2023 market poster spotlights colchera Vanessa Zamora Vazquez

By Adele Oliveira



Santa Fe New Mexican



Vanessa Zamora Vazquez has attended Traditional Spanish Market all her life, but it wasn’t until recently that she became an exhibitor. This year her colcha piece Ojo de Dios graces the official market poster. Ojo de Dios depicts a white-lashed purple eye gazing out from the middle of a fuchsia sacred heart. Decorative borders, birds, and an abundance of wildflowers surround the sacred heart; the piece bursts with vibrant, lively colors. “I was brought up Catholic, so I know the stories from the Bible. But I kind of like to push the traditional because some of it has been done over and over again,” Zamora Vazquez says from her home in Denver, where she was born and raised. “I feel like my art sits a little bit different. I’m all about color. I love shapes. I like the contemporary feel, but the way I’m making it is traditional.” Zamora Vazquez remembers the day at Spanish Market four years ago that set her on the path to becoming a colchera. She was there to support her uncle — santero and market regular Frank Zamora. While wandering the Plaza, she came upon Julia Gomez’s colcha work. Gomez is also a longtime market artist and teaches workshops in historically accurate colcha making at El Rancho de las Golondrinas. “I was looking at [Julia’s] work, saying these are so beautiful. She came up to me and said I should do it,” Zamora Vazquez recalls. “I told her I didn’t know, that I’d done embroidery before but I’ve never attempted colcha.” The New Mexican told Zamora Vazquez that she’d help her learn. Because they live in different states, Gomez promised to send Zamora Vazquez a starter kit of materials and instructed her to make up designs, practice, and then send pictures of the finished work for Gomez to critique. “I came back to Denver. She sent me a kit, and I just kind of did it,” Zamora Vazquez says. “I learned on my own but with her guidance.” Colcha (the term means bedspread or coverlet in Spanish) is a rich and storied textile tradition. The embroidery is specific to the upper Río Grande basin in Northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. In a YouTube video, Gomez explains the process, beginning with the raw material, narrating over footage of artisans at El Rancho de las Golondrinas engaged in demonstrations. Gomez, a retired schoolteacher, says that the first Spanish colonists arrived with churro sheep, known for their coarse wool, because the crown didn’t want to spare better livestock. Colonists relied on the lifegiving churros for milk, meat, and wool. In the traditional process, after sheep are sheared and the wool is carded, it’s washed with the soapy root of the yucca plant before being spun into yarn. Then, if desired, the yarn may be dyed using wild plants, such as prickly pear, cottonwood catkins, and chamisa. When it was first developed in the 18th century, colcha was a decorative stitch used to hide seams in mended fabric. In embroidery lingo, it’s known as a tack-down or couching stitch. The website Needlework Tips and Techniques cites an unattributed instruction book that states: “Two important aspects of the large stitch used for colcha embroidery may surprise you, especially if you’re used to more precise stitches. One is the stitch’s random quality, you can easily vary the length and direction, which lets you ‘paint’ with the yarn. The second is the effect of the needle’s occasionally splitting the strand of yarn (but only some of the time): coming up through the strand actually helps to create the dynamic, textured look of colcha embroidery. The embroidered surface seems to ‘move.’” The subject matter in colcha can be divided into roughly two parts: devotional work, subjects such as saints and miracles; and the rest — for example, scenes from everyday life, portraits of people, landscapes, and endless variations of flora and fauna. Part of the appeal of Zamora Vazquez’s work is its tension between old and new, like a Virgin Mary in a neon-bright floral crown, or contemporary variations on older motifs. The traditional section of Zamora Vazquez’s website features unexpected representations of iconic subjects: a Nativity scene is instantly recognizable, but the clouds the angels peer over are pink, the sky swirled with strands of purple and teal. The contemporary section of the website features edgier work that would be at home in any number of galleries (Zamora Vazquez shows at several in Denver) and that, in the context of the traditional work, is downright subversive. One piece features a pink skeleton rising from a pool of water. Another has a Roswell-style alien in a Virgin of Guadalupe shroud. Everything about Zamora Vazquez’s process is eclectic; she sources her materials from all over. While she likes to support weavers who bring hand-dyed yarn to Spanish Market, she’s also on a budget, which can force her to be creative. “I really like going to thrift stores; they have tons of wool” she says. “Or I’ll do a show at a gallery or a museum and they’ll have extra material.” Like lots of traditional arts, colcha struggles to find new practitioners. While Zamora Vazquez’s two teenage daughters haven’t shown interest in colcha (yet), last January she taught a class to a group of 14- and 15-year-old girls in Chimayó. “I’m hoping to inspire the younger generation to do this too,” Zamora Vazquez says. “Because like Julia said, besides me [the usual colcheras are] a little bit older, and nobody’s really following in their footsteps. But these girls, they got at it and were all about it; they did such a great job. It was really special.” With her fresh eyes and flexible approach, Zamora Vazquez may carry colcha through the next century. Freelance writer Adele Oliveira grew up in Santa Fe and lives here with her family.