Glimpsing the Past: On Marshfield School of Weaving Residency

This past week I lived in an old house and spent everyday weaving on a 200 year old barn loom on a picturesque mountain view property in Vermont at the Marshfield School of Weaving. I was able to attend thanks mostly in part to being awarded a reparations scholarship and because I have an amazing fiance and future parents in law that did all the driving (still no license, I really need to work on that!). 

When I saw that Marshfield had a “Reparations Scholarship,” I grappled with the idea of whether or not it was actually meant for me. The word reparations has strong ties to the black community in the US and I myself am what I call white assuming, being that I identify as Puerto Rican, however I do hold a level of white privilege that is undeniable. This is often the case for me, left in a liminal gray space of history, culture and economic disparity that makes me feel less than American but also walking this world with the skin color that ultimately comes from that of my peoples colonizers. It’s a half-in half-out sort of existence and a conversation that requires a long look at histories of Africa, the Antilles, the US and Spain. A conversation that some in the Latinè community would rather not have for a myriad of reasons and is deeply seeded in internalized racism and a fear that comes with being othered. It’s too much of a history to go into here, but I have been longing for a connection back to my indigenous roots, to understand my cultural heritage on a deeper level, to recognize the migrations patterns of my antecedents and to strengthen my ties to my Puerto Ricanness. 

So I applied, and did so with my ancestors in mind, knowing my lineage is that of indigenous peoples who had been colonized and essentially wiped out by the “new world” explorations (and exploitations) of Spanish conquistadors in the 1500’s. Before the arrival of the Spanish, the Taino peoples of Puerto Rico lived rich intricate lives full of traditions and customs that are difficult to trace now, being that their histories are mostly told through the lens of the colonizer. Puerto Rico is still not a sovereign country being a “commonwealth” (colony) of the US and has very limited control over their own government. Coupled with extreme neglect and the inability to participate in the voting process, the people of Puerto Rico face very specific hardships that directly link to their lack of independence (a political strategy of course). So I thought a lot about my relationship to my ancestral roots and the ties I have to them.

What do textiles have to do with this?

In my research as a textile artist, I have learned that textile making has a direct historical significance in recounting oral traditions within indiginous cultures and communities. Particularly cultures of the Latin Americas and Caribbean whose stories have been either erased or reshaped through the colonial European lens of the Spanish conquistadors. While the Tainos of  Puerto Rico had little recorded history of written language, they did leave behind ceremonial clothing and woven sculpture. Imbued with symbols depicting their myths of creation and indicators of their complex social structures, these textiles are some of the last remaining evidence of their existence. These textiles are heirlooms to my ancestry and link to my personal history.

It’s been hard going to find scholarly essays on the textiles of the indigenous peoples of the Antilles due to educational gate-keeping from high education institutions, which is an entirely different topic I can go off on. (And if you know of any accessible essays please drop links below). However I did find one essay entitled “GODS … ADORNED WITH THE EMBROIDERER’S NEEDLE”: THE MATERIALS, MAKING AND MEANING OF A TAINO COTTON RELIQUARY” by Joanna Ostapkowicz and Lee Newsom. 

A unique cotton Taíno reliquary—the only extant example currently known—provides an unprecedented window onto the complex mortuary and ritual ceremonies of the pre-Hispanic Caribbean. This study explores its cultural context as recorded by the early Spanish and French chroniclers and missionaries who were witness to the use and beliefs surrounding these objects in both the Greater and Lesser Antilles. It provides the first AMS radiocarbon date for the reliquary, placing it within a firmer historical context. It also examines the woven sculpture in some detail, providing a review of the manufacturing process and a detailed study of the components: cotton, animal hair, lianas, gourd, resins and shell—that went into its creation. From the wrapping of important cemís (representations of spirits) in cotton, to the binding of the skeletal remains of venerated ancestors within elaborate weavings, cotton had an intrinsic value as a material that wrapped and bound the ancestors to the living and the living to each other. (Gods Adorned)

I’ll include a link to the essay here if you’re interested in reading further. From what I gathered in this read, my interest in textiles and fiber arts is one that comes directly from my past. There is a significant relationship to be further explored between the creation of these Cemis, and indigenous tradition. It is my goal to dig deeper into this and allow it to influence my weaving/fiber arts practice.

Mashfield does not practice indigenous weaving traditions, I mean we wove a Scottish Wedding Blanket, so that’s nowhere near the type of weaving I would like to explore. The school’s focus is mostly on European style and technique that has been brought over to the US pre-industrial revolution. In all honesty the experience didn’t touch on my own goals for cultural identity exploration in weaving. Using a barn loom was not how my predecessors were doing the thing. However I considered the course fundamental in that it allowed me hands-on experience with a loom and to get better acquainted with weaving tools of the American past in order to be better versed with the tools that I currently have at my disposal (in my studio) so that I may become better at my own practice. To break the mold, you have to learn how it works.

Exploring all kinds of weaving practice will inevitably make me a better weaver, and there was something inherently beautiful about connecting with what is considered a “feminine” trade. It was a week of weaving and learning from mostly older women who have been in the practice for years. There is something important to be said about the division of the arts into “fine arts” and “craft.” It is a major force in the marginalization of women’s work. Fiber arts are often not seen as high art but solely as an expression of femininity, a concept deeply rooted in misogyny. It manifests itself as a repression of everything traditionally connected with the feminine.There is a profound connection between misogyny and homophobia in our culture, being a gay man, that concept deeply interests me. Historically we know that the medium allowed for the unseen and the unheard to tell their own stories, parts of which we wouldn’t know based on public record. Maiden names, political ideology, counter-culture and patriarchal resistance are all literally woven or stitched into fabric. I wish to honor the legacy of women in my life through this medium by recognizing the correlations between our shared oppression and dismantle these interrelated systems that greatly affect our communities.

I have to also say it was incredibly fun, and it was a glimpse into American history that I didn’t realize upon accepting the scholarship I would receive. Our instructor Justine Squizzero is amazingly talented at his craft and ridiculously knowledgeable on this style of practice. The man was a walking encyclopedia of pre-industrial revolution hand weaving technique and history which is admirable in the best way.

The process itself was back breaking work! From warping the yarns on a warping beam (I was adamantly told it is a beam not a board), to dressing the giant loom literally made of tree trunks, to learning to throw the shuttle at full arm’s length (I was terrible at that) and repairing broken warp threads (there were many), I learned so much over the course of a week. 

An unexpected but welcome aspect of this experience was receiving leads toward finding instructors whose focus is on Latin American backstrap weaving! I am currently following those leads and hoping they can bring me to a place of study where I can immerse myself in those traditions and customs.

My experience at Marshfield was truly one of a kind. The level of detail and instruction was incomparable and I don’t believe you can receive an education of this type of weaving anywhere else (not to this degree). I will continue this fiber arts journey and use what I learned there in my practice, hopefully it will make me a better weaver and I hope to find more opportunities that will allow me to pursue my specific interests (crossing my fingers to find an affordable residency in South America!). 

On my last day at Marshfield, after the weaving was over and everyone had gone I sat with a glass of wine looking at the green mountains of Vermont in the distance. I couldn’t help but feel the correlation between these new england peaks and the ones I had visited in my grandmother’s town of Yauco Puerto Rico. Large dense mountains covered in tropical foliage, in the heart of the jungle, the kind of place you can get lost in. For a moment I was there. Sipping my wine, feeling grounded, inhaling the scent of the leaves.

Thanks for reading and stay magical,

Richie Wilde Lopez 

You may also like

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.