Article Published by Rocky Mountain PBS
SAN LUIS VALLEY — An exhibit opening Thursday at the Arvada Center focuses on a traditional fiber art form brought to New Mexico and Southern Colorado by Spanish colonists — and still practiced today.
“Colcha Embroidery of the San Luis Valley” includes the work of 34 multi-generational artists from Colorado’s south-central counties and is on display through November 12.
Nine of the 47 colcha embroidery pieces were unearthed from storage this year within the Arvada Center’s collection.
They were previously thought to be missing after a 1982 fiber arts exhibition at the Arvada Center, “Artists of the San Luis Valley.” The 1982 exhibit featured colcha embroidery work from many of the region’s prominent working colcha embroidery artists and was organized in part by the Virginia Neal Blue Resource Center for Colorado Women, a Denver foundation that centered rural economic opportunity by attempting to create and bolster local cottage industries.
Artists and their families say they were not invited to the 1982 show, and in fact didn’t know it had taken place. In 1983, at least nine of the colcha embroidery works from the show were purchased by the Arvada Center from the Virginia Neal Blue group. Just this spring, Exhibition Manager and Associate Curator Emily Grace King happened to find a box containing the wrapped works.
Now on display, the nine pieces from the 1982 exhibition will be deaccessioned by the City of Arvada and returned to the artists and surviving family members, Arvada Center Director of Galleries and Curator Collin Parson and President and CEO Philip C. Sneed said in a meeting with artist representatives in July.
The Arvada Center has sales receipts totaling $280 for the nine works ranging from $15 to $90. It is unknown if the artists were paid. The Virginia Neal Blue group, responsible for selling the works, often did not return unsold art, compensate artists or provide records for institutions or collectors that purchased artworks, artists and their families say. Decades later, colcha embroidery artists and their descendants still wonder what happened to the other missing works and if they, too, could be found and returned alongside the Arvada Center’s collection.
Exhibit co-curator and Saguache colcha embroidery artist Adrienne Garbini has been instrumental in locating and recovering the lost works, and in communicating with families to connect the dots to return them.
The colcha embroidery artists in the 1980s exhibit “were not centered in the work, because they weren’t included. They weren’t invited,” Garbini said. “We’re hoping to open a new chapter with colcha embroidery artists and the Arvada Center.”
Garbini is still searching for other works created under the Virginia Neal Blue Foundation in association with its one-time director Blanche Cowperthwaite and project associate and photographer Kathryn Nelson of Denver. Garbini said other works may exist elsewhere in museums or personal collections within Colorado — or beyond. She is currently compiling a website of the missing pieces.
The loss or theft of artwork created mistrust and trauma in the community, Garbini acknowledged.
“It deflated some people to such a degree that they stopped entirely working in colcha embroidery, and there was a lot of hurt. There became the sense that they no longer wanted to participate in these types of outside programs,” she said. “The biggest issue was that it left a wake of trauma in Saguache.”
Still, many of these women and their descendants carry on the tradition, creating art work and practicing colcha embroidery in their communities today.
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