Santa Fe International Folk Art Market

Folk Artist as Rock Star: The Santa Fe Folk Art Market

This past February, my husband and I traveled through Gujarat, India. Our interest in this part of our India journey was handicrafts, for which Gujarat has the best of reputations. We were in the backwaters (!) of the Kutch desert, with our guide Kuldip Gadhvi, visiting one folk artist after another. “From America?” the artists asked me, one after another, “Do you know about San-ta-Fe?” 

“I do know about Santa Fe.” I answered, astounded. “... How do you know about it?”

“Oh, we all know about San-ta Fe. Everyone wants to attend San-ta Fe.”

Well. I had heard about it, of course, but I had no idea it was this well-known. We were, figuratively, out in the sticks here, and they were all excited about Santa Fe. This year, I decided, I had better go and experience it for myself.

Santa Fe, New Mexico, is the location of the International Folk Art Market; an annual happening – going on 10 years now – where artists are brought from around the world with their irreplaceable craft skills, and given a foot-in-the-door to the American market. For this they charge normal US prices, which nets them an amazing increase over what they would earn in their home countries. This model is the key; the way to assure that a folk art skill survives in this age of technology is to make it financially viable – without this, young folks will find other ways to earn a living and these skills can wink out in just one generation.

The weekend starts out on Thursday night with a party in the Rail-yard Park. Bandstand and music, demonstrations and ethnic food trucks, hands-on crafts for the kids and young-at-heart, all culminating in the parade entrance of the artisans in their native finery carrying signs with their country proudly displayed like the Olympic Parade of Nations. The crowd clapped and cheered for them on both sides of the parade, receiving them like the rock stars which they really ought to be treated as. The artists entered the huge circle in front of the bandstand as the light faded and the joy increased. Hand shakes and hugs were exchanged as friends from past years found each other again, both artists and customers, reunited again after time and distance. Happy chatter competed with music, until the music finally won out and we all began to dance. This was my strongest impression of the weekend – and this is saying a lot, since I had many many strong impressions over the weekend – here we were all dancing together. People from nations that politically were not on good terms, some nations currently engaged in violence against one another, were dancing together.

Folk art as peace-maker. I had goose-bumps.

The costumes were incredible, so varied and so carefully hand-made. The day was hot, and we all were envious of the gal from Namibia who got to wear only a skimpy bit of suede and strings of beads, especially the Peruvian Highland weaver contingent who wore layers and layers of exquisite hand-woven wool. It was all there: Ikat silk, indigo shibori, intricate stitch-work, bast fibers, wool, cotton (in all its natural colors). Fiber art text books could have been written that one night.

The next morning as we prepared to board busses, I approached a Laotian artist and welcomed him to the US. He responded, “Please. I want to give you a gift.” I was astounded as he opened a box full of silver colored earrings on tiny cardboard squares. “These are made by my people,” he explained. “We make them from US bomb casings that litter our countryside.” I realized what I was looking at, and wanted to sink right into the ground. I started to apologize, but he reassured me, “They sent these with me to give to Americans. A good-will gift, please. We want everyone to hear our message; it is better to make earrings, not war!” 

Folk Art as educator. I had goose-bumps again.

I was talking to an artist from Cuba, who told me this was her second year at the market. The year before, people had asked her what her impressions of the US were, that being her first time in the US. She told me she responded “I don’t feel like I am in the US. Look around you; I feel like I am in the entire world.” It’s true. The entire world is in Santa Fe during the Folk Art Market. Artists have come from 6 continents (still no artist from Antarctica...) 80 countries represented, 650 artists over these 10 years.

I spoke with Odilón Morales the next morning, a dyer and weaver fresh in from Oaxaca Mexico for the first time at the market, and we commented on the variety of the people in the room with us. He told me, “God in his wisdom said ‘I’ll make all these people, all different, and then in this way – together – they will survive.’ ” I agreed, my science background calls this the Hybrid Vigor: strength acquired through diversity of backgrounds. We discussed the symbols painstakingly woven into the front of his Amuzgo tunic, he pointed out the most important ones and told me that these symbols and the beliefs behind them defined his people, his village. He told me, “The human being is all of this; culture, music, history, family, beliefs, symbols. I was told in Santa Fe I would find people whose ideas pulled them along this way.” He told me of an older man in the village, the very last man to be able to play the traditional Amuzgo music on the fiddle. He is now in his seventies, and no other man can play the traditional tunes. Odilón’s dream is to make the money to be able to buy three fiddles, then to have three young boys from the village learn the music from this man, before they loose him. He added shyly, “We have worked, dyeing and weaving our symbols into this clothing we make, for many months for this weekend alone. I have placed all my hopes in Santa Fe.”

Many artisans have done the same before him, and have not been disappointed. At the end of the weekend, the artists take home 90% of the purchase price on articles sold, a scant 10% being used for bringing new artists in the following year. The Market also offers classes in ‘Marketing 101 and 102’ for the artists – an incredibly complex undertaking involving headsets and translators doing simultaneous translation of the instructor’s lectures for as many language-groups as find themselves in the hall. New artists, their first year (once they are juried in) will get financial support for air-flight, housing, meals, and translator.  After that year, it is assumed that they will have made the contacts they need to bank-roll their next year themselves (if they are again juried in). Almost every artist returns, some having returned 9 years of the Market’s 10-year history.

The shopping was sheer pleasure. Pattern and color mixed freely with smiles, praise, translations, and music from the bandstand. The artists glowed as the shoppers “oo-ed” and “ah-ed” over their works. I myself did my part to help the world economy...

Being a weaver myself, I was surprised how easy it was to relate to other weavers – even if a language or two stood in the way. Maybe it’s true that weavers are weavers; a distinction that supersedes language groups and borders, politics. We are the ones who handle the fibers, who get the cantankerous warp threads to straighten-up and fly right, who call the cloth into being. When I showed them some of my own work, hanging on my shoulder (after they got over the shock of hearing that Americans weave, too), their eyes lit up and they admired it carefully.

One afternoon I was sitting next to Pedro Mesa Mesa, a weaver from Chiapas, Mexico, as he did finger-controlled pick-up patterning on his backstrap loom. I admired his skill and his work for many long minutes, and in the end mentioned, “You know, the Laotian weavers have figured out how to store a pattern in sticks and silk, to speed up the weaving process.” He was all ears as I described the supplemental vertical heddle system which stores and mirrors the patterns they hand-weave. I drew sketches to explain how it works, and his eyes got bigger and bigger.

“Are there Laotian weavers here in Santa Fe?” he asked. When I said yes, the back-strap loom came right off, and off we went to visit the Laotian booth. This is networking. Between he and the Laotian weaver (and two translators) much was said.

After two and a half days of happy shopping, I sat with one translator from India, both of us pretty tired. She laughed about it and told me of being on her feet for just about the whole weekend. “Sweet pain,” was how she described it. “We are so happy to be here. All the standing is nothing. This Market makes all the difference.”

Folk Art as a means to a living-wage. Goose-bumps. 

As the Santa Fe Market website says; It’s not a Textile, it’s a Transformation. It’s not a Basket, it’s a Bridge. It’s not a Market. It’s a Miracle.

So now I come home to Seattle, head full of memories, address book full of new acquaintances and friends, suitcase full of drop-dead gorgeous textiles. I will continue to weave and think about my fellow weavers across the globe. I will wear my bomb-casing earrings and will tell the story to anyone who asks...