Martha Clippinger and her project Xchang (english version)

Photo of the process of making "Xigie" 

I met Martha Clippinger in 2008 in a bus to the Fundación Colección Jumex, when they had only gallery in Ecatepec, State of México. There was a time that my friends and i, used to go to see the exhibits every holiday so we can see each other again and then enjoy free juice at the end. 

Martha is an artist, when i met her she was living in New York and beautifully had a small gallery in the basement call "The Dirty Dirty". 

After 7 year we are still in communication and i was very glad when she told me, she was coming to study natural dyes in Oaxaca. Martha wrote a blog Dyeing to tell you while she was living/knowing this state of México, not only about their learning of the dyes but about the context that she explored and the collaboration she had with the project "Las Hormigas Bordadoras".

In Latin América is becoming more often to see designers/artists working with artisans, are often unfair and they end up falling in a system maquila craft, others do their best to be fair and create a true collaboration. 

While Martha was in Oaxaca she create the Xigie project with two weavers from Teotitlán del Valle. The purpose of this interview, long but interesting, is to know her way of working with textiles and how she create this project. 

¡Gracias Martha! 

Photo: Martha Clippinger

  • What are you doing now and where you live?
I recently moved into a house in Durham, North Carolina and have been setting up my studio. I’ve been rather nomadic the past few years, so it’s nice to pull materials out of their boxes and get back to working on new paintings and sculptures.

I’m also creating a website that will feature my collaboration with weavers Licha Gonzales Ruiz and Agustin Contreras Lopez. 

  • Which is your interest about textiles?
I’m interested in the universality and the ancient history of textiles. Textiles provide us with the essential need of shelter, so we all have a relationship to them, and while technology has expanded the field of fibers, the basic structure of the woven plane has remained unchanged.

As an artist, I work with color and geometry, so textiles have always captivated me. My interest in Mexican textiles lies in their geometries, their colors, and in their ability to identify different groups of people through distinct patterns and forms.

In a way, I grew up with textiles. My father was a shirt salesman and so we always had samples of fabrics, mostly solids, stripes, and plaids. Also, my great-grandmother was a quilter, so grew up around the wonderful patterns that she had created from scraps of fabric.

I am from Columbus, Georgia, a city that was once a booming textile industry. My ancestors worked in the cotton mills, but now, all the mills have closed. The time I spent in Mexico allowed me to learn about ancient textile traditions, from dyeing wool with natural dyes to weaving with a backstrap loom. 

  • When you decide to work with textiles and make them part of your creative process?
When I was 16, I made my first quilt, out of my father’s shirt samples. I’ve always been interested in color combinations and how patterns interact. The process of creating that quilt later informed my paintings. Since that time, I have made sewn paintings, and I have incorporated bits of fabric into my sculptures. Almost all of the fabric I use is recycled, and practically all of it is machine made. After months of living in Oaxaca, I believe hand-woven textiles will play a much larger part in my work.

  • For you, what is textiles bring to your art?
In the past, when I have worked with fabric, I have thought about it as “found color”, meaning it is not a color that I mixed with paint on a palette. From afar, the fabric bits read as painted surfaces, but when you are up close you see its woven texture. In Oaxaca, natural dyes introduced me to new concepts of color and weaving enhanced my relationship to “the grid”.

When textiles are separate from any support (say a sculpture or a canvas stretcher)  I like their pliable nature. I've made flags in the past and love how the fabric moves in the wind. In all of my works, color and geometry are at play. I found the woolen texture of the tapetes softens my hard-edged designs and the hand-dyed wool created saturated colors. 

Also, my sculptures exist in a variety of architectural settings, and the tapetes do the same. I love their versatility, that they can live on the wall or the floor.

Bixui by Martha Clippinger, Licha Gonzáles y Agustín Contreras

  • How was the transition from sculpture-painting to a fabric that someone else weaving?
It was an adventure. I have always worked alone, so the process became much more social, and I enjoyed the collaboration immensely. Licha is an incredibly generous person, so she taught me about the making of a tapete as she wove my design. I knew I would learn about her work through the process, but I was surprised to discover more about my work during the collaboration. My use of geometry and pattern is irregular, so I had to be very specific about how shapes might repeat but not exactly. Initially, I think Licha thought my drawings were “off” and so she would try to correct them by calculating the pattern and making it more regular. The more we worked together, the more we came to understand what each other was doing. I hope to be able to work with Licha and Agustin on many more creations!

  • How long you stay in Oaxaca and why you decide to create your project Xchang?
I lived in Oaxaca for almost nine months. Initially, I learned about natural dyes by taking a workshop at a cochineal farm, and I also attended numerous weaving classes at the Textile Museum, but it was a course in Zapotec that led me to produce tapetes. 

I was learning the dialect of Zapotec that is specific to Teotitlan del Valle. At the Sunday market in Tlacolula, I was practicing the language with weavers who were from Teotitlan. That is how I met Licha and Agustin. Weeks later I thought about how lovely their work was and that it could be interesting to have them translate one of my designs into wool. I began making gouache drawings as designs and the rest is history.

  • How was working with weavers? Which was your way to work with them?
I make paintings of each design, but I leave the weaving to the masters. The tapetes are an extension of my work in the studio. Color is essential to my work as an artist and the creation of tapetes made from dyed wool has given me the opportunity to explore a different approach to color and to form.

I prefer to be with Licha and Agustin when they are making the tapetes. By working alongside them, I have learned a great amount about the process of weaving on a pedal loom. I help where I can, spinning spools of yarn or sewing in the tapete's fringe, but they are the ones who know how to make the tapete flat and straight, and so it's best for them to do the weaving. I need lots more practice!

Photo: Martha Clippinger

  • How was your experience of living in Oaxaca?
The experience was magical. I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to spend an extended period of time in such a wonderful city. I am grateful for the friendships I developed while I was there, because those relationships introduced me to many villages and artisans. After living in New York for 13 years, it was refreshing to be in such a warm and welcoming environment. It's difficult for me to put into words how much the experience transformed me. I imagine it will come through my artwork for many years to come.

  • How was it working with weavers of a different context and nationality to yours? 
Working with weavers was an incredible way to learn more about their work but also their culture. Months after my Fulbright period ended, I returned to Oaxaca and stayed with Licha and her family. It was great to spend time with them in the workshop, and I felt honored to share meals, a birthday party, and the celebration of el Christo Negro with them and their padrinos.

In Mexico, there are many holidays that delay production and efficiency. There were times when my American impatience created frustration for me, but I soon realized that the celebrations of which I was being included were so much more important than any hasty production.

In the USA, there has been a resurgence in hand-made goods. People are learning crafts that have been fading away, but you won’t find towns where the majority of the residents continue to practice a craft that has existed, uninterrupted, since the 15th century. Working in Teotitlan surrounded me with modern families who continue to work in a textile trade that has been passed down from generation to generation.

Photo: Martha Clippinger

  • What did you learn living in Oaxaca that had not learned living in somewhere else? 
I learned more about indigenous languages. I had a wonderful instructor, Janet Chavez Santiago, at the Centro Cultural San Pablo. I was unaware of the immense variety of Zapotec dialects, so whenever I heard Zapotec spoken, I would ask where the person was from. If they were from Teotitlan, I had a chance of communicating a few phrases or words, but if they were from anywhere else, I was lost! It was a fascinating (and often comical) experience that I can only have in Oaxaca.  That being said, I recently tried having a conversation with a Zapotec man from Yalalag, here in Durham, North Carolina! I hope that Mexicans will take pride in their linguistic heritage and not let maternal or indigenous languages disappear.

  • What do you think Xigie project brings to the art and to the artists/designers that work with artisans?
I hope that artists who decide to work with artisans will use their "commissions" as opportunities to learn about the makers, their craft, and their culture. Many artists hire weavers to reproduce their artwork in wool without ever visiting the weaver or the workshop. I feel incredibly fortunate that I had the opportunity to develop a relationship with Licha and Agustin and their family during the process of weaving my designs. I want to create more tapetes in the future, because I believe that all of us benefit from the exchange.

Photo: Martha Clippinger

Collaboration for MadejándoLA: Martha Clippinger and Axóchitl Nicté-Há