Textile artist Elena Gonzalez Ruiz first came to Aspen on July 22, 1989, at the invitation of Stuart Mace.
“I was 21 and he invited me to do a weaving demonstration,” she said.
Mace was getting to know her and her community of artists after visiting her hometown of Teotitlan del Valle in Oaxaca, Mexico, where he bought rugs twice a year for the Lynn Gallery, which he and his wife owned. .
Since then, Ruiz has gone to Ashcroft every year. In 2007, Ruiz officially became artist-in-residence for the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES) and contributes to the organization’s mission through demonstrations of its centuries-old, sustainable weaving and dyeing practices.
“Elena’s hand-woven, artisanal and native textiles are made from all-natural materials, showcasing sustainable product design in today’s world where so many products are imported of Asia without worrying about the environmental and cultural impacts,” said Chris Lane, CEO of ACES.
Ruiz said that of the 7,000 people currently living in his village, 4,000 of them are weavers (the rest support themselves through agricultural enterprises). Ruiz is a third-generation artist herself, and her nephews carry on the tradition in her family.
“Only 10% of people know how to make natural dyes. It’s a lot of patience, a lot of work. With natural colors it is totally different, because they are totally unique. You’re lucky if you get two different colors in one day,” she said of the complicated art practice she’s mastered since adolescence. She said these techniques had been practiced in her village since 1464, with the introduction of the treadle loom by the Spaniards in 1810. Not much has changed since then, including the ingredients for making the dyes. Their availability depends on weather and other sometimes harsh conditions, as Ruiz literally has to climb mountains to gather what she needs.
Recently, Ruiz enthusiastically offered a demonstration of how colors work and how dyes are made. She explained how adding lime juice as an acid base or baking soda for an alkaline base affects the colors, as she smeared the powders on her hand to create a bright red and deep purple, all using the same basic ingredient, cochineal, a dried insect found on the leaves of the Nopal cactus. By using different ingredients such as tarragon (which takes on surprising shades of yellow), pomegranate and indigo – sometimes with cochineal, sometimes alone – 21 different ingredient combinations can result in up to 60 different colors. The colors are also impacted by the shades of the wool, which can range from jet black to pure white, with several shades of gray in between.
These brightly colored designs, in addition to requiring hard work and sometimes strenuous sessions on the loom, are also carefully executed in the traditional weaving style, with each design having a unique take on Ruiz’s history and of the history of its cohorts of weavers.
“All drawings have a meaning. They are all very traditional. Rain, water — if there is no rain, there is no water, there is no life. We weave rain, water and mountains into the mat to represent life,” she said.
Hummingbirds, butterflies, corn, and the tree of life also often feature in designs, all representing things like freedom, prosperity, and the ability to always look to the future.
“The hummingbird is a messenger bird: never stop, never look back,” she explained.
Ruiz is currently assigned to the ACES Hallam Lake campus while the Catto Center in Toklat is undergoing a major renovation. She displays her rugs of various sizes, as well as leather and woven handbags, all for sale, with proceeds going to her village and 10% supporting ACES educational programs.
In addition to Ruiz’s work, you will find the handmade textiles of 10 other families who work with Ruiz, as part of his cooperative enterprise in Oaxaca. She will stay at ACES until October to earn money for her village and watch the leaves change color, a favorite activity in her spare time. She said that even though she is in a new space this year, it was important to come back.
“I came to help my people; during the pandemic, it was difficult to sell in the village,” she said.
Each rug takes six months to an entire year to make. The preparation of the wool alone takes a month. They range from around $400 to $6,600, the cost of a full-scale elaborate tree of life, currently on display in the ACES classroom.