Churro sheep and colcha embroidery are intimately bound to one another and the upper Rio Grande valley. Churro sheep—brought with Oñate to New Mexico in the late 17th century—are a sturdy breed that yield long, course fibers. Early Spanish inhabitants lived frugally, utilizing their livestock to the hilt, which included using the dense wool of their indispensable sheep for all sorts of applications, including woven fibers and threads. As Spanish colonies established themselves in New Mexico, colcha embroidery developed alongside them.
Modern colcha isn't locked into traditional patterns. Beauty is perceived differently by different generations and cultures. Annette Gutierrez Turk
Modern colcha isn't locked into traditional patterns. Beauty is perceived differently by different generations and cultures.
Annette Gutierrez Turk
Gutierrez Turk is petite, with intelligent eyes and capable hands that she uses to spin wool, weave the fabric on her loom, hand-dye her materials with native plant materials, design original patterns based on ancient motifs and, finally, sit down to embroider them. “I think it's important to stick to tradition. I enjoy the whole process,” she quickly replied when I asked her why she bothers with the whole, time-consuming practice. She paused before adding, “I'm a ninth generation New Mexican, it's part of my heritage.”
Colcha connects art, history, memory and the natural world with one another, creating a complex, tactile chronicle that unites the past with self-expression. “These are art forms developed by people who were not artists. Maybe they weren't pretty, but they were representative of their lives,” Gutierrez Turk said, and perhaps just as important she adds that this art form, used to add beauty to utilitarian items, “brought people joy.”
“There are many beautiful designs and patterns that you would never find anywhere but in old colcha pieces,” Gutierrez Turk explained. In her work, she embellishes on these traditional patterns to create something wholly original—perfectly exemplifying the ways in which colcha preserves cultural memory while making room for self-expression and an evolution of the craft. Gutierrez Turk finds inspiration for her work everywhere. “It’s all free form,” she laughed, “I’m inspired by everything around me!” adding that, as she searches for patterns in the world, she has become more aware and appreciative of her surroundings. “It has always … expressed what’s in the heart,” Gutierrez Turk said when speaking of her own work, “I like teaching that, passing that on.”
Gutierrez Turk provides basic instruction and guidance in colcha at the monthly colcha stitch-a-long at the National Hispanic Cultural Center where the group “does an awful lot of talking,” too. For more information on these meet-ups, check the National Hispanic Cultural Center’s (1701 Fourth Street SW) online calendar.