Mightily wove they the web of fate,
While Bralund’s towns were trembling all;
And there the golden threads they wove,
And in the moon’s hall fast they made them.
– Poetic Edda (Helgakviða Hundingsbana I)
Story and Photographs by FRIDERIKE HEUER
Why on earth was I thinking about a bit of Norse poetry while visiting with Mexican artists Laura and Francisco Bautista? Not as far-fetched as one might think when you consider I was standing in a studio filled with spinning wheels and looms: the three Norns in Norse mythology are spinning and weaving the thread of life, deciding your good or bad fate and the length of your existence irrevocably at birth.
My vivid imagination as a German child, with Richard Wagner’s Norns singing in The Ring of the Nibelungen as a frequent backdrop, had not served me well. Thread of life, perhaps short, being banged by a beater on the loom? Goosebumps ensued. Luckily for me, that negative association disappeared while looking at the art in front of me and encountering the warmth and sensibilities of the contemporary weavers who had invited me into their home. Their weaving is nourishing souls, rather than crushing them.
This was my second studio visit for the Exquisite Gorge II project, offered by Maryhill Museum of Art. To repeat, thirteen fabric artists, in collaboration with community partners, will portray an assigned section of the Columbia river in three-dimensional form on frames. The sections will be linked in the end, forming an “exquisite corpse” during a public outdoor celebration at the museum in August.
Laura and Francisco Bautista came to the U.S. in 2003, from a small town near Oaxaca, Teotitlán del Valle, a center for traditional weaving to this day. The valley was home to the Zapotec (one of the largest indigenous groups), weavers since 300 B.C.E. Archeological evidence from Mesoamerica suggests that weavers used backstrap looms as early as 1500 B.C.E.
Wool—in Zapotec, quicha pecoxilla or quichaxilla – sheep, and treadle looms were introduced by Spanish conquistadores during the 16th century, at the same time they brought devastating disease, ravaging indigenous peoples in horrifying numbers. The wool was spun with indigenous spindles, or a manually turned wheel. Other fibers that had been used included the Agave-based fiber Ixtle (quéeche in Zapotec), cotton (xilla) and in rare cases, silk.
The area developed a distinctive weaving tradition, which is claimed to be among the finest and most dynamic form of tapestry art in contemporary Latin America. (Many of today’s facts I learned from this book.) There appear to be a number of technical features that distinguish Teotitlán weavings from other Mexican tapestries. These features include the woolen warp, the two bundled warps at each selvage, the warp ends twisted together in groups, and the warp ends left uncut at one end of the web. (Honestly, I have no clue what that would look like, but I thought the community of readers who weave or are interested in weaving history might appreciate the detail.) What I do understand is the effects of historical developments on traditional practices, since the good and the bad often combine, for many media alike.
Until the 1950s, the Bautistas’ village had an economy based on subsistence agriculture. Weavings were produced for the local markets and for personal use. Enormous change happened with two external events: for one, the PanAmerican Highway was completed and tourism started to flow into Oaxaca and the surrounding regions, and with it an insatiable appetite for artifacts to bring home as a souvenir. Secondly, the U.S. Bracero program allowed millions of Mexican men to work legally in the United States on short-term labor contracts, between 1942 and 1964—an exploitation of cheap labor for the States, but a chance to send some direly needed funds home for the migrant workers. The tourist demand for weavings encouraged many of the people staying at home to start weaving full time.
The good part about these developments was that it helped centuries of knowledge and specific patterns to be handed down hereditary lines, encouraging families to engage ever more with the craft, since weavers were now in short supply given the rising demand. The not-so-good part was the introduction of more commercial demands in terms of mass production, leading to a drop in quality for many products, and, in particular, the use of synthetic dyes, since it was too costly and time-consuming to stick with the plant-based dye techniques. Even that, in some ways, might have been a change for the good because it created economic opportunities for whole towns and villages that had been previously foreclosed, in a state that is the poorest in all of Mexico and suffered much with increasing drought, deforestation, overgrazing and soil erosion in terms of agricultural earnings.
The three Nordic Norns—Urd, Verdandi and Skuld—represent the past, the present and the future, respectively, holding the world’s collective memories according to legend. Laura and Francisco Bautista live and work in the present, but honor the past in their treatment of the materials and the weaving techniques they apply.
The wool is washed and then dyed with exclusively natural colorants. The remarkable biodiversity of the Bautistas’ homeland is reflected in the many plants and other natural dyestuffs that are used for dyeing the wool. The couple uses marigold, tansy weed, black and green walnuts, and Indigo, among others, which are all available here in the Northwest. In general, many of the ancient dyestuffs relied on plants found in tropical regions. Yellow, oranges, purples, and browns were all collected from species that we don’t necessarily find in our own latitudes. Blue is derived from an indigo plant called Indigofera suffructicosa, native to the Americas (in Europe blue was derived from woad). Families would hand down their secrets about useful plants for developing special shades. Marigold petals, añil, pomegranate zest, seed pods, moss, and pecan could be cooked together, and slight manipulation of pH values would generate different colors.
Red was, as it turns out, of utmost importance. It was and still is most often extracted from the cochineal insect that lives on the opuntia cactus. The coloring agent is carminic acid, a hydroxyanthraquinone. It produces a bright red liquid and was a prized commodity (red gold!), exported by New Spain to Europe as a profitable trade for conquistadores—until the 19th century, that is, when Spain prohibited further imports of cochineal in order to protect their own newly established production farms in Spain. The economy of the Oaxaca region suffered a hard blow.
These days there are a few ranches in the Mexican region that grow the insects, providing the colorants for weavers and international importers who use it to color food. (In case you were wondering, products containing cochineal extract include Ocean Spray Cranberry Juice, Dole Diced Peaches, Strawberry Gel Fruit Bowl, Sobe Lizard Fuel, Tropicana Orange Strawberry Juice with Calcium, and Robitussin Honey Calmers Natural Throat Drops. (Ref.)
There is an embrace of the past, then, in preserving the recipes for and application of these colorants. There is also the preservation of patterns, a flourish of traditional designs and motifs, often with mythical references or other symbolism referring to the Zapotec’s folkloric tradition. There is in addition the pride in being part of a generational chain of hereditary weavers. Francisco Bautista is a fourth generation artisan, now teaching the fifth: his two teenage children, Cinthya and David, who have taken to the looms with curiosity, passion, and talent. Cultural identity is successfully transmitted. The family is tightly knit, and they often sit together to brainstorm new designs or ways to capture their desired expression in woven tapestry.
Francisco Bautista is a patient man. His temperament allows him to work figuratively (extremely complex pattern weaving) and also makes him a highly successful teacher.
Laura Bautista—who in her own words is always seeking novelty and pursuing diverse approaches favoring highly mathematical, geometric motifs—is herself an emblem of the future. Until about 50 years ago or so, Zapotec women of the region were not allowed to weave. They were involved in the task of washing, preparing, carding, and spinning the wool, as well as running the households, while the men stood at the loom, introducing their male heirs to all things related to the art from an early age. With the exodus of men migrating North, women were slowly integrated into the weaving world. By now there are all-female cooperatives of women who are widowed, divorced, single, or otherwise interested in doing collaborative work, who have become part of the artisan landscape of the Oaxaca valley.
Laura is thrilled that she learned how to weave. Weaving is a full time job that allows her to stay at home, be there for her children, assign her own working hours, and listen to music while she works. During the last seven years the couple has developed a style that is reminiscent of the 1920s Bauhaus weaving that was equally innovative at its time. A friend pointed out similarities to an art movement they had never heard of, and provided books to prove how beauty self-generates across generations and geographies, patterns not necessarily culturally defined.
In some funny twist, of course, the Bauhaus weaving department was meant to absorb women students and keep them away from other, traditionally male-dominated domains, including painting, in contrast to the exclusion of Zapotec women from the craft. Some of the Bauhaus women signed up grudgingly, thinking it was an inferior domain, but swiftly realized the possibilities of the medium. Here is a link to one of the most successful students, Anni Albers, from a recent retrospective at the Tate Modern.
And here is a short summary of the career of master weaver Gunta Stölzl, who headed the Bauhaus weaving department.
Thinking once more about the Norns: they were interpreted, certainly in the Ring cycle, as a form of intuitive and visionary awareness. The same can be said for the Bautistas’ work. They intuitively reposition the familiar into a creative new vision.
The artists are pattern masters, willing to experiment, pursuing reinterpretation of old patterns into new visions, developing designs with new motifs and modern color combinations that express their own, individual artistry. They don’t adhere to a master pattern that governs strict preservation of the past and prohibits change. Traditions have continually evolved in Zapotec history, and luckily that continues to be the case.
I was driving back from their studio to Portland during late afternoon, light slowly diminishing. The Bautistas’ house is situated in the middle of expansive tree farms near Sandy, Oregon, then lit by a low sun, greens popping as they so often do at dusk. The endless rows of trees, geometric parallels, reminded me of the striped weavings. The little conical shapes of small conifers, interspersing the rows, or forming rows themselves, looked like a pattern of dots, strewn across the horizon. The weavers seem to live in a natural tapestry, some higher-order pattern-master’s sleight of hand. So much beauty, in studio and surroundings alike. My heart sang. Norns, you may chime in!
Here is an OPB video of the artists at work.
And here are the Norns singing.
“…a collaborative fiber arts project featuring 13 artists working with communities along a 220-mile stretch of the Columbia River from the Willamette River confluence to the Snake River confluence. The project, again initiated by Maryhill Museum of Art and following the original one by printmakers in 2019, takes inspiration from the Surrealist art practice known as exquisite corpse. In the most well-known exquisite corpse drawing game, participants took turns creating sections of a body on a piece of paper folded to hide each successive contribution. When unfolded, the whole body is revealed. In the case of The Exquisite Gorge Project II, the Columbia River will become the ‘body’ that unifies the collaboration between artists and communities, revealing a flowing 66-foot work that tells 10 conceptual stories of the Columbia River and its people.”
Section One: Oregon Society of Artists–Artist: Lynn Deal
Section Two: Lewis and Clark University–Artist: Amanda Triplett
Section Three: Columbia Center for the Arts, The History Museum of Hood River County and Arts in Education of the Gorge–Artist: Chloë Hight
Section Four: White Salmon Arts Council and Fort Vancouver Regional Library–Artist: Xavier Griffith
Section Five: The Dalles Arts Center and The Dalles-Wasco County Library–Artists: Francisco and Laura Bautista
Section Six: The Fort Vancouver Regional Library at Goldendale Community Library–Artist: Carolyn Hazel Drake
Section Seven: The American-Romanian Cultural Society and Maryhill Museum of Art–Artist: Magda Nica
Section Eight: Desert Fiber Arts–Artist: Ophir El-Boher
Section Nine: The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation–Artist: Jessica Lavadour
Section Ten: ArtWalla–Artist: Kristy Kún
Frontispiece: Tammy Jo Wilson and Owen Premore
Originally published on YDP – Your Daily Picture on March 21, 2022