Porfirio Gutierrez weaves textiles to preserve the traditions of his Zapotec ancestry.
The descendent of a long line of weavers, he and his sister Juana learned as children which plants to gather to create the most vibrant dyes.
Gutierrez is one of 60 artists slated to show his work at the International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe. Cancelled due to the pandemic, the annual event’s auction will go virtual from July 6-10 at folkartmarket.org.
A five-year market veteran, Gutierrez gleans up to one-third of his annual income from market sales.
“The market has been a blessing for so many of us,” he said. The auction “is the only opportunity we all have now.”
Gutierrez’s father taught him to weave as a child; he even wove the backpack he took to school. Raised in the southern Mexico mountainous village of Teotitlán del Valle in Oaxaca, he and Juana learned to grind traditional ingredients such as indigo and cochineal on a metate (a ground stone tool), producing 40 colors with infinite variations.
“In our tradition, you are born a weaver,” Gutierrez said. “It’s a tradition that goes back thousands of years. It’s like my native language.”
For him, that heritage grew into a calling he could not ignore.
He tried to escape it. An economic downturn led him to California 19 years ago. He worked at various restaurants and at a concrete plant. But the rhythmic shuffle of the loom called him home.
“I was completely detached from the culture,” he said. “That journey allowed me to think, appreciate and re-appreciate my cultural identity. I discovered my calling was the art of weaving.”
His use of traditional methods contrasts with a fiercely innovative approach incorporating new designs into his creative repertoire.
The geometric patterns often reinterpret ancient Zapotec symbols with a contemporary flair.
“It connects us to the ancestors and the cosmology of the indigenous people in a reference to the cycle of life or the sacred plants: the corn, the beans and squash,” he explained.
A corn tassel or stalk represents fertility, he said.
“A lot of the information has gotten lost because of the colonization of Mexico 500 years ago,” he continued. “To me, this symbolism came out of understanding who I am as a native Zapotec.”
He sketches out his original patterns first, calculating the thread count per inch.
He’s been developing a body of work devoted to the color red, an important symbol in ancient Mexico.
“The color red was used in different ceremonies, especially in burials,” Gutierrez said. “It also was used in medicine. The color red is related to the gods. Today in my country in a procession women wear a red skirt to participate.”
In 2015, the Smithsonian Folklife Center invited Gutierrez to an artist in leadership residency at the Washington, D.C. museum. The National Museum of the American Indian bought two of his pieces for its permanent collection.
Today, Gutierrez runs a workshop in Teotitlán with about 35 relatives and community members.