Peru: Textile Beginnings
Updated: Aug 5, 2020
SWIPE FOR PERU GALLERY
I felt pulled to visit the Amazon ever since I was a child, I'd done a project about deforestation in sixth grade, back in the 90’s when Rainforest conservation and FernGully were all the rage. Ten years ago my friend Marissa and I made it happen, a Peruvian adventure where an unexpected new path was forged.
During this time I had just quit my stable full-time position at an NYC photo agency right at the height of the recession. It was a risky move, but it felt like a gut punch I knew I needed to do, I had graduated with a degree in photography and dearly missed the creativity of being on set. One late night after my last day on the job I got the urge to look into international flights, curious if there was anything under $300 that could take me away and celebrate this new self-employed freedom. I had very little money saved and no clear work lined up, as I learned the hard way that photographers weren’t exactly looking for new assistants in a recession, particularly female. But I saw a miraculous flight from JFK to Lima for $240 round-trip. I called my best friend, she was easily on board, and bought two tickets. In hindsight that move seems irresponsible, but that impulse and innate knowing lead to my current studio practice.
We wanted this trip to have purpose. Marissa and I were both photographers, so we proposed a photo book project to The Rainforest Foundation, documenting the jungles stunning terrain, with all proceeds from book sales being donated to aid the Indigenous communities of the Amazon. The combination of our project’s purpose and connection to the foundation helped us to secure donated lodging throughout Peru, particularly the Tambopata Research Center, in the heart of the Amazon. It was through this deep generosity throughout the country that we fell in love with its people and varied lands. Deserts, beaches, jungles, and the incredible Andes.
We landed in Lima on a warm day in May, and headed to the dreamy cliff-side home of artist Victor Delfin in the Barranco, his daughter had turned it into a boutique hotel full of art and sculpture. There were architectural steps cascading down the cliffs to the pool, the Pacific Ocean reflecting sun into Mr. Delfin's painting studio. The art perched in every corner or by the sea view was inspiring, we felt lucky to be there. And especially fortunate to visit the studio while Mr. Delfin was painting, as his daughter would translate a brief history of his practice, which at 82 years old, had made him one of the most prolific artists in Peru. One piece that stood out was a large wood carving depicting the guerilla warfare of the Shining Path, which started in 1982, a period which left a dark mark on Peruvian life. It's something that hasn’t yet left my memory.
After exploring the city and a brief venture into legit ceviche (I’ll never see scallops the same way again), we headed east into the vast Peruvian Amazon. From the plane we watched the miles of treetops emerge and the Madre de Dios snake through. We arrived in steamy Puerto Maldonado, a charming ramshackle village connecting outsiders to the mystic jungle. We met our guide, a Brazilian named Fino, about our age, whose adventurous spirit matched our own. He knew the Amazon inside and out, the animals, the plants, and how they work together to create synchronicity. We met other travelers and took a boat a few hours down river, eating delicious pockets of rice and vegetables wrapped in biodegradable palm leaves, which we could toss into the river when done. Soon we came upon a jaguar sunning herself by the riverbank, not nearly as amused by us as we were of her! Later we arrived at a beautiful open-air eco-lodge with a thatched roof where we stayed one night, then the three of us continued on another 4 hours further down river to the Tambopata Research Center, our home and “studio” for the next week.
What stands out most in memory was the atmosphere and sounds of the Amazon. The howler monkeys, insects, macaws, all creating a soundtrack that stays in your bones. It was this jungle hum, a buzz, that was both inviting and intimidating. The howler monkeys sounded like wild monsters, their deep howl marking their territory for miles. The peccary, also known as a javelin, would run wild within the thick verdant floor, and thoughts of being chased by one of these beasts left me terrified! There were also the snakes, scorpions, strange alien-like insects in a rainbow of colors that you just don’t find in your American regional park. And the beautiful macaws who were a bit too friendly and had an appetite for pancakes. They would swoop down flapping their gorgeous wings and steal pancakes off our forks during breakfast.
My favorite time to shoot was at night in the pitch black. It was during these magical hours you walked a fine line between being adventurous and crazy. The creatures that came out at night were of another world. We got to see this secret environment revealed with trusty flashlights. A bright yellow boa constrictor I was assured wouldn't attack me, because he thought he was camouflaged. Wild frogs, serious bugs, all surrounded by that jungle hum and thick humid atmosphere (so humid it caused my medium-format film camera to fritz the whole time. Luckily the kitchen had rice to help absorb some moisture). With a machete wielding Fino as my guide, we cautiously trekked through the midnight jungle with flashlights and cameras in tow. Anytime I’d see a vignette I wanted to shoot, we’d set up the tripod, which doubled as a walking stick, and shoot long exposures using a single light source. I was intrigued by only exposing a lit fragment, while beyond that was pitch black. The wild hidden habitat of flora and fauna was left to mystery in those dark spaces.
On our daytime hikes we were graced by exotic butterflies, birds, and sweet monkey families. We’d swing on vines like Tarzan and learn about medicinal plants that indigenous tribes use to heal ailments. We would come upon majestic grandmother trees, ancient and massive, and learned how these trees would hollow out their insides by decomposing, feeding off their own fallen nutrients while leaving the outer shell so bats could create a new home. This kind of synchronicity of plants and animals fascinated me. It was in these moments with these mother trees we would really soak in the energy of where we were.
On our final night, after a week of jungle hikes, river swims, and evenings listening to the BeeGees at the lodge's bar while drinking Cusqueñas; Marissa had the brilliant idea of sharing our last dinner together with the entire staff of TRC, who we came to know and hold dear. We sat in long rows and shared a beautiful candlelit meal with everyone who made this adventure so special. We thanked them for welcoming us with kindness and warmth. Julio, the BeeGees loving bartender, turned to us and thanked us for inviting them all to share this meal, the staff had never eaten with guests before and it meant so much to them. Marissa and I reciprocated deep gratitude and tears.
The next morning we bid farewell to the Amazon and our new friends, and headed back to the tiny airport in Puerto Maldonado. We were headed towards the Sacred Valley, just below Cusco in the Andes Mountains. After losing my bank card in the airport's ATM machine, I sadly sucked it up, and we boarded for a harrowing flight to Cusco. We had never maneuvered so closely to mountains as massive as the Andes before. Once we landed we paid close attention to how our lungs felt and if we were acclimating to being 2 miles above sea level. Sadly we only got to spend a few minutes driving through Cusco, the oldest living city in the Americas, as we headed to Urubamba, a village in the Peruvian highlands with slightly lower elevation (and also a fun pronunciation). We thought it would be nice to stay in a fancy hotel after our week in the jungle, take a shower with hot water, indulge and refresh ourselves. Instead we walked around the stunning property feeling amiss. After seeing the communities along the rivers, children on motorbikes with no helmets or shoes, it was hard to be in such a rich environment. The Tambopata region may have lacked momentary wealth, but their hearts were big and welcoming. We didn’t feel that same warmth in this slick hotel. But we dumped our clothes into the bathtub and hand washed everything, embarrassed to let the staff smell our laundry! Then we climbed into our luxurious beds with high thread count sheets, missing our mosquito netted beds and the Amazonian atmosphere.
The next day we headed to K'uychi Rumi, a property with cozy adobe casitas outside the main part of town. Strolling through the gardens to our home for the next few days felt much more comfortable. Each casita had its own style and palette, while feeling distinctly Peruvian. Warm earth tones, a hearth, stunning textiles, and a welcoming bowl of coca leaves, illegal in the U.S. but a necessity in the Andes to stave altitude sickness.
It was in this casita that I saw an antique woven piece hanging on the wall, the lower end of it unraveling, and I became instantly intrigued. I couldn’t stop analyzing how it was made, dissecting what I now know to be warp and weft intersecting to become patterned cloth. With its age and unraveling I was able to discern its process of creation, and that was what soon propelled my own weaving practice. A beautiful old book on Peruvian textiles on the coffee table sealed the deal. I came to Peru a photographer, and left fascinated with a new medium.
We traveled to the small village of Pisac to take in their famous market, where local textiles in vibrant hues continued to inspire me. We collected mementos that I still hold dear, particularly a fiber piece with a motif of sprouting blooms and pre-Columbian style birds against a deep purple starry backdrop. It symbolized growth and security to me.
In between day trips we would visit the local market in Urubumba and buy fresh vegetables, pasta, anything our stomachs could handle at that point. The local food was delicious, but wrecked havoc on our insides. When we saw meat was stored on glass shelves in the sun, we knew our gut microbiome was not cut out for local Peruvian fare. Aside from a few meals in town, we would cook in our casita, with failed attempts to boil water since we were at such a high altitude. But we made it work and sustained ourselves on massive Peruvian avocados and fresh juices from our favorite lady in the market.
We woke up before dawn one morning and took a ride to Ollantaytambo, to catch the train to Machu Picchu. We rode a few hours through the mystical high jungle, Selva Alta, sipping coca tea to beat the spins, being in complete awe of the misty exotic flora. We arrived in Aguas Calientes, the town just below the site, the first train of tourists to arrive. We entered a Macchu Pichu still covered in hazy clouds that hadn’t yet burnt off. It was unreal. We spent hours walking around the historic sanctuary, with lush grass, ancient stones, wild llamas. We watched the clouds burn off to reveal Huayna Picchu, the tallest peak, and acknowledged the true magic of the Incas for building this epic site.
We had ample time to kill in Aguas Calientes, as we had the last train back that night, the most affordable way. After debating renting a hotel room for a few hours to nap (we were that exhausted), we decided to head to the thermal baths at the top of the village, snuggled between two lush peaks. It turned out to be one of the most memorable experiences, a literal melting pot of people from around the world, simmering in warm spring water, all relaxing after a trek through the iconic ruins. Near the pools was a hippy bar perched on stilts, filled with dreamcatchers and Peruvian textiles. We met Donato, or Big Brother as the town liked to call him. He had long brown hair, shirtless, and spoke to us with a kind of Peruvian hippy slang that two native Californians could relate to. When our beers were low, all we had to do was wave to him and he’d bring down a couple more so we could stay pool bound. We soaked there for hours, taking in the sunset, and hearing the harmony of many languages being spoken at once. It was a long ride back home to Urubumba and we slept like waterlogged babies.
Our adventure was nearing its end, and all we wanted was a Snickers. It was a ravenous craving that neither of us had felt for a common American candy before. We were on a mission. We walked down an isolated dirt road remembering there was a tiny shop down the way, an adobe bodega if you will. We passed a woman with incredible long black hair parted down the center. She was glaring at us dead in the eyes, it felt like she lit our souls on fire, or like she cursed us. We both looked away quickly swearing we had just come across some mystic or bruja, those eyes are burned into memory. We hurried along and finally ducked in through the tiny door of the bodega. We met a sweet woman inside so thrilled to have us. She enthusiastically brought us to the side of her shop, confused and curious, we followed her till we saw the floor covered with hundreds of scattering guinea pigs, cuy, a Peruvian delicacy. She was so excited to share her bounty as we looked in horror, knowing their upcoming fate! Sitting there was a gentle looking older man with a beautiful wise face. We smiled and nodded at him figuring the language barrier would prevent good conversation. Then in perfect English, with what even sounded like a New York accent he said “hey...so where you guys from?” It was a funny and welcome surprise, we chatted with our new friend then headed back to K'uychi with Oreos. No Snickers, but it was the next best thing made of high fructose corn syrup.
Before we headed back to New York we wanted to experience the Salineras, the surreal salt mines near Maras that cascade down a canyon, each organic shaped pool encrusted with salt. They have been harvesting salt from these mines since the Incas. It was also suggested that we visit the Moray nearby, an otherworldly Incan ruin made of terraced circles, once used for irrigation. Our driver would practice Spanish with us as we drove through the beautiful rural lands, seeing local farmers and herds of fluffy sheep. We had our last night in our cozy casita, sipping tea by the fire, recalling our great adventure. The next day we walked through the beautiful K'Uychi garden for the last time and headed to the Cusco airport. While there we used up our last Peruvian coins to buy a Snickers. A satisfying way to head back to America.
It’s taken a long time to process this trip, between creating our book, Selva Fantasma, and an exhibition of our images. Once home my fascination with textiles continued. I'd see strangers wearing beautiful fabric, especially on the subway, and try to extract the woven pattern. I soon enrolled in a table loom weaving course at the Fashion Institute of Technology, where I learned the complicated process of warping a loom and how to weave basic patterns. I would go into the studio during open hours and experiment, pushing beyond what I was learning in class. Soon I had the idea to create handwoven jewelry. I first wove delicate chains into the fibers, adhering to the notion that jewelry had to be made of precious metals. I quickly ditched that paradigm and began to focus on jewelry solely made of fiber. It lit me up, and within a year I took part in an artist residency in Cappadocia, Turkey, which was another life changing experience. There I focused on weaving new jewelry pieces and patterns, and dyeing fabric for the villagers to wear as head scarves. When I returned home I was ready to find a studio space nearby in Brooklyn, and devoted myself to creating LESH Handwoven Jewelry, born out of following gut instincts, and late night fortuitous flight browsing.