Beto Ruiz of Taller Ocho on rethinking processes and inspiration

— As told to Rodrigo Cruz and Melissa Patenaude

Beto Ruiz photographed by Eva Lepiz.


A new way to interpret traditions

Reinventing the art of the town's technique and inspiring the younger generation.


Words by
Melissa Patenaude

The best wool comes from cold places.

[Beto welcoming us in his studio, pointing to bunches of wool yarn on the wall]... This wool is 100% Mexican. This one is from New Zealand. The best wool comes from cold places. There is also very good wool from Argentina, from Patagonia. It is because of the cold. In Oaxaca, in the valley, there is no wool because of the heat. In cold climates, the time it takes for the fur to grow on the animal, as it is its protection from the cold, is fast. You cut it and in three months it already grew back. But if there is heat, it takes a year to grow, and the strand is very short. So yes, the local wool is not that good.

Hi! My name is Alberto Ruiz González and I am the founder of Taller Ocho. My friends call me Beto.

I learned to knit at the age of eight. At 17, I went north to study in Tijuana. I studied visual arts and lived there for eleven years. I returned here, in Teotitlán del Valle, in 2008.

A town's uneasy history

I decided to come back just because it was time. Tijuana was already very bad, most of the friends had left Tijuana too. I came back to make a series of electronic rugs and after that, I stayed.

In 2010, I opened Taller Ocho, a workshop more like residencies, working with artists, working with the community, not so much a place for production. I also stayed in town because there was a very big problem in Teotitlán becoming only maquilas where mass production pieces are manufactured with the same design, repeated over and over.

My dad exported for over 30 years to New Mexico. They sold a lot in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. But it was more of a “maquilacion” of Navajo designs from New Mexico. So, for this reason I left. I did not want to repeat the same pattern. When I returned, the maquila mentality here was still a problem. There was already an evolution happening. The new generations no longer identified with Navajo designs and local designs. In the nineties, the Navajos sued Teotitlán for plagiarism. That was in their right too. Right now, you go to the market and 90% of the designs are Navajos. The tree of life is Navajo and many people, perhaps out of ignorance, assume it is local. In fact even contests have been won (jaja) with this design.

It is also very valid to see how the iconography is not of the Navajos either as it is. They had a similar issue. In the time of the colonies, when the English arrived, the began to ask for another type of textile style, other types of symbols, some that were like the ones they were used to that were more Middle Eastern, more Persian--they were the ones that had supplied them in textiles in the past. Then they arrive to America, and they find the local style, they kill or change the iconography. Locally we had never stopped being nomads, we always kept traveling. People got drawn to a different culture, they appropriated it, and they changed it--the imagination widens.

The workshop began as I saw the problem that young people in the town are now far removed, detached, from textile. The same had happened to me, I lived that experience. So the idea was to work with young people and inviting contemporary artists.

The first rules of the workshop were that we don't invite textile artists, don't get involved with anyone who dedicates themselves to textiles. Since the community already knows the weaving techniques, talks about and work with textiles all day, coming to a workshop that has to do with textiles can get very tiring. So, we have been inviting artists who have nothing to do with textiles to create a mutual exchange. I am much more interested in how the artist's eye works, how they work, how does they get to do their work, their creative process, their style, how they re-invent. The students absorb, and the artist gets to learn the local techniques

Many questions are asked, that perhaps, one who is dedicated to the craft, does not ask themselves because it is so common. And when someone from the outside who does not know the techniques begins to question them, it is very enriching because it makes you question yourself and makes you look at the textile in a new perspective. And that is how we have worked here.

We also started another workshop in the Cultural Center. It is for young people, with talks, inviting people to come give a 3 or 4-day workshop with flexible hours.

Because of the pandemic I switched my focus more on the production, working on and managing collaborations. Right now, we have about 10 people working in the workshop--all friends and neighbors. It has been difficult because it has been like changing of the guard. What I do now is color and design. I knit very little nowadays. The ten people that make up the workshop are like a little army. I only make designs, colors and decisions.

They are all very used to symmetry and what I do a lot is change the symmetry. It's always been that fight. For 40, 50 years they have been receiving color guidance and designs and they execute. Now I try to tell them to make decisions and it is difficult, because it is taking risks for them. "Here are the colors, you put them where you want" I tell them and start collaborating. Many people like the word "collaboration", but it does not exist, because they make a replica as requested by the designer or artist. I don't know if there is a collaborative part yet, they don't intervene and make decisions. Not even when I am wrong.

I started when Constantino, an 84-year-old grandfather who can no longer see well. People didn’t give him work anymore because of his sight, because he made mistakes with colors. So, we started to work together, more like a collaborative manner, and accepting his mistakes. He has more than 60 years of weaving experience, why is the mastery not respected? What is his mastery? When someone has a level of being a master weaver, he has every right to do what he wants or to have fun and make more playful pieces. I know it sounds very selfish, but my thought is “first, I have fun so that people around me can have fun too”. I mean, if I don't have fun at the loom, there's no point. So I try to give the weavers a chance to have fun as well. "Let's see. Have fun. Here are the colors, there is the design, but you can modify it."

My drawings are always on paper, they go from small to large and changing sizes and colors. There is never a rule-- let's see what comes out. The designs are a translation of what's in my head, but I very rarely put any measurements so there is room for movement.

In textiles, the weft is the one that creates, the one that speaks, the one that does the color. It is the same in writing.

My latest inspiration starts with two lines, these are pixels. For me, a lot comes from understanding the image, the loom, the computers, synchronizing the two parts, and uniting something very modern with something very traditional. I like that mismatch.

In 2017-2018 I was invited to make a proposal for an exhibition in China. I had been working on this digital inspiration of designs for years. I also started questioning the word "textile" and its etymology to begin to further deconstruct the word.

Through deconstructing, you get to a concept of protection.

The word textile is defined as text, as writing. To understand a good text you must have a very good plot, to weave in its warp and weft. In textiles, the weft is the one that creates, the one that speaks, the one that does the color. It is the same in writing.

Weaving can also be seen as a concept through time. A man, the first man on earth gets cold, he has to protect himself from the cold, etc, then you start to weave, you start to assemble furs, anything to protect you from the cold.

Later, in the development buildings, the materials were also weaved. Here, locally, the reed is woven to make fences, for roofs or to use in buildings. Same with  bricks. This too, is like the same weaving pattern used so the structures don't fall.

When you get to this point of technology, it's like the first computer is a loom that you work with cards, it is a huge room that worked with cards, understanding the binary codes, the 0s and the 1s. The loom mechanism is very similar, you start to understand it as megapixels.

I wanted to do an exhibition that would work on these ideas. There would be 3 pictures and 3 looms. We take the 3 photos and weave them on the 3 looms. It would work the other way around as well. In the photo when you start to zoom in, it begins to pixelate and if the loom is large, it maintains quality. As soon as you make the loom small, it begins to distort.

Normally in the workshop we use a 14 comb, which means that in 5cm (2") there are 14 threads--there can be up to 44. So, in 5cm there are up to 44 and that range is what will make the definition of the design. I started to work with the local stuff, images, inspiration. I used pixelated photos of the local  geographical zones. From there I started to draw pixels on the images, and continue until I covered it. It looks a lot like Tetris. It's the same for any construction--you start with one mark, one color and continue. It gives you these patterns, and a very basic geometry.

That's how all these designs started.

I would love for the people in the community to learn that they can have fun, that work can be more playful, and that maybe they would enjoy weaving more.

More on Beto and Taller Ocho coming soon.