“I have a tendency to do many things at the same time,” laughs Coco Esteve, as she stands in the middle of her busy, at-home art studio in Urubamba. A native of Alcoy, Spain, Coco was a painter and photographer in an earlier chapter of her life. Currently, she practices stick-and-poke tattoo, is quickly developing a steady hand with a tufting gun, and offers creative courses that combine her pedagogical knowledge with her artistic talents.
What drew us to visit her at her tucked-away country home, however, is her experimental hand embroidery— which has served as the connecting thread between the artist and a cooperative of women weavers in the Sacred Valley.
Not Your Grandmother’s Sewing
A 2014 graduate of Bellas Artes, Coco had not had much contact with textiles or sewing until she moved to Madrid to complete a Masters in Art Education.
“This [program] changed my mind about being an artist that produces pieces. I realized I wanted to continue on this path that was tied to pedagogy,” recalls Coco. “This was also the time when I started moving away from art that required space, such as painting or engravings, and was driven towards small-scale pieces that would be easy to take on my travels.”
It was during her initial years in the program that Coco’s grandmother passed away and she inherited her threads and needles. “That’s when it all started for me and I’ve just never really stopped,” she says, eyeing her various projects, finished as well as in-process. An early botanical-theme collection used traditional embroidery techniques; with time, needlepoint motifs inspired by inner-reflection told stories upon canvases of fabric, dried flowers and photographs.
Coco’s stitching workshops, offered online and in-person, use traditional and experimental techniques and often dive into thought-provoking themes of connection: the childhood as remembered through a present lens; the relation between the body and the environment.
“Unlike photography or painting, embroidery forces me to slow down. It’s an active meditation,” says Coco. “Oftentimes using symbols allows me to express something in a synthesized way that I simply don’t know how to do otherwise.” Her work ‘Symbology of the Inner Landscape’ comes to mind; a tacit expression of her observations and digestion of the pandemic.
When Coco arrived in the Sacred Valley in 2019, it was at the start of what was to be a grand Latin America journey, sustained by her art and education experience. But her three-month stay in this tranquil corner of southern Peru has turned into years, elongated initially by the pandemic and furthered by the connections she continues to make.
“The Valley seemed so small when I first arrived, but with time I realized that new people and new proposals for projects pop up all the time,” notes Coco. At the moment she is developing an educational area for Museo Alqa in Ollantaytambo, a venture that puts into practice the knowledge and skills she acquired in her Masters program.
Meanwhile, to feed her craving for creative exchanges, Coco visits a group of women weavers in the Pucamarca community of Chinchero on a near weekly basis. Braulia, the leader of the cooperative Pumaq Wasin Association, self-proclaims she is Coco’s ‘Peruvian mother,’ as she has taken the native of Spain under her wing to share her community’s weaving traditions— dying sheep and alpaca fiber with natural pigments, spinning said fiber into yarn, and using a backstrap loom for weaving. Coco, in turn, has enjoyed teaching the women her embroidery techniques, an uncommon skill in Braulia’s part of the Valley.
The women of the Pumaq Wasin Association and Coco speak a similar visual language of icons and symbols, one ancestral and the other contemporary. As the coordinator of Peru-based tours for the international travel experience company, Talleres Nomades, Coco has been able to promote interactive visits between the women of Pumaq Wasin and tourists. Travelers are able to partake in the weaving and natural dye sessions, contributing to the women’s effort to share and preserve their artisan traditions.
“There’s a big issue in Chinchero, which is that the younger generations are not so interested in continuing the cultural traditions— be it textile, agriculture—, especially now with the Chinchero airport project underway,” notes Coco. “And there is no one after the women of Pumaq Wasin to continue their art.”
A small shelf in the studio of Coco displays a collection of yarn in rich, earthen tones thanks to the careful hands of the Pumaq Wasin women. Just a few steps away, rug-like textiles adorned in abstract, mosaic patterns, have put the thicker of the yarns (typically sheep’s wool) to use— for what purpose is up to the consumer.
“These can be used as rugs or as wall art, even as a bench or seat cover,” says Coco, pointing to a few finished tapestries created by her latest toy, a tufting gun. Two have already been sold, one sent off to Barcelona and another to Switzerland.
While the hushed soundscape of hand embroidery disappears in the presence of the gun (emitting the hum of a power tool when in use), the focus on developing personal imagery remains. As she stands in front of a newly started tapestry, Coco tells that one of her tufting creations was inspired by recurring yet unremembered dreams; another of quotidian life. The narrative we walk away with after our visit is the artist’s ability to weave together her past and present as she advances into the future with a curiosity to learn and an openness to share.
Follow Coco on Instagram: Coco Esteve Lab – Tufting Goods
All photos: Alvaro Balcazar