Irvin Trujillo has won countless major awards for his weaving including The Spanish Market Master’s Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2005, and a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship in 2007. His work is collected throughout the world by individuals and museums, including The Smithsonian. But he didn’t even mention any of this to me. More important to him is creating new pieces, not so much to advance and stretch the tradition, but to increase his own “vocabulary of design.” It is the foundation of what his dad taught him: To make an individual piece every time you get on a loom, a tradition Irvin upholds.
Irvin is a seventh generation weaver. He learned from his father when he was 10 and had to stand on a chair to reach the loom. His dad had begun weaving at home in a newly spare bedroom (his sister having just left for college), and Irvin could hear the rhythmic noise coming from behind the closed door. “I was fascinated, really,” he says. He listened for a couple of weeks before going in to watch. He watched for another couple of weeks before his father finally asked him if he wanted to learn. He did. It wasn’t until Irvin entered college himself that he started hearing his father was a master.
His father, Jacobo Trujillo, was born in 1911 and started weaving in 1925. He learned the whole weaving process, from raising the sheep to the finished blanket, from his mother, Maria Oretga and his father, Isidoro Trujillo, so from both sides of the family. Jacobo built looms that they still use in the shop today, including the one Irvin learned on.
He doesn’t know who has the documents because it’s all oral history, but the museum has a genealogy that goes back to 1729, to the first documented weaver in his grandmother’s family, Nicholas Ortega.
In his grandfather’s family it started with Jose Conception Trujillo around 1775, when they settled Rio Chiquito, a small village just north of Chimayo. He had been granted land in the area called La Centinela, where Irvin still lives with his family today. Irvin has seen the documents transferring water rights to the family at that time. It is said he ran a six loom obrajes (workshop) for weaving but Irvin can’t say whether or not that’s true.
He says of his ancestors, “In this enigma of a family, I’ve wondered about the whole thing: What made them settle here? What made them STAY here?” William deBuys writes about the colonizing of these small land grant villages in his excellent book, The Walk, saying, “They worked and feuded, wooed, loved and grieved, sinned and suffered each other’s sinning, ached, prayed, and exulted all within the narrow compass…” of their village valleys. I believe Irvin feels that heritage within himself as well.
He talks about the old times before the Americans when there was no concept of money or owning a particular piece of land, when there were no fences, “The Americans brought that, the possessiveness, the fences. I think that ruined it.” Before the opening of the Santa Fe Trail and the railroad, people grew and made everything they used in these mountains, except for a little trading. They depended on the land for their lives and everybody shared. Without fences the sheep and horses and cattle ranged to wherever they could find grasses to eat. In hard times they ranged farther but it was easier to get by with all the land open to all the people.
“The Spanish value the land as the Indians do,” Irvin says. “I was brought up knowing it provided our food. We worked hard. We took care of this whole ranch. We grew alfalfa, chili, beans, and corn. I know what it is to hoe acres and kill your cows for meat and, in the winter, the pigs. But I was brought up in Los Alamos too. So I saw what I call the white world there, and I liked this one better because it was down to earth and I actually got my hands dirty.”
Another thing seemingly lost to the old days is the acceptance of imperfection. Irvin says, “My perception of what people want today is perfection. The old pieces happened because it was what they had to do to use. They were utilitarian. The tourist industry changed that… My dad taught me that if I wanted to make an interesting design, to make some elements different—break the pattern a little—make one stripe a smaller size. Then the eye has to look at it differently for the brain to recognize what it’s seeing. The old designs weren’t perfect and that’s what makes them art.”
Centinela Traditional Arts, the weaving business Irvin started with his wife and father more than three decades ago, has 10 full time weavers now, many of them from the same families. In this way Irvin feels they help to keep the tradition alive, not just for their own family but for other families as well.
Following his heritage and his heart has not always been easy. He is a licensed engineer and could easily go earn a more consistent living. He says, “Having the shop is a blast, but it’s been hard. We’ve been broke many times. I’ve tried to learn how to just live in the day—I’ll have fun in the day. I live my bliss as much of the time as I can.”
I believe Irvin is saying what is true for so many of us who have chosen this artist’s path: No matter the challenges, we continue to stand with them–we continue taking leap after leap into the unknown. We make our art because it is in us to do. And it is, in fact, a blast.
A reader just sent in this note: “We will be our own heros.” Yes, Kate, we will.
See more about Irvin, the history of weaving, and Centinela Traditional Arts at chimayoweavers.com.
Love to you all,