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Preserving cultural fabric

Richard Nelson describes one of the pieces from his exhibit now on display at the R.H. Stafford Library. Bulletin photo by Mike Longaecker1 / 3
A Guatemalan woman demonstrates the back-strap weaving technique in this photo shot by Richard Nelson. Several of his photos are on display at the library through April.2 / 3
Guatemalan village leaders in Chi-Chi Castenango walk through a market wearing traditional tzute head pieces in this photo shot by Richard Nelson, who has an art exhibit on display now at the library.3 / 3

The vibrant culture Richard E. Nelson first experienced in the mountains of Guatemala is beginning to fade.

Cell phones and the Internet have infiltrated the remote indigenous cultures that grabbed his attention in the 1970s, where he was drawn to the villagers' painstaking process of weaving colorful garments.

"In the modern world, they're going away," Nelson, a White Bear Lake resident, said of the colorful, complex textiles woven by Guatemala's indigenous people. "All this cultural information is disappearing."

Nelson is attempting to keep the ancient Mayan art of back-strap weaving alive through exhibits like the one on display now through April at Woodbury's R.H. Stafford Library.

The exhibit comprises many examples of the Mayan textiles Nelson has been collecting and studying since he was a college student. Also on display are photos Nelson has snapped over the years of indigenous people during trips to Guatemala and Mexico.

"I want to make it super educational," he said of the exhibit, displayed throughout the library.

Stafford library Director Chad Lubbers said Nelson's exhibit plays to the library's greater effort to be known as more than a place to check out books.

"We're more concerned with making a library what it can be - a community center," Lubbers said.

He said Nelson's exhibit offers patrons lots to feast on.

"It just has such a neat mixed-medium feel to it," Lubbers said.

Trip of a lifetime

Nelson made his foray into Maya country with a purpose understandable to most Minnesotans: as an escape from another long, cold winter.

But as he explored Mexico on his inaugural trip in the early 70s, he watched as indigenous people came down from the mountains clad in bright, colorful clothes.

"That just caught my eye," Nelson said.

From that point on, he became fascinated with the textiles that comprised the clothes and was determined to learn more. When he returned to the States, Nelson was told he had only gotten a taste of the Mayan culture.

"People said, 'Go to Guatemala if you really want to explore textiles,'" he said.

So he did. Over the next several years, Nelson made trips to the Central American country, immersing himself in the culture and learning even more about the fabrics that attracted him.

He spent time around the weavers, who passed on their craft to him - a rarity, he said, in a culture where only women performed the weaving.

The fascination lies in the creations themselves, Nelson said.

The textiles - and how they are adorned - can relate many things: marital status, culture, heritage, mythology, social status among them.

"The multiple layers of meaning on this cloth became more and more evident," he said.

Nelson, who now leads yearly educational trips to Guatemala, said he has reached the point where he can decipher the imagery and symbology woven into the fabric.

"That's what I really enjoy when I go there," he said.

The exhibit documents his travels, including photography from villages in Guatemala and Mexico.

All of the garments exhibited at the library - part of his extensive personal collection - have been worn by Mayans. Some are more than 100 years old, Nelson said.

The exhibits are arranged by geographic regions, which reflect differences in design and artistic flourish.

Nelson said it's critical to preserve what's been since commercialism has swept through those regions over the past four decades. The textiles are still produced there, but more as a cottage industry these days.

"They've adapted weaving to modern tastes," he said.

Nelson's exhibit is on display through April at the R.H. Stafford Library. He will also lecture and lead a tour of the exhibit from 2 to 3 p.m. March 26.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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