Common Threads – Fiber Arts in New Mexico

Quilt by Norma Koelm

Quilt by Norma Koelm

Anita McSorley has been making her own clothes since she was 10 years old. “My mother taught me how to crochet and how to embroider and how to sew,” she says. “I’d go shopping with [her], and I’d fall in love with something, and she’d say, ‘Well, you can make that.’ It was a cost-effective thing when I was growing up.” Today, that financial dynamic has changed, and handcrafting practical items has gone from necessity to a form of self-expression. “It’s definitely the reverse of what it used to be,” Anita says. “Anyone going out to make a garment now, you’re going to spend three to four times what you’d spend back then.”

Still, there’s one thing that hasn’t changed over the years: Anita’s love of the fiber arts and all the ways they can be used as vehicles for creativity. Anita’s talent has expanded to encompass many facets. “I’m interested in quilts—mostly art quilts—and I do polymer clay,” she says. “I do mixed-media, I paint fabric, and I dye fabric. I make mono-prints on fabric and paper.” She’s also a member of the Albuquerque Fiber Arts Council and the director of its 11th biennial Fiber Arts Fiesta.

The AFAC got its start in 1997, when seven local guilds began organizing to display their work to the wider community; it now comprises 20 guilds. According to Anita, the number of entries for this year’s event has surpassed those in the past, and a total of 670 works will be on display. The call for entries goes out nationwide, “as wide as we can get it.” The farthest away participant? “This year, it’s Brazil. There’s a young lady who does lace work,” Anita says. “One year, we had 12 entries from Taiwan: 10 quilts and two mixed-media [pieces].” Considering the size and scope of the event, it’s not surprising that it requires a fair amount of lead-time. “It takes about a year and a half to get the fiesta put together,” Anita says. “It’s kind of like herding cats.” Continue reading

Garden With a Tender Heart

Bullock's Oriole nest

Bullock’s Oriole nest

Pamela Geyer’s garden is a Santa Fe oasis, a tangle of flowers, bushes, trees, birdhouses, birdbaths, rain barrels, composters, watering hoses and more. Orioles, towhees, cedar waxwings and other birds flit from branch to branch, darting down to feast from dangling suet cages, protected in this safe haven from predators, wind and other threats.

Pam’s garden lies a block away from the Santa Fe River, a well-traveled migratory corridor for all kinds of wildlife, including more than 40 types of birds that visit her garden throughout the year. To provide them with food and shelter, Pam’s planted flowers in a variety of colors and shapes so they appeal to a range of birds; three different honeysuckles that bloom at different times, providing food throughout the season; and trees and bushes at varying levels, appealing to ground-feeders, mid-level and canopy birds. She’s also created a garden for hummingbirds and another for bees. Continue reading


Farm to Table Editorial - Homesteading

Nazca Warren

Finding the meaning in a phrase like “homesteading” is a journey in itself. And that makes sense, really. Over the course of meeting and talking with people who organize their lives around the concept, it became clear to me that to “homestead” is no singular act; it is not a verb constrained by strict definitions. Consider instead meaning drawn from patterns—lives lived one day at a time, based on a series of small conscious choices, the sum of which create a system of living in closer harmony with ourselves and the land.

I take personal refuge in this route to understanding Homesteading because, perhaps like you, I was more than a little daunted by the formality of the pursuit by the puritanism I had projected onto the term. In short, I’d imagined “The Homesteader” as someone of heroic proportions and deeply rooted convictions, someone ready to eschew the comforts of modern living for bootstrapped self-sufficiency of nearly monastic proportions. Maybe chalk that up in part to a penchant for the dramatic and my own idiosyncratic way of seeing just how much greener that xeriscaped garden is on the other side.

But like so many misconceptions, that premise was a false binary. There isn’t an “us and them,” and we’re cast along a continuum. Those of us living and thriving in Northern New Mexico have the increasingly rare and precious privilege of living in a liminal realm between urban and rural. The non-negotiable realities of living in a desert—even one at high altitude—dictate a level of environmental awareness that is conspicuously absent in other regions. Before moving here, I’d never seen a rain barrel—despite having lived most of my life in California, a state chronically challenged by drought.

Rain barrels, cisterns and makeshift water catchment systems are practically par for the course here. And that’s a defining aspect of the domestic landscape here: without making great sacrifice or any big fuss, many of us are already incorporating aspects of homesteading. At its elemental root, it’s about a common-sense relationship with the land. Continue reading

Working with the Earth

Nakotah LaRance, World Hoop Dance Champion

Nakotah LaRance, World Hoop Dance Champion

It’s a rare joy to spend an afternoon with people so at home in their skins, who connect so easily and who, despite being extraordinarily accomplished, are so down-to-earth. As soon as I clear the door, we are laughing. According to Hopi philosophy, says Marian Denipah, “You do your best with what little you have.” For Marian and her husband, Steve LaRance, this refrain runs in their blood. What they have, they gladly share.

“I first saw Steve at a powwow in Ft. Lewis,” Marian says, “but I approached him in Denver, at another powwow—this was a social dance—and I grabbed him! I knew other girls were trying to claim him, Pueblos and Navajo, Sioux girls, too. All along, I wanted to marry a Native guy, and my mom said she respected the Hopi, which is what Steve is, so I thought, ‘Even better!’” They dated for 10 years and then married.

Raised on Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, Marian and her brothers and sisters were in and out of the house their grandfather built on his farm. “My grandfather was governor of the Pueblo many times,” she says. “He would take us fishing. My dad and the Navajo side of the family were hunters. When I was young, my mom always had a garden. Because we lived off the land, we all grew up knowing how.”

As soon as they were ready to start a family, the couple knew that, because of all the partying, the heroin and alcoholism, Española was not where they wanted to raise kids. So they moved to Flagstaff, close by Hopiland and Steve’s home village of Munquapi. “Our kids all got Hopi names,” Steve says. “They were able to participate in some of the social dances there; they became familiar with the language, the culture, the ceremonies. They especially thought the women’s basket dance was really exciting,” he explains. “I look at Hopi culture as being a little more untouched,” Marian adds admiringly. “And they got to try some of our foods,” Steve continues, “like our piki bread and other blue-corn dishes. Our daughter Nizhoni learned basketweaving from her Hopi grandmother. They know their Hopi cousins and other relatives.”

“Because we’re both artists,” Marian says, “working at home, we could be more available to our kids growing up.” Steve continues, “Our studio in Arizona was just 20 steps from the house, so we could watch them jump on the trampoline while we worked.” The family continued traveling back to New Mexico to visit Tewa relatives and to compete in Indian Market every year. Once Cree, their youngest, graduated from high school four years ago, Marian was ready to leave Flagstaff. “I couldn’t make anything grow there—it’s too cold.” They were deliberating between the Big Island in Hawaii and Tucson, Marian says, “when my mom got wind we were moving. She said, ‘No, no, no, I’ll give you my house and the land—I can’t do this anymore!’” Steve adds, “Marian’s mom was already getting elderly. She hadn’t planted in five years, the house was in disarray—so we moved back.”    Continue reading

Hispano Homesteaders of Las Golondrinas

2015 Golondrinas Spring Festival

2015 Golondrinas Spring Festival

Welcome to El Rancho de las Golondrinas, where a journey through time takes you back to New Mexico’s Spanish Colonial and Territorial eras, revealing what life was like during the 18th and 19th centuries for Hispano homesteaders. You’ll meet farmers and millers, bakers and blacksmiths, along with spinners, sheep shearers, weavers, carpinteros and candle makers, all happy to demonstrate their work and wares as you stroll past and through historic buildings.

Learn how to string chiles for ristras, craft candles from bees wax, and card, spin and dye wool for weaving. Watch a blacksmith demonstrate the art of making nails, and a miller grind grain. Explore a farm filled with corn, beans and squash—or the “The Three Sisters,” as the Puebloans call them, because they help each other grow. You can also learn to grind corn and how to make tortillas and calabicitas, a dish that would have been on many kitchen tables back in the days.

Occupying 200 acres in a fertile farming valley, El Rancho de Las Golondrinas, or “Ranch of the Swallows,” preserves the heritage of Hispano homesteaders as a living historical farm, providing a bridge that links the past with the present. The site itself  dates to the early 1700s, when it served as a pajarete, or “resting place,” for weary travelers on El Camino Real, The Royal Road, connecting Mexico to Santa Fe. With its tall grasses and water, this oasis was the final stop before Santa Fe, and a welcome site for all, including New Mexico Governor Juan Bautista de Anza, who camped here with a military expedition of 150 men searching for a route into in Mexico in 1778. Today, descendants of the original Spanish settlers still live in the area. Continue reading

The Joy of Urban Homesteading

LL_19 - Robins NaturalsThe conventional interpretation of this fable is premised on the basic assumption that we can either be city mice or we can be country mice, but we can’t be both. Even the great agrarian philosopher Wendell Berry suggests that we can either live an industrial lifestyle in the city or an agrarian lifestyle in the country and writes at great length about why we should choose the latter. I love Berry, but taken at face value, even I must admit that the moral of his story, though inspirational and compelling is, like Aesop’s fable, a little too either/or, not quite both/and enough to revolutionize (or devolutionize) the industrial lifestyles of most modern city dwellers. If forced to choose, the majority would probably continue being city mice.

 Urban homesteading, however, offers a dynamic counterpoint to this basic assumption by demonstrating that city life in the 21st century can be essentially agrarian in character, while country life has, in many cases, become increasingly industrialized. I was recently invited to visit the city home of two quiet country mice, Robin and Tom Day. When I arrive, Robin pours me a little glass of golden homemade ginger beer––packed full of good microbes, she explains. Tom slides several old black-and-white photographs of the house (standing alone on a chamisa-and-cactus-speckled plain) across the kitchen table, and they begin telling a story about passion, bliss and geeking out. Continue reading