How a Basque artist uses wool to tell cultural stories

Photo by Naomi Priddy | The Arbiter

Artist and inventor Laurita Siles combines stories of sustainability, women’s roles in society, loss of heritage and the importance of sheep in her wool-strung homage to Basque culture at MING Studio Gallery. 

Laurita Siles is a native Basque artist who participated in a month-long artist residency at MING Studios from June 27 to July 27 with her exhibition available for public viewing on July 23 through Sept. 10.

Siles’ exhibit, “I AM MAKING WOOL,” featured handwoven txapelas (hats), graphite sheep drawings, fabric and wool woven decor and drawings made by children in the Basque community. 

Siles has always made art but didn’t adopt that title until high school, and now in her adulthood, the creation of art and stories remains a present love of her life.

“When I was child, I craved these things you know,” Siles said. “For me, it’s like I grew up making art … I didn’t stop playing.”

While working at MING Studios, a Boise-based Gallery, Siles had the opportunity to carve out time to work on her art. Since her home is nestled in the mountains, she wanted to pay homage to that aspect of her life and the life of the sheep herders that neighbor her. She decided to do this through the use of wool.

“Here in the Basque Country … we see a revival of wool … all the wool in the Basque Country goes to the carpet. Nobody uses it, and five years ago we developed our yarn and sold it to make costumes, and we made shoes and we made socks,” Siles said.

When she first stepped foot in Boise and spoke to other Basque individuals, she was surprised to find that their experience with Basque culture in Boise had not evolved with what had changed in the Basque country. 

“When I spoke in Basque with many people in Boise, they kept the past life from another century,” Siles said, “they speak old Basque.” 

According to Basque Block, there are approximately 16,000 Basque individuals living in Boise. 

In her art and her conversations she emphasizes the importance of holding onto heritage and tradition, yet still maintaining innovation.

[Photo from Laurita Siles’ art exhibit, “I AM MAKING WOOL.”]
Photo by Naomi Priddy | The Arbiter

“I’m really interested in heritage, folklore and all these kinds of things. Now, we are living in a global area … I don’t believe that all our heritage should be put in a box, you know, repeat every year the same, I think I have to mix all the time,” Siles said. “It’s like in a show. We dance the same as our grandfather, we don’t move anything. We repeat the same. This is okay, but creation has kind of stopped.”

Siles advocates for the importance of understanding the role of sheep and how wool and other fabrics are created. 

“People tell me, ‘Well, I never thought about the birth of sheep, or I don’t know that the bighorn sheep is the only one local sheep from Idaho.’ [I want people to] be thinking a lot about the land,” Siles said.

During her exhibit and one month residency at MING studios, Siles told the story of Basque identity and history through her artwork. 

According to MING Studios, “I AM MAKING WOOL” is a story based on traces left by America’s Basque shepherds in conjunction with the concept of sovereignty of joy; the exhibition is composed of wool-focused textile, photography, and film works that emulate traditions of representation and rethink the preservation of culture.”

The role of women in the telling of Basque identity and stories are a prominent undertone in Siles works. 

“All the imagery that we have here in the Basque Country about the people that went to America doesn’t show women,” Siles said. “The woman [were] really like, very important to keep the heritage, to keep the culture,because they are cooking the traditional foods at home, they are sticking to the children. The young telling the story. The woman is so strong. We remember.”

In her artistic experiences in Idaho, Siles connected with the Idaho Basque community and the Idaho community as a whole in a way that shaped many aspects of her work. For all of her woven art, she participated in wool spinning circles with other women in the community, where they had the opportunity to tell stories, form bonds and create. 

“This group of women helped me to find the different kinds of wool and all the different kinds of sheep and we met together to spin wool on the Basque block … [we talked about] the Basque community, about women, about maternity, about the, you know, all the things about wool spinning,” Siles said. “It was really amazing also to meet many different women from Boise that … are not Basque.” 

In her future art exhibits, Siles hopes to focus on the commercialization of wool.

“I’m very interested in Australia … They never used wool from the Basque Country,” Siles said. “The wool in Australia is very developed in the factory, like, almost all the wool that we use in the world is from Australia. And it’s interesting that all the sheep that are from Australia are originally from Spain.”

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