A visit to Saltillo and Oaxaca
Center of Southwest Studies exhibits ‘Fiber Fiesta’’

Hispanic textiles hang in the Center for Southwest Studies. The exhibit includes weavings from Mexico, New Mexico and Colorado./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

by Jules Masterjohn

With Durango being a smallish burg, it is always surprising to find art works of major museum quality here. Without having a bona fide art museum, the Center of Southwest Studies often fills the void. Established in 1964, the center is home to an amazing collection of textiles representing 800 years of blankets, rugs and serapes made by Pueblo, Navajo and Hispanic weavers. Currently on display in the center’s gallery is a selection of weavings from this collection known as the Durango Collection®. The exhibit, “Fiber Fiesta: A Color Fest of Hispanic Textiles,” is a combination of historical and contemporary weavings made in Mexico, Colorado and New Mexico.

Upon entering the gallery, the first thing that attracted my attention was the way the weavings suspend from the wall, their “clothness” so apparent as they hang, edges loose and free. Slightly misshapen by centuries of use, the uneven edges of the weavings cast shadows on the walls surrounding them, accentuating their irregularities. These undulating edges invite us to understand that these items were made for use. This display offers a visually tactile experience to the viewer where the weight of a large Saltillo serape wrapped around one’s body or a blanket’s heaviness over one in bed, can be felt.

The Saltillo serapes on display are eye-catching. I can see why these were prized possessions and passed down within families. From a distance, the bold geometric center, or medallion, of each weaving dominates the field of intricate patterns surrounding it. Finely woven in predominantly black and red wool yarns with accents of yellow, gray, blue and white, the designs are a bit like optical teasers, playing with the brain’s ability to make sense of rhythmic lines and vibrating colors. On closer inspection, it can be seen that the medallion’s circle or diamond motif acts like a collar around the slit opening for a wearer’s head. Not only amazing weavings, these were created as garments. Worn as signs of status by Spanish colonial men, the serapes were made by Mexican and native Indian weavers from 1700-1850 and attest to the advanced skills of these artisans. The serapes got their name from the location where they were purchased, Saltillo, a major trading town of the time.

Other historical weavings on display were made in the Upper Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico and Colorado. Contrasting with the bright colors and mesmerizing patterns of the Saltillo serapes, the Hispanic Rio Grande textiles were woven from wool yarns dyed in more earthy tones of brown, black and white. The influence of the Saltillo serapes is noticeable, yet the Rio Grande blankets are simpler in design and slightly coarser in texture. Introduced into the region by the Spanish who moved into the Rio Grande Valley, these blankets were made primarily as utilitarian items and also were exported to Mexico and Europe.

There are also examples included in the gallery of contemporary Zapotec weavings from a women’s cooperative in Oaxaca, Mexico. The women, who learned their skills from family members, begin with raw wool and spin it into yarn. They dye the yarn using all-natural colorants and then weave the textiles on hand-made looms. Their weavings are spectacular in color and festive in design. Bright bands of deep, saturated yarns are woven into geometric shapes and rhythmic patterns. Though the weavers are using traditional Zapotec designs and symbols that represent natural forces, they are innovatively creating new styles of designs. Some women are recreating famous paintings and others are working toward developing a “signature style” for weavings produced by the cooperative.

Especially interesting are the photographs documenting the weaving process and portraits of the women with their weavings. In a few photographs, we can recognize a weaving being made as one hanging on the gallery wall. These portraits offer the viewer an intimate connection between the weaving and its maker.

Across the gallery are felted wool textiles that rival even the Zapotec weavings in their vibrancy of color. California artist Polly Walker takes one of the oldest processes for making fabric, felting, and gives it a contemporary and playful twist. Walker’s four wall hangings on display were inspired by particular trees that grow near her home in southern California. Knowing this is helpful; though simplified in shape, exaggerated in color and loosely composed, the image of a tree and its branches is recognizable in each piece. The interplay of complimentary colors is thoroughly enjoyable and the soft, thick surface of the felting is easy on the eye. Once a painter, Walker now uses wool fibers to paint with, creating interesting wall hangings that are alive with repeating shapes and dynamic color contrasts. These are very intriguing works.

I appreciated that the textiles on display were allowed to be what they are – cloth – and weren’t displayed behind some kind of protection that one would find in the large cities or institutions like the Smithsonian. Though I understand the need for such care, I am glad that we live in a small enough town, with educated and respectful gallery visitors, that this is not necessary. As with all of the textiles in this exhibit, being able to look closely at the individual strands of colorful yards, whether woven or felted, informs one’s understanding of the process by which each piece was made.

The gallery is filled with diverse and beautiful fiber pieces – don’t miss it! After all, fiber is something we know intimately, for it touches us and we touch it every day. •

These exhibits are on display through Tues., Feb. 28 at the Center of Southwest Studies at Fort Lewis College, 1000 Rim Drive in Durango. Gallery hours are1-4 p.m., Monday –Friday.