ADVANCING THE WARP
These contemporary weavers honor tradition while pushing their medium's boundaries.
By Iris McLister Photos by Tira Howard
Santa Fe New Mexican
Meet three contemporary weavers pushing their medium's boundaries. The story of Northern New Mexico weaving is colorful and layered — and full of nuance. The cultures that create it are as interwoven as the textiles the state exports, from Diné weavings to those from Chimayó. In the Rio Grande Valley, Indigenous cultures used portable looms to transform domesticated cotton into textiles as elegant as they were functional. Everything changed in 1598, when Mexican conquistador Juan de Oñate marched into the region with thousands of churro sheep, whose hardy constitutions and variegated colors made them ideal sources of wool for textiles. Simultaneously, floor looms from Europe arrived, and within 40 years of Oñate’s arrival, Spanish businessmen were overseeing textile operations in Santa Fe. Mexican master weavers from Puebla, who were hired to train New Mexican artisans in the first decade of the 1800s, introduced ornate designs and exotic pigments like cochineal and indigo. These appeared alongside colors with locally sourced origins, which Native artists had used for centuries, and the natural hues of the churro sheep. Almost as soon as railroads crisscrossed the country in the 1820s, mass production overthrew untold thousands of cottage industries. Weavers in tribal nations and villages persevered and unified Native, Mexican, and Spanish styles, along with burgeoning American influences. Today, a new generation of weavers calls New Mexico home. The weavers’ backgrounds are practically as varied as those of their forebears. They build upon age-old fiber arts practices with their distinct perspectives and techniques. Given such disparateseeming threads, one might be surprised to find common ones, but this trio’s stories have similarities: the calling — rather than career choice — to become a weaver, a mentorship with a master, and a reverential passion that borders on obsession. Emelie Richardson and Christine Hernandez at home in their Chimayó and Albuquerque studios, respectively. Opposite: Rhiannon Griego wears her white plaited badlands dress in Abiquiú. RHIANNON GRIEGO It’s an August Saturday morning in downtown Santa Fe, the first full day of the city’s 101st Indian Market. A few blocks away from the sea of market booths, models are strutting an outdoor catwalk in Rhiannon Griego’s debut fashion show. Griego, who has Spanish ancestry on her father’s side and Tohono O’odham and Mexican heritage on her mother’s, worked for months to create this cohesive grouping. The collection, Griego’s 13th, includes plenty of her signature pieces: durable-yet-diaphanous “drape capes” and tunics. Models sashay in shades of vanilla, chestnut brown, burnt sienna, and crimson. “I’d been wanting to do a fashion show for some time so audiences [could] understand the variety and movement of the work,” Griego says. “It was a gateway for me to give myself permission to dream, develop new silhouettes and style.” She named the body of work Hokimel, after the Tohono O’odham word for butterfly. The title speaks to Griego’s Native heritage as well as her garments’ transformative sensibility: stripes don’t rigidly cross a tunic’s surface as much as they shapeshift along it, with tufts of unworked, fringed yarn occasionally bursting forth from flatter, more ordered areas. Each piece sings with expert craftsmanship. “When I start a project, I ask myself, ‘Who are you right now? What do you want to birth?’” Griego says a few weeks later in downtown Santa Fe. “In making this collection, the process itself was so satisfying that I didn’t want to stop.” Griego’s weaving journey began when the Southern California native heard about a class taught by master saori weaver Lynn Harris. It felt more like a sign than a coincidence. “Things that we’re supposed to do fall into our laps,” Griego says. “I had this strong feeling that working with textiles was in alignment with what I wanted to do artistically, and immediately after feeling this, I got an opportunity to study with Lynn.” The very next day, Griego, who had never been formally trained in an arts practice, joined Harris’s class and immersed herself in saori weaving, a Japanese technique that champions serendipity over calculation, impulse over exactitude. “Saori is all about embracing imperfection, which deeply resonates with how I see the world,” Griego says. Replete with textural contrast and imaginative, free-flowing design elements, saori differs from the precise techniques so characteristic of Northern New Mexico. After her training in California, Griego followed the Land of Enchantment’s pull. She felt compelled to live and work here partly due to her patrilineal ties to the area (Griego’s father’s family settled in New Mexico soon after Oñate’s arrival) and largely thanks to the region’s famously wide-open spaces. “As soon as I moved to Santa Fe,” she says of her 2020 move, “I noticed that when I asked people how they were doing, they would answer honestly.” She couldn’t help but favorably compare the straightforward quietude of the Southwest with the hustle culture of Los Angeles, which she’d previously called home. “New Mexico is spacious but sparse, which is why I think it appeals so much to introverts and hermits — and also to artists.” Along with her wearable designs, Griego weaves pieced-together home decor items like pillowcases, as well as tapestries meant for display. While she classifies these as “fine art textiles,” she is quick to address the fuzzy understanding many viewers have of form versus function in fiber arts. “Our ancestors hung rugs up to insulate adobe walls,” Griego says, “but even the most utilitarian textiles also functioned as objects of beauty and identity.” As rooted as Griego’s practice is in Japanese weaving techniques, her designs draw inspiration from her desert home. “My palette is based on all of the colors of New Mexico’s soil and terrain,” says Griego, “and many of the forms and shapes I use in my fine art textiles are taken from places like Bisti or Abiquiú.” Griego, who further honors the land by sourcing local wool and pigments whenever possible, likes to let the material be her guide. She doesn’t begin a project with set expectations in mind. “Patterns reflect a very human need to make order, to make sense of abstract concepts and things,” says Griego, “but that’s not my style. I find space and graciousness in the unexpected nature of the process.” She continues, “The plain weaving technique is intentional so I can replicate the soil. Layers of life and death over time create the strata that reflect [my] own metaphor of becoming who I am as an artist and woman over time.” EMELIE RICHARDSON A creative person doesn’t have to look too far for inspiration in the hills of Chimayó, where red rock formations frame pastures and orchards, and cartoonishly puffy white clouds dot turquoise skies. This is the landscape fiber artist Emelie Richardson calls home. Her studio is the definition of cozy: comfort informed by order, with pops of color in the form of a citrine staircase, a “COVID-19 DIY project” that pays homage to Richardson’s background as a classically trained painter, and a shiny red tortilla warmer that doubles as a coffee table objet d’art. When Richardson stopped in New Mexico during a cross-country road trip in 2017, she was aware of Chimayó’s weaving tradition, but she didn’t expect to fall head over heels for it. That’s exactly what happened when she wandered into Ortega’s Weaving Shop and met Chris Ortega, a seventh-generation Chimayó weaver. Richardson, who has a BFA in painting and fiber arts from the University of Kentucky, bonded with Ortega over a mutual love of fiber art. She soon began a several-years-long apprenticeship at the storied workshop. “I remember texting friends things like, ‘My heart is exploding. I love it here so much,’ and I still feel that way,” Richardson says. “Chimayo immediately felt like home to me.” An antique two-harness “walking loom,” a gift from the Ortega family, occupies a large portion of her lofty upstairs studio. This kind of loom has been used in this region for centuries. Richardson operates it by walking on dual sliding pedals, which open a path for the shuttle as her feet press down. The technical training Richardson learned at Ortega’s shows up in weavings that sing with precise craftsmanship and crisp delineations of line and color, but the overarching austerity of the work skips conventional Chimayó patterning in favor of abstraction. Richardson’s freeform shapes are largely inspired by an abiding love of New Mexico’s myriad textures and colors. Sometimes painting on woven surfaces prior to weaving on them, Richardson depends upon improvisation, which shows up compositionally in pale-hued, loosely bordered orbs and other simple shapes that seem to hover over their fabric grounding. Was it the land or the art that drew Richardson in and made her so happy to call Chimayó home? “The tangible history that exists here inspires my work the most,” she says. “There is so little that’s really changed in Chimayó, and the people who live here value a slower pace.” CHRISTINE HERNANDEZ No discussion of Rio Grande Valley weaving is complete without a good migration story, and Albuquerque-based weaver Christine Hernandez understands this deeply. A native of South Texas, Hernandez grew up in the Catholic Church, where richly ornate art traditions are as intrinsic as biblical tales. “I have always been drawn to the maximalism of Catholic altar spaces,” says Hernandez, whose fascination with the alternately earthy and otherworldly beauty of Christian devotional art is balanced by a love of rasquachismo. Translating to “leftover” or “no value,” the term emerged in the late 1980s to describe art with Mexican and Chicano roots using all manner of upcycled decoration. “I like to challenge myself to make something beautiful out of existing things,” Hernandez says. “For example, there is so much yarn in the world. Why buy it new?” Inspired by the feeling of meditative calm she experienced while working at a loom and curious to expand her knowledge of fiber arts, Hernandez enrolled at the Southwest School of Art, at the University of Texas at San Antonio, in 2015. She discovered an abiding love of fiber arts and soon found herself pulled to live and create art in New Mexico, which she had visited and fallen in love with a few years earlier. Keen on exploring the region’s weaving traditions, Hernandez secured an apprenticeship under Irvin Trujillo after meeting him at the Fall Fiber Fiesta in Santa Fe. Much like the Ortegas, the Trujillo family, whose youngest members are now eighth-generation Chimayoans, has long-standing weaving roots in the area. Hernandez says her decision to apprentice with Trujillo was immediate. “Irvin was so humble and so patient with me,” she says. “He helped me feel confident in blending aspects of my San Antonio background with traditional New Mexican styles.” Hernandez weaves on one of several standing looms, the largest more than 5 feet wide. She demonstrates her respect for tradition in weavings that include “shape studies” of tightly geometric and boldly colored eight-pointed diamonds — a hallmark of Chimayó style — whose centers radiate outward in a kind of composed ecstasy. Other designs are far less formal; examples include simple white stars skipping across a navy plane and a pair of intertwining golden snakes above a soft tan surface. Hernandez enjoys creating both styles. “The analytical part of me really loves working within a tight grid or framework,” she says, “but I have a lot of favorite parts of the weaving process.” Hernandez shakes up her concept of time by rebelling against modern pressures to be as fast as you can. “People say ‘time-consuming’ like it’s a bad thing,” says Hernandez, “and I question that. When I do something slowly and intentionally, I’m actually using my time in the best way I possibly could.” History has shown, over the course of several hundred centuries, that Northern New Mexico weaving is anything but stationary. Today’s generation of loom-based artists, who evince a steadfast love for weaving, continues to preserve ancient traditions while also ingeniously creating new ones. Iris McLister moved from Florida to Santa Fe in 1998 and has been a writer, mostly covering New Mexico art and history, nearly all of that time.