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.
It used to be that if you left your big-city corporate job, moved your family to a small town in New Hampshire, did some soul-searching behind the wheel of a camper van, and opted to spend your days doing what you really loved from the basement of your house, you were most likely a 55-year-old man having a mid-life crisis. Twenty-seven-year-old RISD grad Tim Liles — who followed that exact trajectory after quitting a footwear-design job at Converse last fall — understands this perfectly well: "My girlfriend is a couple years younger and her friends don’t get it, they all live in Chicago and think we're just confused," he says, speaking to me from week five of the couple's two-month cross-country vision quest. "But in traveling around the country, I’ve met a lot of people my age who have quit a salaried job in search of something simpler."
To any reader who went to design school and is, years later, still making student loan payments month after month, you might want to close your eyes for this one: Rodrigo Almeida — the 34-year-old Brazilian furniture designer who's pals with the Campana brothers, has been featured in Wallpaper, and has made pieces for top galleries like Contrasts and FAT — didn't go to university, not even as an undergrad. What you're looking at here is raw talent, and a career that began when Almeida simply picked up the Brazilian magazine Arc Design six years ago and thought, "I want to do that."
As the youngest child of a Parisian architect — with three older brothers working in the same field — Victoria Wilmotte had one thing going for her when she started studying furniture design at London's RCA four years ago. But she also had a few handicaps: she was only 20 years old, she had just been rejected from Paris's ENSCI school, and her professor at RCA, Jurgen Bey, couldn't comprehend her strange working methods. Obsessed with materials and surfaces, she wanted to spend all her time in the workshop, skipping the thinking and brainstorming part and going directly to prototyping. "Jurgen Bey was really into concepts," says Wilmotte, now 24. "He was more about a table telling stories, but I only wanted to talk technically. He basically said, 'I don’t understand you. But continue.'"