is definitely a long-standing part of tapestry tradition.  Maybe it’s even an inevitable part of tapestry weaving.  After all, tapestry weavers are artists and have lots to say about things, and they have plenty of time to think about what to say while they are executing this slow process.  All of the 20 weavers present at the opening spoke briefly about their piece.  Some of them actually weren’t so brief in their presentations.  Some of the pieces had a lot of images and clearly were meant to show a passing of time, others depended on symbols and other elements to communicate more than just a pretty image or simple idea.  I suspect that none of the pieces there were devoid of meaning to the weaver, although a passing observer might not recognize the content.  A tapestry’s ability to communicate what the weaver intended is dependent a lot of things the weaver can control, and a lot that they cannot.  In this way, tapestry is like other art media.  Observers need to put some effort to see a story, or they may just see something visually appealing.  Or not.

Design medium-This is, I think, where I have some strong feelings.  People ask us all the time about how we come up with designs for our pieces.  Actually, what they ask is “where is your pattern”.  I’m not entirely sure what the underlying assumptions are for the people that ask that question, but they tend to be surprised when we tell them that we don’t have a “pattern” to work from.  And most tapestry weavers certainly don’t work from a “pattern”.  What they might use is a “cartoon”.  A cartoon is a plan for the tapestry weaver to execute to create a specific image.  Conceptually they are like a “paint by number” thing, with outlines of color areas being specified in a drawing.  That reference, the “cartoon” is kept at hand in a variety of different ways, depending on looms and personal preferences.  Executing the cartoon’s design takes a great deal of  skill, and designing the cartoon can be separated from the weaving process.  In fact, historically, these things were entirely separated.  Modern tapestry weavers tend to do both design and execution of the piece.  The design medium can be paper and pencil, paints, charcoals, collage, Photoshop…whatever.  And sometimes it’s kind of obvious that the design came from a different medium.

And my feelings about that are kind of mixed.  I want tapestry to be true to its own medium.  A part of me believes that tapestry shouldn’t look like watercolor or photography or collage, because the result of it being woven isn’t necessarily a step up from the original rendering.  After all, watercolors, photography or collage are lovely art forms in their own right.  But tapestry is time consuming.  And it conveys a depth of color and texture that other art forms don’t.  And it’s cloth, which we humans have a very special relationship to.  I’m sure that the weaver feels that the tapestry is well worth the effort they put into it or they wouldn’t do it.  But I think that what we produce from our looms ought to be true to the process of weaving first and foremost.  So I’m happy with my process, which rarely uses any medium beyond occasional sketching things on paper.  My process is very much about all kinds of variations of logic and math and color and energy.  And I’m happy with that.  It feels true to me, and to my loom and to the cloth.  I want to explore more about my own process in future posts, because I really want to clarify what it is we do.  I hope very much that what every weaver sent to that show is true to them and their process.  And we all grow and change and our design and weaving processes grow and change too.  Which is an apt analogy for tapestry weaving…it grows and changes as we lay our bits of colored weft into our warps.  And beautiful things come out of it.



Dyed in the Wool – New Mexico Magazine article

Finishing Pieces



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Spinning is really relaxing.  Weaving can be all kinds of things; exciting, tiring, frustrating, and, at its most fun, an intellectually challenging puzzle.  Because the weaving process is often incredibly long I rarely think about the finishing work that will be necessary when I get through weaving.  But the finishing work brings crucial qualities to the final piece, mainly what it looks like and how it feels to the human touch.  The finishing process is especially challenging with my handspun churro pieces.  Churro pieces, whether handspun or millspun, tend to be fuzzy looking things.  My personal take is that I don’t like a fuzzy looking piece, I want every detail of yarn texture and design to show through.  And fuzz can hide the results of a whole lot of my hard work.

Another aspect of my handspun pieces is that my yarns aren’t spotlessly clean.  They usually have some lanolin, vegetable matter, and even some dirt.  So I need to wash these handspun pieces.  The good thing about washing them is that they also become something more of a unified fabric by going through the process.  But washing the pieces means I have some extra, time-consuming processes to go through before I can have the kind of elegantly finished piece that I really need after all of my work.  I don’t have to do nearly so much work for weavings made from our millspun yarns, but I hope you’ll appreciate the documentation of the finishing work involved in my handspun pieces.


Before anything else happens I have to tie fringes.  But before I can even do that, I have to actually get to the end of the weaving.   First I have to pull the knots off that I used to tie the warp to the apron.  Then I have to remove the extra thick yarn I wove as “header” in preparation for weaving after tying the warp up to the apron. The “header” yarn is woven in only for the purpose of spreading the warp yarns apart, so that they will be distributed evenly, the way the reed distributes them, which is at eight threads per inch.  Once the knots and the header yarn are gone, I’m ready to tie the fringe.  Although there are countless options for tying fringe, most often I opt for a simple overhand knot with four threads in it.

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For all of the reasons mentioned above, I feel obligated to wash any of my handspun pieces as part of my finishing work.  I have been washing my pieces in the bathtub for years and can’t think of anyplace that would work any better for the task.  I alternate washes with soap with just rinsing until the piece rinses clear.  That can take a while.  It’s time spent on my knees, which means it’s not my favorite thing to do.  After the water in the bathtub is looking clear enough I can drain the tub and make a dash out the front door of our house to hang the piece on our ramp’s railing.  This railing is very useful for a lot of things we do in the shop.  It’s conveniently located and has an absolutely fabulous view to the west.

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I know very well that ironing is one of those things that many people do their best to avoid in these modern times.  And, I’m guessing people who have seen my day-to-day attire know that I am one of those people.  But ironing wool is a real skill.  Wool is amazingly manipulate-able, even after it has been woven into a very solid fabric.  Where you apply heat and steam can have a major impact on the finished fabric.   I am a persistent person, and will iron a piece until it is totally and completely flat.  I started the ironing process with both pieces together, hoping that by ironing the upper layer I would help start the lower piece along.  The pink piece turned out to be too big an ironing challenge, so I focused my efforts on the brown piece first.

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Soon it became clear that the pink piece was not going to just iron out to a flat fabric.  Although every yarn in the piece was of churro wool, the fleeces had widely varying characteristics and “pulled in” differently.  It has to do with variations in the “springiness” of the fibers that make up the yarn, and it isn’t the first time I have run into the problem.  The way to correct for the variations in the wool was to block it out, stretching it to it’s widest width.  Simply put, blocking a piece is nailing the thing down, pulling it wherever it needs to be stretched out.  I will iron it while it’s nailed down to get it utterly flat.

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It helps to have the piece flat when you’re shaving it.  We use hair cutters to do this process.  In the second picture you can clearly see the difference that shaving the piece has.  The design is now much more clearly visible.

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We’ve been using the term “sanding” for shaving the piece again, this time with sweater shavers, to get it to be smooth to the touch, like really well finished wood.  We can spend hours and hours doing this.


This is something I’m doing during all of these finishing steps.  I am using tweezers to pull out every single piece of the vegetable matter that was spun into the yarn because it was just part of the fleece.  These things can be almost microscopic, but are important to remove because they will attract moths.  You can also feel the vegetable matter with sensitive fingertips even if you can’t actually see it.

Names, tags, pricing, database, etc.

Lastly, we have to give the piece a name and a price tag.  And all that information goes into our multipurpose database.  Often, naming a piece is a tremendous challenge for me, although sometimes a name can come to me early in the weaving process.  The brown piece was named “Camp Moki” and has already found a home in Santa Fe, and the pink one is named “Rosa Fresca” and is still hanging here in the shop.   You can see it here on our site.

I want to point out that the finishing process on these two pieces took about the same amount of time as weaving them did.  But both Irvin and I really believe that finishing our pieces well is crucial, and add a level of quality that many other weavers don’t strive for in their work.  So we do this stuff.  And we wanted to let you know.



Art from the Fire – 2000

“Flame 2000” by Irvin Trujilllo


In May of 2000, the Cerro Grande fire burned through the Jemez mountains across the Rio Grande Valley from us.  It resulted in a huge column of smoke which would descend on us for days at a time.  The wind blowing incessantly only made things worse.  It burned out a lot of homes in Los Alamos and caused both Los Alamos and White Rock, where our kids went to school at the time, to be evacuated.  For those of us in the valley, it was just extremely frightening to watch the fire destroy so much, so fast.  Here, in case you want to revisit the event, or don’t remember it because it wasn’t traumatizing to you, is the Wikipedia entry on the subject.

Both Irvin and I wove pieces after the fire.  It was something that we, and probably every artistic soul around us, had to process in some way, and in our case, we process things via our weavings.  Here is what Irvin wrote about “Flame 2000″, when it went to its buyer.

Irvin’s  weaving was made at the time of the Cerro Grande Fire in Los Alamos, New Mexico May-June 2000. 54” x 54” design is by Irvin . The piece was started two weeks before the fire took place and had to be abandoned due to the evacuation of White Rock, New Mexico during the fire (the piece was woven in a private studio at White Rock).  After residents were allowed back into White Rock, the piece was completed. The design for this piece was from a sketch I drew in the 90’s.  It is a coincidence the the fire happened while I was weaving this piece. The design looked like  a fire in the heart and thus revealed its identity.

The dyes used for color were all natural; cochineal for reds, cota for orange/yellows, chamiso and peach leaves for yellows and yellow/greens, black walnut for tans, madder root/black walnut for orange/brown, indigo for blues, indigo over chamiso for dark greens and blue/greens.. Irvin did the dyeing at the Chimayo studio.”


Consequences Fire
“Consequences Fire” by Lisa Trujillo

I did “Consequences Fire”  a few months later.   It has a lot of stuff buried in it, so I’d like to try to explain it here.

The mountains at the bottom are the Jemez mountains, which I have already mentioned in a previous post is prominently on our western horizon.  So the fire in the mountains on the bottom portion, which are oddly geometrically represented, are the most realistic part of the image.  The fire cloud arises from there.

The shape of the geometric elements of the fire sort of evolve into the geometric shapes of the fire cloud.  The big cloud face idea was not mine.  I had connected, in my mind, the Cerro Grande fire to an album that had come out while I had lived in Los Alamos (actually, White Rock) as a high-schooler.  It was an album by some of my favorite musicians, and it was all about weather destroying the world.  Fire is just one of the methods of destruction.   Just in case you are interested, I want to provide you a link from Wikipedia for it too.  You can see the cloud face from the album cover.

From there the cloud shapes evolve into the ashes and “burnt toothpicks”, which is what trees look like after fires.  There is a number 17 in those trees.

Above that there is fire in the desert, that happens to also be a goldfish, and there are pyramids and icebergs.  Those are more important bits from premise of the album, but they also worked to create an aesthetic balance in the piece.

Like all my weavings, the process was very good for getting past that time and its somewhat traumatic affects on my life.  We have watched more terrible and destructive wildfires in our neighboring mountains since then, and they are still terribly frightening, even if they are becoming more familiar to us.  But the Cerro Grande fire inspired art.