Weaving, unlike embroidery and lace making, did not suffer a decline in the twentieth century. Until the WPA took on fabric arts, men were the traditional weavers of New Mexico’s jerga and Rio Grande blankets. Women embroidered cloth for table covers and coverlets or bedspreads in the house or altar cloths in the church. Along with lace making, colcha embroidery came to New Mexico with the first Spanish settlements and was an occupation for gentlewomen.
In an effort to train women and help them create income, the WPA and Federal Art Program developed a concept of community based art centers. These centers were housed in small places that were usually donated by the host town. New Mexico had centers in Gallup, Roswell, Melrose and Las Vegas, Costilla, and Taos among others. Along with other arts, hired artisans taught fabric arts to children and adults. The fabric arts were considered by WPA administrators as women’s work. As a result of this attitude, women became weavers and continue to do so in increasing numbers.
Melrose, where Estella García taught, is located between Ft. Sumner and Clovis. At the time, the town had a population of five hundred people and was the smallest town in the United States to have an arts center. García was hired to teach colcha embroidery. Her group of Anglo and Hispana students quickly developed a reputation for creating superior work. State and national officials praised their art. Their colcha embroidery was featured in numerous New Deal art exhibitions, including Bloomingdale’s Department store in New York City. Along with the quality of their work, they were prolific. They became known for doing large theater curtains that were installed at Melrose High School, Carrie Tingley Hospital, and the Albuquerque Playhouse. They also created wall hangings and seat and pillow covers. Most of their work has been lost, and Rita Rodríquez Chávez is the only identified class member. García, herself, is one of a few Hispanic women mentioned in the FAP documents. The absence of the identities of her students as well as the paucity of identified examples of their work from the New Deal era records attests to the administrative perception that the work of women textile arts was considered a craft, and not worthy of historical consideration as art. Nonetheless, the fact of their existence that refuses to disappear and a new generation of scholars have begun the necessary research to resurrect their names and art.
William Roth, Hispanic Crafts of the Southwest: An Exhibition Catalogue, (Colorado Springs: Taylor Museum of the Colorado Springs Arts Center, 1977).
Tey Marianna Nunn, Sin Nombre: Hispana and Hispano Artists of the New Deal Era, (Albuquerque; UNM Press, 2001).
Interview with Andrew Cecil, Curator at the Roswell Museum of Art.