NEA Arts Magazine

From Sheep to Shawl

New Mexico's Fiber Arts Trail Promotes Artists and Local Economy

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Woman in front of a blanket

Clara Sherman, recipient of the 2006 Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts, is one of the artists whose work is available at the historic Toadlena Trading Post on New Mexico Arts' Fiber Arts Trail. Photo by Claude Stephenson.

Spanning approximately 1,400 miles in three regions, New Mexico's Fiber Arts Trail highlights the work of the state's many fiber artists working in traditions such as weaving, basketry, and quilting. A project of New Mexico Arts (NMA), the state's arts council, the Fiber Arts Trail does double duty as an artist showcase and as a means for generating economic health and stability in the state's many rural areas. NMA Executive Director Loie Fecteau explained, "We're a very rural state and a poor state economically, but we're rich in cultural traditions from the Native-American and Hispanic cultures. What we're looking at is increasing income for the artists, and at the same time promoting the rural economy of New Mexico. Every time someone comes to a rural area because of our fiber artists they have to sleep somewhere, eat something, gas up their cars, so it really leads to the health and sustainability of our rural areas."

The Fiber Arts Trail boasts more than 250 artists at more than 60 sites. It was important to NMA that the trail be comprehensive, or from "sheep to shawl" as Fecteau puts it, so the trail includes both traditional and contemporary artists as well as providers of raw materials, such as sheep ranchers. She adds that cultural tourists usually want to experience rather than just see things, so many sites offer workshops and other learning opportunities for visitors.

NMA promotes the Fiber Arts Trail through a full-color guide listing descriptions, addresses, hours, and directions for each site. The guide also notes which sites offer supplies or classes, which are wheelchair accessible, and even cautions visitors when to check road conditions before visiting. But the publication is also an arts primer, introducing the state's cultural traditions through features on several of the artists and art forms, and offering a glossary of fiber arts terms. A smaller, brochure form of the guide is distributed at New Mexico hotels and other tourist information centers.

NMA offered professional development opportunities for participating artists before launching the trail, as many of them had no prior business training. Fecteau said, "We held a series of getting-ready-for-company workshops, getting our artists to think about everything from 'Do you have credit card capability' to 'Why is it important to be open when you say you will' to 'Are your windows clean?'"

New Mexico's legislature initially authorized $250,000 to pilot the Fiber Arts Trail, and that funding has been ongoing. Fecteau credits the NEA with helping NMA to garner this financial support. "We could not have begun this project without the NEA funding. We were basically able to use our NEA money as our seed money, and that's the toughest to get. The NEA is absolutely vital to what we do."