One must-see for any lover of Mexican folk art is the town of Teotitlan del Valle near the city of Oaxaca, famous for its weaving of wool rugs. In the past 20 years or so, there has been a movement pairing these weavers with various artists. The goal is to create rugs with modern designs, but made with traditional techniques.
One person to do this work is American artist Mary Stuart. She has lived in Mexico City since arriving to the country in the 1970s to study mural painting at Mexico’s prestigious La Esmeralda School.
During Stuart’s career, she was worked in varous media, traditional and non-traditional. Her interest in designing rugs came about because of artist James Brown, a well-known New York artist. Brown had been enticed by a brother to go to Oaxaca and work with the artisans of Teotitlan del Valle. In turn, Brown has brought in artists from the United States and Europe, sparking a sub-industry in rug making in this area.
Stuart’s first rug project resulted in a pair of rugs with a “musical chairs” theme. Stylized chairs are woven onto a neutral background; the chairs themselves have a background of old sheet music that Stuart had found in the Lagunilla flea market in Mexico City. The resulting rug design was so long that artist and artisans agreed that it should be cut into two paired rugs. One of these rugs can be found in Stuart’s Mexico City apartment to this day.
Stuart states the experience of designing the rug and working with artisan Jerónimo Hernández Ruíz was like “being bitten by a bug.” Since then, she has thought of and sketched many ideas for rugs, but to date only a small portion of them have been executed. The main reason for this is that weaving rugs on a pedal loom is extremely time-consuming, so the resulting piece is expensive.
Initially, Stuart would design and execute rugs with the idea of selling them as artworks. She even obtained funding from FONCA, a major source of art project funding in Mexico, for such. While a number sold, too often she would hear that a buyer was interested but the size or color scheme was not quite right. This, and the unfortunate robbery of her former studio in Mexico and the loss of a number of valuable rugs, led her to making and selling the rugs strictly on a commission basis.
Stuart states almost apologetically that the rug work is more “fun” in the sense that she only has to focus on the design and color, leaving the tedious manufacture to others. But she repects their work, marveling how they need little guidance in the execution of designs and finding ways to create irregular shapes, even if that means undoing portions of the rug they wove.
Currently Stuart is collaborating with Hernández Ruíz on a set of rugs for an upcoming exhibition for the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City. This event, Arte/Sano, is a regular biennial which pairs artists and artisans to create innovative products. The Stuart/Hernández Ruíz project is a pair of black and white rugs based off of the concept of Muslim prayer rugs, something Stuart is familiar with as she lived for some time in Tunisia when she was younger. One rug is as black as possible, and the other is in the same design but as white as possible. The black rug is to symbolize the void and the white rug, the light of God. The design is extremely simple, reduced down to a representation of an arrow that Muslim prayer rugs have with the purpose of pointing to Mecca. The project is slated to be finished by August, with the exhibition being held by the end of the year.
Photos courtesy of the artist and republished with her permission.