Ties that Bind: Paulina Ortiz
“Labyrinths I can knit with my naked hands,” is how the Costa Rican artist Paulina Ortiz describes her work. Ortiz belongs to a community of artists often overlooked in discussion of contemporary textile practice in Britain. When we think of Central and South American textiles we tend to remember the remarkably intricate constructions of the past. One basic reason for this could be the language barrier. Another is potentially distance, although the Internet makes that a poor excuse today. The magical gold weavings of Columbian artist Olga de Amaral or Chilean Cecilia Vicuña’s poetic explorations of text and textile are familiar to some. But the list, particularly of Central American artists, is limited. Ortiz has spent much of the past two decades working to change this, not only constructing material labyrinths within her own work, but also enabling networks of communication between Central and South American artists. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the two undertakings share striking similarities.
Ortiz graduated from the California College of Arts and Crafts [now the California College of the Arts] with a BFA in 1982. By the mid-1980s she was working as a design consultant for Aid to Artisans Costa Rica and involved in preliminary work to create a textile department at the University of Costa Rica. Alongside the development of her own practice, the ensuing decades have found her tackling increasingly public roles with an aim to linking and improving networks between the textile artists of the region. In 2004 and 2006 she represented Latin American as Coordinator of the Third and Fourth International Biennials of the Organization of Women in Textile Art held in Venezuela and Costa Rica. Currently, she is President of the Iberoamericana Textile Network, which aims to promote communication between individuals interested in textile culture around the globe through conferences, seminars and workshops.
These public roles are evidence of the importance Ortiz places on networks and connections, key visual elements also evident in her own practice. Historians Elaine Hedges and Ingrid Wendt note, “For women, the meaning of sewing and knotting is ‘connecting’ – connecting the parts of one’s life, and connecting to other women – creating a sense of community and wholeness”. In practice, Ortiz creates just this: she knots and weaves connections. Her work uses plant fibres and often takes on organic forms, suggesting natural growths and groupings from a landscape we have yet to visit. Much of this work is large in scale with installations and wall hangings often enveloping the maker and viewer. Working predominately with locally sourced materials, she uses acrylic paint and feathers to create a palette reminiscent of the strong light and vibrant colours found in many of the textile traditions of Central American.
Weaving and knotting with her bare hands, the industrialisation of textile production plays no part in her current practice. She explains that while technology was available during her studies in America to “express myself in the language of the big metropolis…. something inside me remained empty.” She describes a “need to go back to the land…. back to communicating with archetypal materials.” “My expression,” she concluded, “had to keep the scent of the forest, its textures, its sensations, its noises…. all these contours which, by vocation, is still intact inside me.” Today her work seems bent on returning to something fundamental, something innate that drives us to collect and connect. Art Historian Lucy Lippard quotes Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuña as observing that weaving must have originated with “women trying to make nests, imitating the birds”. Ortiz shares in this history, a response to an instinctive need to collect and bind materials together.
Ortiz likens her working process to a ritual that begins with the collection of materials, followed by carding, dyeing, painting and concluding with installation of her work in a public space. The Cabuya plant, which grows in the mountains of San Cristóbal in Costa Rica, is her primary material. She explains, “First class Cabuya is a material that, once it has been dried, is not broken or burst; it is more than a meter long and it reflects natural light. In order to process the Cabuya, the workers cut the leaves from the base during the dry season. They pass the leaves through the rasp to obtain the fibres and tear them off from the layers of ‘meat’ or cellulose. Then they are placed over ‘mecates’ to dry in free air and the leaves are stored for a future sale.” From these long fibres, Ortiz separates bundles that are carded and twisted with the help of acid-free glue into strands that are later painted. While references to natural growth are apparent throughout her work, these creations do not always feel peaceful. At times their strands feel charged with kinetic energy, coiled and ready to spring free. In fact the tied, knotted and painted networks that result look to be hybrid: half the work of nature and half that of human hands.
Professor Miranda Bruce-Mitford observes that, “The selection of the thread as a leitmotiv in Paulina Ortiz is not by chance. For western imagery it represents the umbilical cord between heaven and earth. The string is synonymous with hindrance and captivity but also the possibility of life; it is the symbol of human destiny.” This valid observation is applicable to much work made with textile materials today. But there are moments when Ortiz’s creations also feel connected to traditions as removed from Central American folklore to the East as the fates and their weaving are in the West. Contemporary Japanese textile art comes to mind. Scale, for one, is shared as well as a desire to be engulfed by an installation. But there is also an attention to immediate experience, finding meaning through a direct emotional response to materials. As a result, emotional currency rather than conceptual strategies prevail. When approached in this way, we are reminded that language poses no barrier at all.
Dr Jessica Hemmings is Associate Director of the Centre for Visual and Cultural Studies at the Edinburgh College of Art
Embroidery magazine (Jan./Feb. 2009: 32-35)