STILLWATER — Local photogapher Richard Nelson has spent the last 36 years making portraits and collecting textiles in some of the most remote areas of the tiny Central American country of Guatemela.
Now, he has installed an exhibit of Mayan textiles and photographs at the Stillwater Library that will be on display through December. An artist’s reception will be held from 2 to 5 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 4.
The 1969 graduate of White Bear High School first visited Guatemala in 1975 through a University of Minnesota Fine Arts program. He was immediately attracted to the colorful and detailed blankets, shirts and dresses woven by the Guatemalan people.
“All of a sudden I was way interested in textiles — the incredible quality that you see,” he said. “The way it’s done on the ancient looms, there was something that attracted me to it right away. I just fell in love with it, particularly the Mayan culture and indigenous culture that is so prevalent down there.”
He found himself traveling to Guatemala virtually every year, staying in villages and with host families for extended periods of time. He traveled to remote corners of the country, experienced a devastating 1976 earthquake and witnessed the effects of a decades-old civil war.
Through it all he focused his camera and his interest on the Guatemalan people and their weaving traditions. He even went so far as to learn backstrap weaving, a time-consuming technique done exclusively by women.
The locals could not believe a man wanted to learn how to weave, said Nelson. But he gained a keen eye for meaningful, quality work and has amassed a collection of 700 textile pieces, much of it from the early 20th century.
In 2005, Nelson was curator for a show featuring his textile collection at the Goldstein Museum of Design on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus.
The Stillwater show is similar as it documents the weaving process through photos, textiles and even a basic loom.
Years ago, Nelson would spend days with a weaver or live with families for weeks. The time he spent with his subjects produced intimate photos that document the culture and style of Guatemala over a generation.
The photos Nelson took in 1978 look remarkably similar to photos he took in 2008.
“The indigenous cultures have not been westernized, much of it remains intact,” said Nelson. “In some cases, people have moved to the mountains and have been left alone. Their crafts and language have not changed for centuries.”
Nelson has always been attracted to the arts. He initially wanted to be a painter, but when his mother — a pretty good amateur photographer herself — gave him a camera as a youth it opened a whole new world. He credits a strong White Bear High School art program for nurturing his interest and leading him to study the arts at the University of Minnesota. He graduated from the College of Human Ecology in 1985.
Nelson has worked full time as a photographic stylist for a variety of Twin Cities department stores and has freelanced for Target and Fingerhut. He also has led tours of Guatemala for local groups.
His travels in Guatemala recently brought him back to a village that served as his home base many years ago. The people remembered him.
“I was the crazy guy that learned how to weave,” he said. “I just love the place, the people, the physical beauty of the country, the purity of their culture. I still get mesmerized in the markets. It’s just a blur of color and sound. It’s mesmerizing to me.”
Editor’s note: Portions of this story were published in the White Bear Press in October of 2009.