Studio Visit
Tanya Aguiñiga, Textile and Furniture Designer

Los Angeles designer Tanya Aguiñiga already had two studios when she took up a third this summer: the first in the backyard of the Atwater Village bungalow she shares with her husband and two sisters, and the second six blocks away, in a converted industrial-park-turned-artists’-community near the train tracks. But in early July, Aguiñiga picked up and moved her shop 2,000 miles south to the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico, for a five-week residency — the first in a project she calls Artists Helping Artisans. “I had gone to Oaxaca and Chiapas in 2007, and there was so much amazing stuff being produced by the women there,” she says. “People aren’t aware of it because the skills aren’t being passed down anymore and because people are scared to travel within Mexico. There’s isn’t enough tourism or income to sustain these crafts.” When MACLA, the museum of Latin American art in San Jose, asked Aguiñiga to be a part of their current Zero1 biennial, she knew she could either throw together a retrospective of recent work or create something that would allow her to collaborate with and promote the work of the Mexican women. After raising more than $8,000 in a funding drive, Aguiñiga took off with an assistant and photographer in tow, eager to see what would happen.

This was hardly Aguiñiga’s first residency. She once spent a month with a whaling family in Alaska, learning how to sew salmon skin and walrus stomach, and during her furniture-design studies at RISD, she worked with African-American women in Delaware, using hair-braiding techniques to upholster chairs. “I try to do projects where I’m involving sectors of the community that aren’t necessarily represented in art,” she says.

Nor was it her first time working with Mexican artisans. Raised in Tijuana, Aguiñiga spent her childhood crossing the border every day to attend school in San Diego. “You grow up seeing how huge the difference is between one side and the other,” she says. “Before they really fortified the border zone in the ’80s, there would be thousands of people trying to cross every day, and on the way home I’d see migrants who would get run over and we’d have to stop and close our eyes. I thought if I could ever do something to help people in Mexico through my work, I should do it.” When she was 18, Aguiñiga began working with the Border Art Workshop, using art as a vehicle for community empowerment. “For six years, I built and ran a community center down in Tijuana, run by women in a building made out of trash from the United States.”

Heading down to Chiapas, she says, “I knew that the work was mainly textile-based, that they made these awesome little animals, and that they hand-wove all of their own fabric and made their own yarn. But I wasn’t really sure what was going to come out of it.” They went from town to town “almost talent scouting,” as Aguiñiga puts it, trying to figure out which families would be interested in participating and able to keep in touch after the team returned to Los Angeles. “Some people were friendly, and some were like, ‘Oh, you’re just a gigantic white girl,’” she says. “But the ones we ended up working with were super welcoming. The family who taught us how to weave, the first time we went to their house to look at the work, they made us food and gave us the traditional Mayan alcoholic drink. We were hanging out with them and eating, and they asked if we wanted to try on a traditional outfit — every town wears a different one, almost like a uniform. The women in Chamula wear these really fuzzy wool skirts, and they say they get cold without them. It’s a really special place.”

I visited Aguiñiga’s Los Angeles studio last month, and what follows is a series of photos documenting her summer studio south of the border, as well as my own images of her Los Angeles workspaces and more about the story of what Artists Helping Artisans has come to be.


In Chiapas, Aguiñiga spent her days working with two families on pieces bound for the biennial, and sharing techniques and traditions. “This is one of Marta’s boys. She's a master embroiderer who collaborated with me,” says Aguiñiga. “This was after we washed raw wool for a felting class I was giving their family. I was so surprised that nobody felts there, given there are so many sheep!”


“This is Rosa and me. She lives in Zinacantan and graciously agreed to teach me backstrap weaving, and afterwards she ended up giving me her loom. You can buy packages of pre-made sticks, but she just uses twigs and a belt, tied to a tree. I’m going to do a one-week workshop in San Jose teaching people how to do backstrap weaving, which is something almost nobody does — especially in the U.S.”


When Aguiñiga first visited the region back in 2007, she returned home with a backpack stuffed full of these tiny one-of-a-kind wool animals. The ones here were made by Adelina, a Chamulan artisan who sells her wares in San Cristobal — the biggest city in the region — in the Santo Domingo Market. “She made lots of the animals I brought back to exhibit, as well as some custom-made fabric to be used as upholstery.”


A tiny chapel on the side of the road Aguiñiga spotted on the way to the master-weaving village of San Andres.


“On Saturdays, we would do day trips to different places,” says Aguiñiga. “Part of the project was about promoting tourism to the region by showing the cultural landmarks, the ruins, and what different towns were about. This is the cemetery in El Romerillo. It’s an ancient burial ground with Mayan crosses. The doors on top of the mounds are ways for people to communicate with the dead.”


“This is Micaela and her sister Maria. They live and sell their work in Chamula,” says Aguiñiga, who commissioned several dolls from Micaela to send as thank-you gifts to those who donated money to the project. Besides funding the trip, she says, “we were able to buy a lot of pieces to put in the exhibition to showcase artisans’ existing work. It was amazing, you give them the equivalent of $25, and it’s like you made their whole month.”


Another Rosa, with her daughter Ruth. “They collaborated with us on some embroidery projects,” says Aguiñiga. The reason some of the traditional crafts aren’t being passed on, she explains, is that as villages become more Westernized, the daughters become less interested in learning hard-core weaving techniques.


“They’ll learn really simple things they can use to make money,” Aguiñiga told me back in Los Angeles. “But for example, these figures on my shirt aren’t embroidered, they’re done on a loom, embedded in the warp. Rosa hasn’t taught her daughter that yet, because she’s just not that interested.”


Adelina’s animals await exhibition in Tanya’s second studio. “This is where we can make tons of noise, 24 hours a day. There are silk-screening workshops, and the neighbors do mount-making for sculptural museum pieces.”


For the show, Aguiñiga created stools inspired by the animals' legs. The upper upholstery was custom-made by a Zapatista Women’s Weaving Collaborative. “It’s this tiny community, and to go into it, you have to be interviewed by a masked guard and go through an hour-and-a-half of interrogation. They have to make sure you’re not trying to bring badness into the Zapatista community,” says Aguiñiga.

felted wool

The undersides of the stools were made from these felt panels.


The finished stools, installed at MACLA this month.


A scarf Aguiñiga wove on the backstrap loom with Rosa from Zinacantan.


Besides prepping for the biennial, Aguiñiga’s studio seemed to be working on a million projects at once. When I visited, she had just been commissioned by Wright Gallery in Chicago to create a series of Felt Chairs, the project that shot her to stardom at 2007’s Design Miami/Basel fair.


Each chair takes about a pound of wool to complete.


The finished chairs. “In the original project, the chairs were all beaten up, so it was nice to fancy them up. But Richard needs to have something consistent if people want to buy a whole set, so these chairs are brand new. I still have a back stock of vintage ones, though, and if I see a cool folding chair, I’ll buy it.”


Back at the house, rope bracelets were steeping in dye on a heated stove, and RISD interns were out back fulfilling AHA thank-you gift shipments and washing the wool they’d brought back from Chiapas.

cleaned wool

“We’re washing and carding the wool to make into yarn, but the yarn they make down there is much cooler,” says Aguiñiga.


The sewing station in Aguiñiga’s home studio. “I started getting really into textiles when I moved to the East Coast for school,” she says. “I was really cold, so I started gravitating towards wool and warmer things. In a weird way, I felt lonely in Providence. It’s not like I didn’t have friends, but I was just missing the warmth of my culture and family. When I was an undergrad in San Diego, the pieces were more hard wood and clean lines, more about the form and the aesthetics. But when I moved to Providence, it became about context and what stories had informed my objects.”

heating rope

At the same time, so much of Aguiñiga’s output was wool-based that she decided she needed to have something summery in her back pocket. “I got a bunch of ’70s knotting and sailing books and started experimenting.” The resulting bracelets are steeped in heated dye for 30 minutes and then rinsed.


The bracelets are knotted around plastic water bottles and the ends tucked in and sealed. “I love the weight of it because it’s so fat but still really light.”


Adjustable rope necklaces made of hand-dyed cotton.


Yarns for Aguiñiga’s Soft Rocks series of seats made from upholstery-foam scraps wrapped in wool strands.


“These are Japanese inks for a printmaking machine. They stopped making screens for it in the U.S., so now I’m stuck with these really pretty boxes.”


“I thought being in Chiapas was going to be easy because I speak Spanish and they speak Spanish. But it’s a Mayan dialect, and there were a lot of language barriers. I was trying to get baskets made to sell with Commune, and I asked if we could do one with black string. When I went to pick it up, they’d made it rainbow colored. There was a lot I didn’t foresee happening.”


“I don’t understand why more people don’t go down there, though. We went to this clay village where they had weird things like a transvestite bunny and this thing, which is like half-owl half-jaguar. People still think there’s too much going on with the Zapatistas, and it’s a shame.”


“It’s really a great place. Still so indigenous, and so different from the rest of Mexico that people there don’t really consider themselves part of it. One of the women was like, ‘Is it true that in Mexico they don’t eat tortillas?’ We shared our cultures: They taught us how to roast coffee, and we cooked them an Asian stir-fry. It was pretty amazing.”