Forty Years! And a visit to the weaving village

Starr's 40th

 

by Susanna Starr

As I sit here in our home overlooking the Hondo Valley  outside of Taos, New Mexico, with the backdrop of the Sangre de Cristos mountains alternately shrouded in cloud cover, I realize that I’ve only been home from our annual three and a half month stay in Mexico for a couple of weeks.

Just little more than two weeks ago we were walking the streets of the weaving village where I’ve been working with the same weaving families for so many years. As always, it was wonderful being there, visiting with our old friends, who are really the closest I have to extended family, and seeing all the changes in the year since our last visit.

This time John and I arrived with copies of our recently published book “Our Interwoven Lives with the Zapotec Weavers: An Odyssey of the Heart” the beautiful mini-coffee table book that my partner, John Lamkin, and I collaborated on, with my story and his beautiful photographic accompaniment.

 

Susanna shows the book to Eliseo & Maria Bautista
Susanna shows the book to Eliseo & Maria Bautista

In this day of immediate electronic communication, it wasn’t quite the surprise we thought it would be since it had already made it’s advance announcement on Facebook. But not everyone had heard about it, especially not the Line of the Spirit weavers. But everyone seemed to be delighted with it. Many of the photos brought happy smiles of recognition but most importantly, it was that special shared feeling of knowing each other, our families and the village itself over these many years that was so meaningful.

Juan Luis & family
Juan Luis & family

This new book of ours tells the story not only of my forty years of working with the Zapotec weavers in this village, but parallels their lives with my own, of the three generations I’ve been involved with, my own being the first generation, the children who are now adults and running the established businesses begun by their parents, as the second generation. All of these families have been and always will be a significant part of my life.

But it’s the third generation that really excites me, the generation of my own grandchildren. These younger people who have already started in on careers of their own such as medicine, or are now at universities studying engineering and international commerce or attending high schools in Oaxaca preparing them for unknown pursuits, are astounding. Their grandparents, my oldest friends, were the transitional age, the one that represented the shift from the traditional ways of their parents and grandparents to being immersed in the contemporary world that included me and a number of other “compradores” (buyers) like me.

Weavers and Compradores
Weavers and Compradores

They passed the torch to the next generation who continued to build their businesses and their homes and provide new opportunities for advanced education to their own children, often shuttling them back and forth to specialized schools in Oaxaca on a daily basis, for years, to provide them with the foundation for creating an alternative to the weaving tradition they had grown up in, to give them opportunities to forge their own way and often bring back new skills to the community.

Although these “kids” look like teenagers anywhere in the same kind of jeans, tee shirts and sneakers with the same cell phones, there is something special about them. Although very much a part of the 21st century, they are still deeply steeped in more than 5,000 years of Zapotec culture and tradition. They have never suffered the western “angst” wondering who they are or what their place is. They have always known what their place was and continues to be. From the time of their arrival they have been embraced by the strong ties of family and community. They probably go through many of the same thoughts and feelings of contemporaries anywhere, but they are not lost. They step out into the world joyfully. And……every one of them that I know is beautiful, male or female. Every one of them is infused with lovingness. I know I must be getting old when I look at them and feel the tears in my eyes!

Diego Montaño and one of his rugs
Diego Montaño and one of his rugs

But not all of these young people are going on to pursue new careers. Many of them have opted to continue in the weaving tradition, already being fine weavers in their own right. And many more look forward to working at home on the looms that have defined the life of their village, enjoying the familiar tradition they choose to continue, adding new ideas and visions to those they’ve already been exposed to.

Over these past forty years, we’ve spent so much time in the exciting city of Oaxaca, rich in its culture, vibrant in its colors and rich in its cooking tradition (Oaxacan chefs are some of the most famous in Mexico as well as some from the village who have received international recognition) and exciting in its atmosphere. It’s still the exciting city it’s always been. But, this time John and I stayed out in the village with our friends and I still bask in the glow of being there.

Rather than shuttling back and forth from the city, we enjoyed the quiet and intimacy of being in the village, of walking out at night and saying hello to the neighbors, of strolling down the main street and noting all the new construction and remodeling and upgrading that seems to be taking place on every other corner. Many of the old dirt roads have been paved, street lamps light the way and wonderful slogans urging people toward thinking about recycling, mutual respect for gender, women’s rights and other social issues, are written with artistic accompaniments on the walls. The sense of community is pervasive.

There’s so much more to tell about, but I’ll save it for the next installment. Right now I can only celebrate still again the richness that has been part of my life through my connection with the weaving families of this village. The time has come for me to close this chapter of my life, at least the gallery part of it, Starr Interiors. I’ve been processing this time for the past few years and now that it has become clear in my mind that the next step for me is to pass the torch to someone else that will build upon my relationship with the weavers, I feel contented. I’m quite sure that the right person will appear who will weave their own relationships into a meaningful part of their life, finding the counterpart of running the gallery in the equally beautiful mountain town of Taos, New Mexico.

 

Arnulfo Mendoza

March 9, 2014

Arnulfo Mendoza
Arnulfo Mendoza

Today is the day they are burying Arnulfo Mendoza in the cemetery in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico. I won’t be there, but I know many people will be there to pay their last respects to one of the most well- known and loved sons of the Zapotec village known for its many talented weavers. If he had been one of the older weavers, it would be sad, but Arnulfo wasn’t one of them. He was only in his fifties and his prime of life. A talented weaver who brought the art of fine weaving up to a completely new level and a painter who created his own unique form of art, Arnulfo was known way beyond the boundaries of Oaxaca, Mexico. It was shocking to hear of his passing and he’ll be greatly mourned by his family, his son, his mother, his many sisters and brothers and their families as well as his many friends. His passing also will be a loss to the important Mexican art community as well as to all of us who knew and loved him.

I first met Arnulfo almost four decades ago when we were visiting with his father, master weaver don Emiliano Mendoza. We visited with their family often and our connection with them is one that I’ve always treasured. Gradually, we acquired weavings from don Emiliano and from Arnulfo, including fine tapestries based on his own original paintings. We remained friends for many years. He and his wife at the time, Mary Jane Gagnier, came to visit us at our home on Laguna Bacalar as well as in Taos, New Mexico and some years ago, Starr Interiors sponsored an exhibition of his work with Mary Jane doing one of her talks. It was a special occasion. We were also guests at their incredible wedding and there shortly after the arrival of their baby son, Gabriel.

It is with great sadness that I write this, something I could never envision doing. When we return to the village in early April, there will be no more visits with him, but he will certainly live on in my memory and in my heart as well as in those of my children, whose friend he was also…..we loved you, Arnulfo…….

Remembering Richard Enzer – Final Part

Remembering Richard Enzer – Part 3 – Final

by Susanna Starr

Read Part 1 Read Part 2

The following year, our work schedule together with Richard continued and now he was living in another house with much more room, while we continued living in the house that would be our Oaxaca home for many more years. There were still parties and art openings and dinners out at places like El Sol y La Luna which was a restaurant that featured local musicians as well as art exhibits on the adobe walls. Food was served in the indoor covered patio and being with Richard meant being with lots of people. He always seemed to have the aura of a rock star” and the years we spent together always seemed filled with ongoing adventure. Completely devoted to the work of the Line of the Spirit, being in the city was another thing and the circle of friends that we were constantly involved with was always a colorful one.

Richard Enzer & Susanna Starr in Starr Interior's Courtyard, Taos, New Mexico
Richard Enzer & Susanna Starr in Starr Interior's Courtyard, Taos, New Mexico

It was during these years that we formed the lasting friendship with Mitzi Linn who was Richard’s “spiritual adviser.” It was also then that we were introduced to Domenico and his friend, both of them fairly recently arrived from Italy. They cooked fabulous pasta dinners at Richard’s house, a prelude to the restaurants that Domenico would own and operate after he married a local Oaxaca girl, as beautiful as he was handsome. Domenico is now the owner of Pizza Rustica, a wonderful and well known restaurant housed in one of the old converted Oaxaca mansions.

Miriam got married to an architect that she met through the Line of the Spirit and left to raise a family. Abi took her place and I work with her still. She is my very close friend. Although Sergio moved on, we now have another art director who was just a child when we began working together with Richard. Jace is Alta Gracia’s son, which makes it very convenient since he’s working directly with his mother, our extraordinary dye-maker. He and his family are all still very involved in producing special pieces for the Line of the Spirit and Alta’s gardens are as magnificent as the colors she produces for the yarns that hang out to dry in the strong Mexican sunlight.

About five years ago we decided to change the name of our gallery from La Unica Cosa which we had for about thirty years, to our new name of Starr Interiors. We had a party to celebrate and much to my surprise and great pleasure Richard came. I cried, stirred by an emotion I didn’t know I had. He had been sick, I knew, and had survived a kidney transplant. He looked older, but so did I. I flashed back to one of the first openings we had for the Line of the Spirit shortly after we formed our partnership. Richard bought me a very special huipil from one of the seven regions of Oaxaca which I wore to that opening. It had been a number of years since we had seen each other, with Richard moving onto the Romanian project after our partnership ended, and my continuing with the Oaxaca project. It was emotional for both of us and his smile was a reminder of many times we had working together in those early years of the nineteen nineties.

I think, too, of the time when the telephone rang one evening and it was Richard. I knew immediately from his voice that something had happened but wasn’t prepared for the news that his son, Michael, had just been killed in a motorcycle accident. Michael was spending time with his Dad in Oaxaca and it was Richard’s hope that his involvement would continue. But that was not to be. It was a devastation that only a parent could know. Unfortunately, I knew from firsthand experience, having lost my own son, when he was younger than Michael, a number of years earlier.

Now Richard, too, is gone, having passed away last year. Hard living took a toll, I’m sure, but it was the kind of life he chose and I think he enjoyed it “to the max.” There were difficult moments but they always passed and whatever happened that appeared disruptive was always resolved. But his genius lives on in the continuation and flourishing of the Line of the Spirit. Shortly after we became partners, I recognized the need for a trademark which remains the identification for this stunning body of work. Although I have gone on to introduce some designs and colors of my own, the collection still retains his initial vision.

Alta continues to do her magic with making the colors. Abi continues to keep everything together in Oaxaca, Jace continues to visit each weaver on the project and supply them with the material they need to complete their individual pieces and the fine staff at Starr Interiors continues to present the Line of the Spirit collection in the three rooms that house the collection. We continue to use the hand-carded, hand- spun wools prepared on a drop spindle at a remote Zapotec Indian village high up in the mountains. How can I mention that village without mentioning their other claim to fame, the making of mescal in home-made stills. Which brings up the memories of going there with Richard to buy wool and sampling each of the offerings of special mescal from the various houses in that little village. What an adventure! That, too, is part of remembering Richard.

Remembering Richard Enzer

Remembering Richard Enzer – Part 1

by Susanna Starr

Richard Enzer in Zapotec Weaving Village
Richard Enzer in Zapotec Weaving Village

Everyone has moments in their lives that seem inconsequential at the time but, in retrospect, we can recognize the impact of that chance meeting or conversation.

It was an outdoor party held at Ellie’s house, just down the road from where I lived in the small valley of Valdez, just outside of Taos, New Mexico, that Richard Enzer rode into my life. I had been stumbling around in the woods, trying to get back to where most of the people were gathered in the open area around the house, unable to find my way through the dense vegetation. I was beginning to feel panicky.

At the moment I started to emerge into the warm sunlight, Richard got down from the horse he had been riding and, seeing my face, strode over and opened his arms to hold me. There were no words exchanged, just the comfort and security offered in that reassuring embrace, one person to another. For me, it was a defining moment and despite the various experiences we shared in the ensuing years, that gesture of kindness and recognition remained.

We each wandered off in different directions then at the party and during the following years. Living in a small town, I heard about him from time to time but it wasn’t until a number of years later that he reappeared in my life.

My partner and I had spent more than a dozen years building a business that involved our active participation in a small Zapotec Indian weaving village located in the mountains just outside of Oaxaca, Mexico. As the years passed, our business grew as did that of the people we worked with. We worked seven days a week and spent several months in Mexico every winter working with the weavers and building what developed into a small eco resort and retreat center in another part of the country, the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico.

During the years of the 1980’s, we were buying large quantities of beautiful hand-loomed rugs and wall hangings, carefully selecting each piece. We were receiving shipments regularly and had our own “bodega” or storage area. Here our extra inventory was carefully stacked and laid out. Shipments that were received at the shop were taken there to be unpacked, examined and admired again before putting them in their proper places.

It was on one of these occasions that we were unpacking a shipment, that we realized the rugs were not familiar to us. They were stunningly beautiful in deep rich tones of complex designs. It didn’t take us long to realize that they were Richard’s rugs that had been sent to us by mistake.

Although we hadn’t been in touch with him, we knew that Richard had been working in the same weaving village that we were, after a long absence from Taos, and designing his own rugs there. With the help of noted weaver and colorist, Rachel Brown of Taos, New Mexico, he developed a palette of deep, rich colors more reminiscent of fine oriental rugs than the colors and designs being used in the small Zapotec Indian village.

His experience working with the New York rug gallery, the Gordian Knot, expanded his design horizons with oriental design elements included in his own collection of Southwestern designs, which he called the Line of the Spirit. We hadn’t ever seen any of his collection but it was clear as we unfolded the pieces that day in our bodega, that Richard had gone far beyond anything being produced in the village and, with good reason, we were very impressed.

Tracking him down wasn’t difficult and we sent the shipment on to him. Not long after, he suggested that we look once again at some of his pieces with the idea of our purchasing them. We did and found it a perfect addition to our own fine collection at what was then known as La Unica Cosa (the only thing), now Starr Interiors. We loved the rugs and our customers responded to our enthusiasm and were soon buying from Richard on a regular basis.

It wasn’t very long afterward that Richard showed up at the shop one day with his art director from the village to lay out a proposition. What came of that discussion was the beginning of my long involvement with the Line of the Spirit, which continues to this day.

Day of the Dead – Dias de los Muertos – Oaxaca, Mexico

Altar, Cemetery Chapel - Day of the Dead - Oaxaca State, Mexico
Susanna Starr placing photo on Altar, Cemetery Chapel - Day of the Dead - Oaxaca State, Mexico ©John Lamkin

The Day of the Dead celebration is marked by various rituals, including the American Halloween. But in Oaxaca this holiday, known as Los Dias de los Muertos, is something that goes far beyond trick or treating and children in costumes. It is not marked by carved pumpkins and children garnering as much candy as can fill their bags.

Rather, it is a holy holiday, one that marks the celebration of those who have passed away, death being part of life. Further, it is an honoring of those who once were part of their lives, a day of remembrance. It is a day infused with a feeling of spirit. Yes, there are parades, such as the large on in Mitla with all kinds of flamboyant costumes, and major decorations in the large cemeteries, but the most important acknowledgment of this holy holiday takes place at the individual altars in each home.

For the Zapotec people, the altar is the focal point in their home. All during the year, it is adorned with photos, some of Mary and Jesus, with candles, with vases of flowers and with other objects that have special meaning. But on these two days, November 1st and 2nd, the altars become more specific and elaborate. Now, particular flowers, including the deep red foxglove and the bright orange and yellow marigolds, symbolize this holiday. More photos are added of their loved ones who have passed on. There are plates of the special egg based bread that are in abundance in every market and more candles. Plates of nuts and fruit and specially prepared candies are there too, as well as a bottle of mescal, the traditional drink used to commemorate all special events

In the evening, most of the village walks to the cemetery at the church, as they have been doing for centuries. They carry flowers and candles, food and drink, and kneel at the graves of their loved ones, as well as visiting the graves of their departed friends. It is a sharing with the difunctos, as they are known in Spanish, this day when they feel those spirits have returned to be with them once again. The first day of Los Dias de los Muertos is dedicated to the memories of the children. It is the day when they return to their families one more time. The second day is for all the others, which ends with the pilgrimage to the cemetery.

Alta Gracia (Line of the Spirit dyemaker) at her Altar ©John Lamkin
Alta Gracia (Line of the Spirit™ dyemaker) at her Altar ©John Lamkin

In my almost 40 years of living and working with the weavers and other  Zapotec people of a small village outside of Oaxaca, I have always been reminded of whatever they do, whether it is celebrating a special holiday or simply being involved in an exchange of business, everything is infused with the spirit. Every home, rich or poor, has as the focal point of their home, a carefully tended altar. The weavings that may be piled up on the benches along the wall are also infused with this same sense of spirit. There is no separation. It is something that I think is worth remembering when we are involved in our own business transactions, that they are not apart from, but part of our everyday lives…..

Susanna Starr  October, 2010

Cemetery - Day of the Dead ©John Lamkin
Cemetery - Day of the Dead ©John Lamkin
Children's Altar - Day of the Dead  ©John Lamkin
Children's Altar - Day of the Dead ©John Lamkin
Day of the Dead Celebration - Oaxaca, Mexico - ©John Lamkin
Day of the Dead Celebration - Oaxaca, Mexico - ©John Lamkin