The Great Coverup
There is more to these rugs than meets the eye.
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Texas is not noted for its contributions to the floor-covering industry. We can take credit, if we want it, for the original AstroTurf, but that’s about all. Now, though, there’s a new movement afoot at, of all places, the old Fort Worth Cattle Exchange. Here Everlasting Productions, a group of Texans led by Lionel Bevan, has brought together contemporary American art and traditional Mexican weaving in a venture that restores the rug to its rightful place as an object of art.
Bevan and Los Angeles artist Jim Ganzer were wandering the back roads of Mexico in 1973 when they discovered woven wool copies of paintings by Miró and Picasso in the local market of Teotitlán del Valle. A Mexican market was the last place they expected to run into cubism and the artists were intrigued. “Ganzer had some rugs made from some drawings he had done, and they were beautiful,” Bevan recalls. “So we thought it would be a good idea to get some of our friends to have some woven, too.”
Among their friends happened to be some of Texas’ and California’s best contemporary artists, people like Billy Al Bengston, John Fleming, Ed Ruscha, Robert Wade, Kenny Price, Boyd Elder, Chuck Arnoldi, Nancie Lamb, Larry Bell, and Roscoe West. Within a year, Bevan and Ganzer had transformed their “good idea” into a full-scale business, turning original copyrighted designs by American artists into hand-woven Mexican rugs.
Bevan held his first handwoven rug exhibition in 1974, offering “issues of one pura lana [all wool]” to the art patrons of Fort Worth. A second, much larger show was held at the Otis Art Gallery in Los Angeles in 1975, and this fall, beginning with a show at the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts from September 15 to October 18, a new group of rugs will tour three Texas cities—Dallas, San Antonio, and Houston.
The rugs are woven under the direction of Jerminio Martinez by the weavers of Teotitlán del Valle, who had been experimenting with design for more than a generation before they were “discovered” by Bevan and Ganzer. Until the Twenties most Mexican serape weaving followed traditional native patterns that identified a weaver’s village as distinctly as a tartan plaid did a Scottish clan. In 1928, however, two Zapotec Indian weavers from Teotitlán del Valle began to work with the geometric patterns of a nearby first-century Zapotec-Mixtec ruin called Mitla. Soon other local weavers began to experiment outside the serape tradition and, by the time Bevan and Ganzer visited the village, Teotitlán del Valle had become the center of the Oaxacan weaving industry.
Virtually every home in the village has a loom. Some of the weavers are better at making circles and curves; others at calligraphy or borders. Bevan, et al., have learned to match the particular expertise of individual weavers and wool dyers to the appropriate contemporary artist’s design.
The all-wool rugs are made by one weaver in a flat weave, without pile or nap, in a single piece primarily on horizontal looms. In most cases, two rugs of each design are woven, one for the artist in payment for his drawings, the other to be sold. It takes about six months for the village weavers to produce 25 rugs, the average number in a show, plus some of the traditional rugs woven from the weaver’s own designs. The prices of the contemporary artists’ rugs are based loosely on size, complexity of design, and on what a drawing by the artist might bring. A 6’6″ by 5’10” rug designed by Billy Al Bengston sells for around $2000, a 3’5″ by 4’3″ rug by Kenny Price costs approximately $1200, and a 3’5″ by 4’3″ rug by Karen Avila was shown for about $400. The top price so far has been $5000 for a rug by Boyd Elder.
As part of the general rebirth of folk crafts, handweaving bazaars and co-ops are flourishing all over the United States. In addition to Everlasting Productions, however, at least two other groups are in the business of transforming handweaving from a craft into an art. Under the supervision of Gloria F. Ross, a group of rugs is being handwoven in Europe using the Aubusson technique of a tight flat weave. The rugs, exhibited by the Pace Gallery Editions, Inc., in New York City, have been designed by such artists as Robert Motherwell, Helen Frankenthaler, Frank Stella, Larry Poons, Jack Youngerman, and Louise Nevelson. Modern Master Tapestries, under the sponsorship of Charles E. Slatkin of New York, has had rugs woven primarily in India using the Savonnerie technique of a fine pile weave, from designs by Picasso, Klee, Calder, Lichtenstein, Dine, Warhol, and others.
As in most things Southwestern, the influence of the Spanish in the region’s rugs is strong. Indeed, the Spanish have played an important role in the whole Western tradition of handweaving. It was the Moors, migrating from North Africa in the early eighth century, who brought oriental rug making to Spain. The Spanish then bridged the weaving of East and West by trading oriental and Spanish rugs to France, introducing the traditions that would become the famous Aubusson and Savonnerie weaving techniques. Eleanor of Castile carried the first woven tapestries to England when she married Edward I in 1254. To the amazement of the English, who still covered their floors with straw, she covered the walls and floors of her rooms in Westminster castle with oriental and Spanish rugs. And it was the Spanish conquistadores who put the Aztec and Navajo Indians to work weaving wool from the Spaniards’ gift to the New World—sheep.
The Navajo heritage has strongly influenced the rug designs of the American artists working with Bevan. Several of the rugs, like Boyd Eider’s contemporary “eye dazzler” design, are derivatives of Navajo patterns; others incorporate the Navajo color scheme, which ranges from natural earth tones to vibrant reds. But the Mexican weavers cannot match the fineness of Navajo weaving. The tightness and consistency of weave produced on the Navajo vertical loom cannot be duplicated on the Mexican horizontal loom.
Except for the Navajo rug and such cottage-craft creations as the braided rug, most American contributions to the art of rug making have been technological. We have used one innovation after the other—the power loom, mass-marketing techniques, synthetic fibers—to create a mechanized carpet industry that produced wall-to-wall carpet on such a scale that competition from makers of handwoven carpets never got off the ground. By the 1960s, 85 per cent of American carpets and rugs were made from synthetic fibers. We were using rugs to cover everything from our walls to our patios, and most good design had been buried by the popularity of shag carpeting so thick that plastic rakes were sold to care for it.
Machine-made carpets have now provoked an anti-machine response. It happened years earlier in Europe, but here it took the sterility of modern architecture together with plastic interiors to revive an appreciation for the warmth and beauty of natural fiber, wood, and clay. We are now once again using our crafts as functional objects—hand-thrown pots are cooked in, hand-carved chairs are sat in, handwoven rugs are walked on. Today corporations and art collectors are finding that rugs and tapestries bring the same warmth and color to contemporary offices and homes that they once brought to medieval castles and nomadic tents.
The artists have embraced this “new” medium as enthusiastically as the art patrons. “The California artists couldn’t believe it,” according to Bevan. “They gave us their drawings and didn’t know what to expect, but they never thought their rugs would turn out so well.” The Californians may have been amazed by the ability of Mexican craftsmen to take a foreign design, adapt it to their craft, and turn out something with a distinctly Mexican personality, but Everlasting Productions was not at all surprised. The Texans had already made enough forays across the border to appreciate the uniqueness of Mexican crafts. As John Fleming says, “If I were to find copies of my rugs for sale in a Mexican market, it would be the ultimate compliment they could be paid.”