Folk, Art, and Life

Last weekend I was showing my neighbors photos of weavers, spinners, and dyers I visited on a recent trip to Oaxaca, Mexico. I explained that most of these weavers live primarily by subsistence farming, and that led one friend to ask how these elaborate textile traditions arose among people who work very hard just to survive. (This friend happens to be a nuclear physicist, who loves to ask interesting and unanswerable questions.) My take is that folk art just happens. Starting with goddess figures and cave paintings, people have used the materials at hand to express themselves: their beliefs, the rhythm of their lives, and the natural world around them.


Traditional skirt woven by Mixtec weavers in Oaxaca  

This pozahuanco, the traditional handwoven

skirt worn by Mixtec women, is dyed with

the help of obliging shellfish.


In Oaxaca, we learned how Mixtec dyers used to walk many days from the mountains to the coast to harvest the rare purple dyes used to make pozahuancos, the traditional skirts worn by the Mixtec women. (Buses have shortened the trip, and the dyes are rarer now, but they are still prized for wedding and other special garments.) We saw natural brown cotton being lovingly raised and handspun, and we were amazed at the the bright, elaborate designs painstakingly created by Amuzgo weavers with their simple backstrap looms.


  Amuzgo weavers in their colorful handwoven huipiles.

Amuzgo weavers wearing their colorful
traditional huipiles.

Today, faced with the costs of the modern world, these weaving communities are also developing their art into products to help support their traditional way of life. But why did these arts develop in the first place? Was it a way to distinguish their cultural identity, with folk costume such as the pozahuanco? Was it for protection, as with the eight-pointed Ukrainian star motif , the ancient sun symbol that inspired Suzie Liles' Folk Art towels in the March/April issue of Handwoven? Was it for the pure joy of having or wearing something beautiful, as with some of the Guatemalan huipile designs decribed by Cynthia LeCount Samake in the latest issue of Piecework?

Folk Art Towels woven by Suzie Liles  
Suzie Liles Folk Art Towels are inspired by
a traditional Ukrainian motif.


Who knows? Maybe someone will discover an "art gene" that drives us to create, but I don't think that knowledge will change anything. (Rather like my physicist friend's beloved quantum particle, the Higgs boson, the discovery of which has not changed my life so far.)

Art seems to be a fundamental human need, whether one is a Ukrainian village maiden weaving an apron to wear dancing on the village green or a thoroughly modern weaver like me making a handwoven towel even though I can buy a perfectly good one at the grocery store for a few dollars. I am just thankful for the living traditions that feed our hearts and minds.

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