True colors: Traditional textiles and sustainable practices through functional art at ACES

Katherine Roberts
Special to The Aspen Times
Elena Gonzalez Ruiz and her handmade textiles.
Courtesy ACES

Textile artist Elena Gonzalez Ruiz came to Aspen for the first time on July 22, 1989, at the invitation of Stuart Mace.

“I was 21 years old, and he invited me to do a weaving demonstration,” she said.

Mace was getting to know her and her community of artists after visiting her hometown of Teotitlan del Valle in Oaxaca, Mexico, where he purchased rugs twice a year for Lynn’s gallery, which he and his daughter, Lynn Mace, co-owned for many years.

Ruiz has been to Ashcroft every year since. In 2007, Ruiz officially became an artist-in-residence for the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES) and contributes to the organization’s mission through demonstrations about her sustainable, centuries-old weaving and dyeing practices.

“Elena’s native Oaxacan, artisan, hand-woven textiles are crafted using all-natural materials, showcasing sustainable product design in today’s world where so many products are imported from Asia with little regard for environmental and cultural impacts,” said Chris Lane, CEO of ACES.

Ruiz said that of the 7,000 people who currently live in her village, 4,000 of them are weavers (the rest support themselves through agricultural businesses). Ruiz is a third-generation artist herself, and her nephews are continuing the tradition in her family.

“Only 10% of people know how to do the natural dyes. It’s a lot of patience, a lot of work. With the natural colors, it’s totally different, because they are totally unique. You’re lucky if you get two different colors in a day,” she said about the complicated artistic practice she’s been mastering since adolescence. She said these techniques have been practiced in her village since 1464, with the introduction of the pedal loom by the Spanish in 1810. Little has changed since, including the ingredients to make the dyes. Their availability depends on weather and other sometimes challenging conditions, as Ruiz must literally climb mountains to gather what she needs.

Recently, Ruiz enthusiastically offered a demonstration on how the colors work and how the dyes are made. She talked about how adding lime juice as an acidic base or baking soda for an alkaline base affects the colors, as she smeared the powders across her hand to make a vibrant red and a deep purple, all using the same basic ingredient, cochinilla, a dried insect found on Nopal cactus leaves. Using different ingredients such as tarragon (which turns surprising shades of yellow), pomegranate and indigo — sometimes with the cochinilla, sometimes on their own — 21 different ingredient combinations can result in up to 60 different colors. The colors are also impacted by the shades of the wool, which can range from jet black to pure white, with several shades of gray between.

Dried cochinilla, which is used to make many of the base colors for the dyes.
Katherine Roberts

These brightly colored designs, in addition to requiring hard work to achieve and sometimes punishing sessions at the loom, are also thoughtfully executed in the traditional weaving style, with each design having a vision unique to Ruiz’s history and the history of her weaving cohorts.

Elena Gonzalez Ruiz smears a powder, made of dried insects found on Nopal cactus leaves, on her hand. Adding lime juice (an acid) adjusts the hue of the red dye.
Katherine Roberts

“All of the designs have meaning. They’re all very traditional. The rain, the water — if there’s no rain, there’s no water, there’s no life. We weave the rain and the water and the mountains into the rug to represent life,” she said.

Hummingbirds, butterflies, corn and the tree of life also often make it into the designs, all representing things like freedom, prosperity and the ability to always look to the future.

Rugs and handbags previously for sale at ACES Catto Center at Toklat, which is currently closed for renovation.
Courtesy ACES

“The hummingbird is a messenger bird: never stop, never look at the past,” she explained.

Ruiz is currently posted up at the ACES Hallam Lake campus while the Catto Center at Toklat undergoes a significant renovation. She displays her rugs of varying sizes, as well as leather and woven handbags, all for sale, with proceeds going back to her village and 10 percent supporting ACES’ educational programs.

In addition to Ruiz’s work, you’ll find the handmade textiles of 10 other families who work together with Ruiz, as part of her co-operative business back in Oaxaca. She’ll remain at ACES through October to make money for her village and watch the leaves change color, a favorite activity in her down time. She said that even though she’s in a new space this year, it was important to return.

“I came to help my people; during the pandemic it’s been hard to sell in the village,” she said.

Each rug takes anywhere from six months to an entire year to make. Prepping the wool alone takes one month. They range from about $400 up to $6,600, which is the cost of an elaborate, large-scale tree of life design, currently on display in the ACES classroom.

A closeup of Elena Gonzalez Ruiz’s work.
Katherine Roberts
Elena Gonzalez Ruiz shows one of her textiles.
Katherine Roberts
Just some of the “ingredients” that go into Elena Gonzalez Ruiz’s textiles.
Courtesy ACES