The shirt Armando Sosa wears is woven in multicolored threads, predominantly bright blue. His sister sent it from his hometown of Salcaja in the Guatemalan Highlands. It is just like the garments once woven by his father and grandfather. In fact, 90 percent of the population of Salcaja made a living as weavers, although that is no longer true today.
“It’s sad,” says Sosa. “Weaving is hard physical work. A weaver works 10 hours to create a piece to sell. Older weavers can no longer continue because the materials are expensive, and they don’t sell well enough for them to make a living. Younger people are not interested in weaving. They have better educations and become professionals in a different way.”
“The Colored Threads of Dreams: Tapestries by Armando Sosa” is the fruit of Sosa’s hard work, an exhibition on view at the Erdman Gallery at Princeton Theological Seminary through June 30. Although Sosa’s travels have taken him throughout the Americas, his tapestries are a journey around the world, paying homage to Antigua with a pattern based on European tapestries, including those by textile designer Mariano Fortuny, and Navajo, Mayan, Chinese and Egyptian designs. He finds the common visual geometry in cultural styles, a way of representing them on a complex warp (“net”) and weft (“weave”) system. He reminds us that, long ago, people from Asia traveled to the Americas, and the common ancestries come together in his loom.
The tapestries are filled with classical motifs: turtles, lions, figures pulling fruit from a tree or trying to catch a rabbit, lotuses, and corn dancers. Birds and angels often float at the top. A girl jumping rope comes from a vision he recalls from childhood. The colors, he says, come from his heart.
Before Sosa begins setting up the loom, he creates a detailed drawing on graph paper, using colored pencil. (The drawings themselves are works of art that have been collected and printed through the Brodsky Center for Innovative Editions at Rutgers.) But even before the drawings, Sosa built his own loom, with 33 harnesses. To date, he has built five looms.
“I believe when someone wants to do something, it’s possible,” says Sosa, giving credit to the encouragement of his life partner and artistic champion, Karen McLean, an artist, photographer, and educator. (Some of McLean’s photographs of Sosa at the loom and of his weavings are in this exhibit.) In 1994, Sosa was bussing tables at Main Street Restaurant in Princeton when he met MacLean. He had observed her there on several occasions, and one day when she was leaving in the rain, he offered her an umbrella. They became friends, and he told her how he loved to weave. “I saw in her a big heart,” he recounts.
“We lived together next to a lumber yard, and I got the idea to make a loom. I was not a carpenter, but made it from memory of my childhood looms. She encouraged me to build it in the studio space she had in the Chocolate Factory in Hopewell.”
Working on it in his free time, it took Sosa six months. It was ultimately 8 feet long, 6 feet wide, and 8 feet high.
Sosa’s loom design descended from one brought to Guatemala from Spain with the 16th-century conquistadors, according to Stephen D. Winick in a catalog for an exhibit Sosa had at the Walt Whitman Cultural Arts Center in Camden. “This design probably has its origins in China and is now common across Europe and America. Instead of rigid heddles (the shed through which the weft threads are passed) it uses devices called harnesses.”
“On the original looms in China, two weavers worked the same loom, one person on top managing the strings to make the designs, and another weaver doing the weaving,” says Sosa. “On my loom, one person can do both jobs, but it takes a long time.” Each weaving may take 100 to 140 hours.
Just when everything in his life seemed to be going well, Sosa had to have bypass surgery in 1997. “I felt my days were over. I was thinking of my family.” Sosa has four children, ages 41, 38, 32, and 28. So he returned to Guatemala. “But life there is so difficult.”
His own childhood was cut short by the need to work at an early age. Sosa’s mother, who worked with his father, passed away when Armando was 9. His four sisters worked, helping in other people’s houses. At 14, Armando went to help an uncle, learning to weave shawls to sell in the market. He wanted to study, but there was no night school in the small town.
When he was 15, he moved to Guatemala City where an older sister lived, helping out in a house where he was given space to stay. By the time he was 16, to pay his rent, Armando washed cars for 50 cents a day. “But that barely paid for my lunch and bus fare. I was lucky to find a job in a bakery where I had food and a place to stay and could earn money.”
Soon he found work in weaving again. In 1970 he was sent to a state fair in Dallas, Texas, to demonstrate weaving. “It was my big opportunity to see the world,” he says. He stayed for a month, then returned to Guatemala, and sold handcrafts. In 1973 and 1974, and again in 1979, he returned to do demonstrations at state fairs on the West Coast. Through the demonstrations, “I learned what people liked about colors. It embedded in me the idea that someday I would make my own weavings.”
Due to political unrest and family circumstances, Sosa wasn’t able to return to the U.S. for 13 years. During that time, he worked for a company that made fine furniture. “In 1993 I decided to come and stay. I lost my father in 1990 and was depressed. A cousin had bought a big truck he wanted to send back to Guatemala, so he paid my airfare to come and drive it back. It was my first time on the East Coast, and he offered me a place to stay in Princeton if I came back.”
Soon after moving to Princeton, Sosa made an overnight trip to Pittsburgh and saw a window display in which a weaving was used as art, not a functional item, and he realized this was what he wanted to create. It was a turning point.
Sosa worked at Davidson’s Supermarket on Nassau Street, cleaning and stocking shelves. He worked in a factory making transformers in Rosemont. Even after he began selling his weaving as art, he still worked in frame shops to earn in living.
He is well-known throughout New Jersey for magnificent tapestries that weave the dreams he first began having as a child in Guatemala. His work is in the collections of the Newark Museum, Princeton Public Library, Johnson & Johnson World Headquarters, University Medical Center at Princeton in Plainsboro, Capital Health Systems, and others. Sosa says they sell as fast as he can make them, and all new work had to be created for this exhibit.
When Sosa returned to Guatemala after his bypass surgery in 1998, he was reminded of the difficult life there and returned to the U.S. once again (he has 26 stents and had another bypass surgery last year). Having sold the first loom before his return to Guatemala, it was now time to build a new one, this time with 49 harnesses. He also made the small looms he uses for teaching, and acquired several more small looms when the YMCA Princeton was de-accessioning them. Sosa teaches weaving to all ages through the Arts Council of Princeton and in Trenton, through the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.
For the past eight years, Sosa has worked at the Framesmith Gallery in West Windsor. He credits owner Paul Smith as another champion of his work, and for connecting him with Sharon Hubert, who arranged for this exhibit at the Erdman Gallery. It was through his framing experience that Sosa learned how to hang his tapestries, using two dowels for support. The weight of the lower dowel helps to keep the tapestry flat.
As an artist, Sosa is largely self-taught. After finishing primary school at night, and then five years of secondary school in two years, he studied English at the American School in Guatemala and took correspondence courses in marketing and management. He studied administration and accounting at San Carlos University in Guatemala City, but learned about art through McLean’s art books. His sense of color, too, comes from her studio. “I am inspired by the colors I see and want to combine them.”
Interestingly, this weaver is allergic to wool, so all the tapestries are made from cotton and silk. He sources the fine threads from former textile factories and from his sister in Guatemala.
In the studio on Hopewell’s Broad Street that Sosa shares with McLean, he must be mindful of other tenants, and can only weave until 11 a.m. in the morning, and again at 5 p.m. This allows him to combine weaving with his framing work, but it makes a long day. All his life, hard work is what Sosa has known.
But when he weaves, the outside world doesn’t exist. In that state, Sosa returns to the world of his childhood, hearing his father whistling songs he heard on the radio and his grandfather talking to his grandmother.
And while he has worked very hard to achieve the life of an artist in the U.S., Sosa still longs for the beauty of his country. “Antigua” reminds him of the natural surroundings and green markets. “I’m so grateful to be in this country where I have the opportunity to do this and people appreciate something handmade. It’s an inspiration to make more. It’s what every artist who works with his hands wants.”
The Colored Threads of Dreams: Tapestries, Erdman Gallery, Princeton Theological Seminary, 20 Library Place, Princeton. Through Tuesday, June 30, Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Saturday, 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., and Sunday, 1:30 to 9 p.m. Free. 609-497-7990 or coned.ptsem.edu/art-gallery.