Learning the Craft
One of the most fascinating parts of a new culture is the unique artistic tradition that accompanies it. I’ve loved learning about different types of artwork and styles here in Nicaragua and have had plenty of opportunities to do so. León is a city rich with history, art, and lots of interesting places to explore – my favorite was the Ruben Dario museum (and it definitely didn’t hurt that our guide serenaded me with a love poem). The poet is still referred to as the “prince of León” to this day and continues to have a profound cultural impact on Nicaragua. Everyone seems to be familiar with his poetry and most schools require students to memorize one of Dario’s famous poems, “A Margarita.” I’ve always enjoyed the written word and creative ventures in that venue, but I’ve also loved my introduction to more hands on artwork while I’ve been in Nicaragua.
If you’ve been reading Victoria’s blogs (which you should), you’ve already heard a bit about the telares. They are a family cooperative of weavers who construct their own machines and weave beautiful products, ranging from full sized blankets to individual placemats, right in their home. Victoria and I both spend the majority of our “free time” over at their house. From day one, the whole family has been unbelievably loving and welcoming to us. Lillian and Daniela in particular have taken us in and taught us how to use the machines. I admire them both very much for their strength, artistic talent, and positive attitude towards life. They truly put their hearts into their creations and are eager to share their craft with us. We started out making the knots on the edges of the blankets & working on the simplest machine, but they quickly moved us on to new challenges! The number and order of foot pedals used contributes to the complexity or the design of the blanket. Every machine makes a different sized product & has different style capabilities, which makes it difficult to complete mass orders because despite several people working, their machines only allow them to make one at a time.
Last Saturday, I spent the day making my own “manta,” or small blanket. I picked out all my own colors and used a combination of different styles that I’d learned. With lots of encouragement, patience on the telares’ part, and a some help, I’m very proud of my final product! Everyone in the telares family has meant so much to us throughout our time here, from the two year old toddler to the incredible, hardworking grandmother & founder of the cooperative. I’m so happy to have something concrete – a Melos of their patient instructions and my hard (sweaty) work – to remember them and our time together. I am thankful for their generosity and willingness to teach us. Materials are pricey here (particularly the colored threads), so I know that it was no small gesture for them to allow us to make our own creation. After working alongside them for 8 weeks and spending that one full day on my own product, I definitely have a greater respect and appreciation for their craft and hard work.
On a day trip to Esteli a few weekends ago we met another very interesting Nicaraguan artist, Don Albert. This man is about 80 years old and has been living on the mountains on the edge of Esteli for more than 30 years carving beautiful artwork into the face of the mountain. It’s hard to describe the kind of work he does because I’ve honestly never seen anything like it before. Just imagine a long stretch of carvings, curving along the mountain, featuring different three-dimensional animals and biblical scenes. The sheer quantity of the carvings is unbelievable. After exploring his work for a little while on our own, Don Albert joined us and gave us a personal (free) tour. It was very interesting to hear him talk about his life’s work and he spent quite a long time with us. Every carving had a reason or an inspiration – a large eagle to represent America, the sun to represent Nicaragua, and a beautiful, intricate elephant to pay homage to the largest animal on Earth. It takes a special kind of person to devote one’s entire life to art and expect nothing in return. Don Albert only works on the mountain, so he obviously doesn’t sell any of his artwork. Even so, he could easily charge an entrance fee, but instead he seems to enjoy telling people about his art and is careful not to miss a group of people so that every visitor can fully understand his work.
Don Albert practices art primarily as a way of life and doesn’t seem too concerned with making it his livelihood. The telares love what they do, but at the end of the day, they need to put in very long hours and work quickly to get their orders done on time. They do orders via email and ship them out internationally both to individuals and one store. However, a large portion of their business depends on visiting American delegations for a lot of their business, which I imagine is difficult because their customers can only buy what they can fit in their suitcases. One of the days that Victoria & I were working, a delegation connected to New Haven, Connecticut stopped by to get a tour of the weavers. This was a very interesting experience for us because they asked us both to help explain things in English to the group. Lillian is learning English, but she’s not confident in her ability enough yet to lead a tour entirely in English. The group was fascinated by the weavers and intrigued by our participation in the cooperation. Although nearly everyone walked out with a product from the weavers in hand, the group was smaller than usual so the sales fewer. Delegations amount to a large portion of their sales, but they are definitely an unpredictable market. It was great experience to get a mini introduction to the business side of the cooperative and witness people encountering the weavers and their beautiful work for the first time. I’ve enjoyed getting to know Nicaraguan culture, but more than anything else, I’ve loved getting to know the Nicaraguan people and listening to them talk about their stories, their struggles and triumphs, and their passions.
Kerry Mullen ’16