Melanie Ebertz & ArtAndes

For much of the year, Melanie Ebertz spends her time in Ayacucho and other remote Peruvian villages nestled in the Andes Mountains. Melanie is the founder of ArtAndes, a part-art studio, part-social enterprise, part-travel business with connections to the people and culture of two vastly different places—Minnesota and Peru.

In her 20s, Melanie, a native of Stillwater, Minnesota, was an avid adventurer. Before her travels took her to South America, she had spent months hiking in the Himalayas, a moment she describes as a “turning point in my cultural awareness.” She came to Peru with a desire to connect with indigenous cultures—many of whom are weavers.

The weavers she met in Ayacucho practiced highly complex weaving techniques not found in the United States. They use natural dyes and hand-spun fleece from sheep. They weave far more intricately than the machines which industrially produce textiles and have largely displaced the centuries-old culture and techniques of weaving here. She gestured to a large wooden hand loom in the corner of the studio which held a half-completed rug in suspended animation. According to Melanie, even for an experienced weaver, it takes an hour to complete a single inch of a two-foot wide rug. That meant even the smaller 2×4 rugs hanging around the studio were 48 hour rugs.

For many reasons, this brand of weaving is a dying art. Machines simply produce rugs faster and cheaper. The craft is difficult and laborious to learn, and young people have been more attracted to careers like truck driving, construction or mining—jobs that propel them away from their tiny villages and into large cities. Melanie said weaving in Ayacucho is more than just a skill, but an expression of cultural identity that ties generations together. Its loss would mean the abandonment of that fabric of tradition.

IMG_6933She uses the co-op to facilitate cultural exchange and promote the Ayacuhan weavers’ craft. She’ll guide trips with clients from Minnesota to Peru, often taking as many as 20 people on guided trips through the Andes to explore villages like the one she visited 30 years ago. And once a year, she’ll support one of the weavers to come to Minneapolis. They’ll demonstrate their weaving, and go on field trips for inspiration from sources they’d be unlikely to encounter in the Andes. Melanie pointed to one rug with sleek, modern lines and colorful boxes that she said was influenced by a trip to the Swedish Museum.

Despite all her travels, she continues to live in Stillwater. She moved her operation to the Northrup-King Building in 2003 after being displaced from a historic mill in Stillwater. The mill was full of artists, and she described the place in glowing terms—authentic, rustic, connected to the community. After it caught fire, the site was leveled and the artists kicked out. She said its destruction erased the history of a historic town: “When you live in a town and you know how much better it could be, that’s tough to swallow.”IMG_6931

She feels like the development that replaced the site is inauthentic. It fails to cater to the people who live and work in Stillwater and have committed to making it a better place. She enjoys working in the Northrup-King building, and appreciates its communal setting. Because it’s open to the public, it has a certain element of surprise. You never know who’s going to step through the door.

While others have expressed reservations about the changes in Northeast Minneapolis, Melanie doesn’t share the fear of displacement. The neighborhood’s industrial past has lingered into the present, and that has been an inherent barrier to displacement—the noisiness of a railroad; the rough-around-the-edges vibe; the unorthodox layout of some blocks.

Making this situation work demands effort. She said this makes it desirable for artists, but few others. The sustainability of Northeast, just like the weaving she highlights in her studio, depends on the willingness of individuals to not just create, but actively promote and preserve.