Connecting the Threads
By David A. Fryxell
Harolene Pitts is digging into a seemingly bottomless carryall bag, from which she has already produced a sheaf of photos, several brochures and a stack of other people's business cards. It's a bit like a magician's act, pulling a rabbit out of a hat. But in this case the magic comes from bringing together nearly 50 women from across Southwest New Mexico, to help each other pursue their creative—and financial—dreams in the fiber arts.
"When you get a group of women together with a common purpose, it's gangbusters," says Pitts, who at last lays hands on a blue booklet—the Southwest Women's Fiber Arts Collective 2006 Directory, hot off the presses.
The newly published directory is only the latest accomplishment of what Pitts, despairing at the mouthful acronym "SWFAC," refers to simply as "the Collective." In roughly a year of existence, the Collective has launched a Web site (www.fiberartscollective.org) and published the directory, both aimed at connecting area fiber artists not only with potential customers but with each other—for moral, creative and logistical support. It brought the works of 17 members to a show in Santa Fe, where the Collective sold more than $2,200 worth of fiber-arts creations. And this month, Feb. 25-26, the Collective will similarly represent at least that many member artists at the 8th Annual Las Colcheras Quilt Show at NMSU's Corbett Center.
As at the Santa Fe show, members staffing the Collective's booth at Las Colcheras will stay in the homes of fellow fiber artists—who'll often feed them as well. The new directory indicates with an "H" the members willing to put up other fiber artists for shows and events. It's a practical example of the Collective's "strength in numbers" networking philosophy.
The number of names in the directory—and their geographic spread, from El Paso to La Mesa to Las Vegas, NM, with concentrations in both Silver City and Las Cruces—is an example of what Pitts calls the recent "resurgence" of fiber arts. These traditional art forms, encompassing basketry, crocheting, dyeing, embroidery, felting, knitting, needlepoint, quilting, spinning, sewing and weaving, have become as modern and vital as—well, as the high-tech gizmos they seem to represent a reaction against.
"We are all so caught up in computer technology, but there's a lack of intimacy there," says Pitts. "I think there's a longing for the past, a nostalgia. There's an intimacy when you feel the fibers, an immediate satisfaction. Your senses are stimulated. So we're seeing a huge resurgence of interest in the fiber arts."
Ten years ago, she adds, you could hardly find a specialty yarn shop. But now they're blossoming all over, with shops such as Yada Yada Yarn in Silver City and Unravel in Las Cruces. Such stores offer not only traditional goods but also creative new materials made possible by, yes, modern technology. "They let you make all kinds of easy, flamboyant products," says Pitts.
Charmeine Wait, who also helped to found the Collective, adds, "Knitting is especially hot in this country right now. It's not a nice name, but there are these 'stitch and bitch' clubs all over the country."
As traditional art forms, Pitts notes, fiber arts
cross cultures. In the Southwest, the fiber arts weave through the
Hispanic, Native American and Anglo cultures—from Navajo blankets
to log-cabin quilt patterns learned from Grandma back in New England.
Says Pitts, "The fiber
arts can reach many segments of the community."
What's not so obvious, however, is how to reach customers, and how to make a living—or even just profitably supplement your income—as a fiber artist. "You hear all the time how you can't make a living off the arts," says Pitts. "Even established fiber artists often don't have the resources to get their products to market."
Wait, who says she learned to weave 20 years ago, makes "yardage"—woven fabric to make into clothing—and one-of-a-kind fabric purses. "But that's pretty high-end," she says. "You have to have a market for that. I couldn't figure out how to do that affordably." Traveling to shows and fairs in Tucson or Santa Fe, she explains, could easily eat up an artist's proceeds in the cost of food and lodging alone.
From that dilemma sprang the idea of the Web site and directory, early last year. Says Pitts, "The directory lets people know who's willing to provide housing, to car pool, to transport products. Who's interested in workshops? Who's willing to work at sales and shows?"
Pitts, a knitter and needlepointer, got talking about the need for such a directory with Wait and Mattie Johnson, who's a knitter among other things. "You get three such diverse women together, and it's a great mix," says Pitts. "It's like a think tank."
She had spotted a request for grant proposals from the New Mexico Women's Foundation. Soon Johnson was writing a grant, and by April the foundation had awarded the newly hatched Collective $2,000. Since then, the foundation has awarded a second $2,000 grant for additional communications outreach efforts. The Mimbres Region Arts Council has lent a hand by acting as the Collective's fiscal agent for the grants.
Last summer, the Collective spread its regional wings by holding an inaugural organizational meeting in Las Cruces, chosen for its central location and the fact that the Southern Rag Rug Festival (also sponsored by the New Mexico Women's Foundation) was being held there. With the help of Las Cruceans Cynthia Clark of Unravel Yarn Shop & Gallery, Carol Adams of the Mesilla Valley Weavers and Mary Pierce, the group attracted 30 fiber artists. (That initial gathering included one man, Pitts points out; despite the "Women's" in the Collective's name, it is open to male fiber artists as well.)
"The energy was absolutely amazing," Pitts says. "Everybody had ideas for the Web site, for the directory, for networking."
Thanks to the artistic and technical wizardry of Catrina Helbock, the Web site went up first; eventually the group plans to add an online gallery. Realizing that not everybody has Web access, though, the Collective also pushed hard to print and distribute a directory on paper as well. That finally rolled off the presses at the end of 2005.
The directory and an announcement in the November Desert
brought eight new members in just a week—have helped to bring fiber
artists "out of the woodwork," says Wait. "We've been
amazed at all the artists who are out there. But until now they've had
no way to express themselves or to network. We're so rural and spaced-out
here, it's difficult to connect with people."
Even as the Collective was accomplishing its initial aims, however, the group began thinking beyond those initial goals. As Pitts puts it, "We had a common vision that grew."
She explains, "We started talking about fiber arts as a cottage industry, as a way to educate and reach out to underserved women and youth. In Grant County, after all, there's notoriously little for young people to do."
So why not teach them to spend their spare time weaving or knitting or spinning? Grandmothers could train young people to carry on their creative traditions—something perhaps the grandmothers have hitherto given little thought to passing on. "We could let young people know about the economic value of these traditional art forms as well as their beauty," Pitts says. "We could help them recognize the value of this long, long tradition."
The Collective began to envision a training center in one of Grant County's small mining towns. Members and others had already offered to donate looms, spinning wheels, yarn and knitting needles via Yada Yada Yarn. But those materials—and the classes the group plans—needed a home.
"We want to establish a center where the artists we already have on board can teach women who might live right within walking distance," says Pitts. "We'd have a year-round after-school program for youth, to give young people not only training in something with which they could earn a little money, but also show them the soul-lifting joy of art.
"There would be no cost to the people who come to train. The center would also be an avenue to market their products, a place for outreach and education and community involvement."
This ambitious dream may be close to reality, thanks in part to the
arrival in Silver City—and onto the Collective's board—of Marilyn McCracken,
who recently moved here with her husband from Pittsburgh. A sewer of
kimonos and other stitchery creations, McCracken also happens to be an
experienced grant writer. With her help, the Collective is now in the
final interviewing stage of seeking a grant of up to $15,000 from New
Mexico Arts to launch the center.
The Collective is also looking for ways to tap the nationwide boom in fiber arts and to bring a bit of that boom to Southwest New Mexico. "People plan their trips around fiber-arts destinations—not unlike the birders who travel to bird-watching areas," says Pitts. "There's so much money being spent on going to fiber-arts conferences and shows, tours and seeing art work."
Last month, representatives of the Collective met with Alice Pauser, a local economic-development coordinator who spearheaded the recent Grant County Tourism Summit, about planning motorcoach tours to bring visitors to see the area's fiber arts. Tour groups from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Utah and Texas have inquired specifically about fiber arts in New Mexico, Pitts says. The "Rug Hookers" group from Arlington, Texas, which recently spent three weeks touring Santa Fe, is already interested in Silver City.
Says Pauser, "I am working with the Collective to design and implement a statewide fiber arts tour that would originate in Silver City. What would be ideal is to have groups that would visit Silver City, take workshops and tour the artist studios."
Besides taking tour groups to artists' studios, the Collective imagines placing fiber artists in local businesses—not just galleries, but coffeeshops, B&Bs, the Silver City Museum and more—to demonstrate their work. The demonstrations would be timed for the visit of motorcoach tour groups, but could also be seen by the general public. Pitts likens it to Silver City's annual Chocolate Fantasia tour (see this issue's Events section), with spinning wheels and looms instead of sweet treats at each location. Corre Caminos has already been lined up to shuttle visitors around town to various fiber-arts hotspots.
And this is just the beginning, Pitts vows. Groups such as the Southwest Women's Fiber Arts Collective are making things happen not only in this corner of New Mexico but statewide. "There's a power and energy that has really created a force here," she says. Agencies ranging from New Mexico Arts to the state economic development department have taken an interest in fiber arts. There's talk of a statewide network of fiber-arts trails, "Follow the Fiber." The Espanola Valley Fiber Arts Center, an established focal point for the state's fiber artists, is pursuing a grant for a statewide collaborative and networking effort, modeled on North Carolina's "HandMade in America" project.
"It's energizing. It's linking artists with businesses in the community. It's cross-pollinating. It's—" Pitts says, her enthusiasm beginning to outpace her words. "It's interweaving."
She stops at that and smiles. "I guess that's a play on words, isn't it?"
David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert
Exposure and has learned to