Walk in the Catto Center at Toklat in the Castle Creek valley near Aspen, and you’ll see colorful weavings lining every wall and stacked in tall piles in every corner. Artist-in-residence Elena Gonzales Ruiz has been bringing her traditional textiles from Mexico to Toklat for the past thirty years.
Elena Gonzales Ruiz is using a mortar and pestle to grind natural materials like tarragon, pomegranate skin and even cochinilla, the dried bodies of small insects.
"When it’s really fine, we have a big pot of boiling water and we add some of the powder and wait ten minutes," she said.
If she likes the color, she’ll stir in coils of gray or white yarn and let them boil for hours.
Ruiz is warm and welcoming as she greets visitors. She answers questions about the colorful rugs, or tapetes. Each item is tagged with the name of the weaver from Ruiz’s village in southern Mexico who made it. Their craft has been passed down from generation to generation since the 1400s.
Ruiz’s nephew Porfirio stands at a loom the size of a small piano. He’s using two pedals by his feet and the loom’s enormous arm to weave colorful yarn into a rug.
"We call the design 'mountain,'" he said. "Now, we need to use a little comb to fill these parts."
Ruiz says the images on the rugs of mountains, stars, rain and clouds are all significant in her culture.
"This butterfly means happiness, and, also, when somebody dies, their body won’t be here anymore, but their soul turns into butterflies," she says, gesturing at one of the tapetes.
Some of the more detailed rugs can take a year and a half to finish.
Toklat’s founder, Stuart Mace, happened upon Ruiz’s village in the 1980s as he traveled in search of handmade goods to sell at the gallery. Ruiz was among the first of the weavers Mace brought to Castle Creek.
She says it was an adventure for a twenty-two year old who didn’t speak English and hadn’t ever left her town.
"From home straight to here...it was a big change," she said.
Toklat has since been taken over by the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, or ACES, but she remained a constant.
Trevor Washko is an ACES naturalist and the property’s caretaker. He says people are often amazed when they walk into the remote, rustic gallery.
"A lot of people wander up this road not knowing what they’re going to find, and when they walk in here for the first time, they’re a little blown away," he said.
Ruiz comes back each summer to support her village by selling their weavings. But she also loves sharing her craft.
"We put our soul into each weaving. That’s our time, our thoughts, everything. It’s our life," she said.
She’s weaving that life and her culture into the Roaring Fork Valley, just like the threads in one of her tapetes.