A version of this article was first published in Reno News & Review on June 13, 2019. 

“When Tia Flores started college, she was convinced that it was impossible to make a living as an artist. These days, not only is her work widely shown and collected, she’s also helping the women of a remote village in Peru develop an economy around their crafts.

Flores moved from Las Vegas to Reno in the 1980s, studied architecture and worked as a bank manager. In the early ’90s, she began a new exploration.

Tia Flores in her Reno studio. Photo: Kris Vagner

“I was attending sweat lodges out at Pyramid Lake, which are ceremonial,” she said. “I was really reconnecting with my heritage on my dad’s side, which is Aztec and Navajo.” She noticed something she’d never seen before—people using gourds as vessels for tobacco and as ladles for pouring water onto the sweat lodge’s hot rocks.

The gourds got her gears turning about the idea of making artwork using natural materials. As luck would have it, right around that time, the Nevada Museum of Art offered a class in gourd decoration.

“I took the class,” Flores said. “I knew then—this is where my life is gonna go.”

Her specialty became burning intricate designs into the gourds, often combining animal imagery with a gourd’s natural bulbousness. In one example, a 2D rattlesnake, rendered in down-to-the-scale detail, is wrapped around an apple-shaped gourd several times, presenting the illusion of a coiled, 3D creature.

Tia Flores is a master of pyrography—burning designs into dried gourds. This piece is called “Tecuancoatl” (“rattlesnake”). Photo: courtesy Tia Flores.

Once she jumped in with both feet, her art career took off quickly. During her first official exhibition, the actor Beau Bridges happened in and bought a couple of pieces. Veteran Reno artist Mary Lee Fulkerson became a mentor. Flores taught elementary and high school art for nine years. And in 2010, she was featured on the HGTV show That’s Clever!

“Through this whole process, I’ve become known as the gourd lady,” she said. “It’s just amazing how things take off if you’re true to your craft.”

New traditions

One day, about six years ago, Flores’ friend Barbara Land called with a proposition. Land—a retired University of Nevada, Reno professor and owner of the Conservatory of Movement, a Reno dance academy—had been traveling to Peru to teach dance to children.

In the village of Ayacucho—not to be confused with the city of Ayacucho, also in Peru—the central fact of life is the Amazon River. People use it for transportation, fishing, bathing, drinking, and disposing of human and animal waste. And they build their homes—huts with wood-plank floors and palm-frond roofs—on stilts about six feet above the ground to accommodate the river’s spring floods.

The “Women’s Hut”  is among the structures built in Ayacucho, Peru, in recent years, as part of efforts to help stabilize the remote village’s economy. Photo: Courtesy Tia Flores.

“The closest elementary school was eight miles away,” Flores explained. Some children would travel four hours by boat to attend school in Iquitos, the nearest city. Others went without formal education.

Barbara Land had become concerned about the lack of education keeping people in a cycle of poverty. Working with an organization called Be The Change Global Outreach, she was able to get an elementary school built in Ayacucho, then a “women’s hut,” a structure with floors, a roof and no walls, where women could gather to make crafts to sell to the slow stream of tourists who arrive by boat. A new high school is currently under construction.

At first, village residents would buy craft supplies in the city. But, according to Land, that didn’t count as “sustainable income.”

Women in Ayacucho work on woven, beaded jewelry. Photo: Courtesy Tia Flores.

“And that’s where I come in,” said Flores. In 2018, she packed some Xacto knives in her bags and flew to Peru. With the help of a translator, she showed women in the village how to weave and bead using local materials such as string from grasses and palm fronds, which are plentiful and durable. A type of gourd grows on the region’s trees. It’s smaller and rounder than the vine-grown gourds that Flores uses at home, perfect for a pouch that’s sized to hang on a pendant.

They found a wealth of other materials—hardened fish scales, red and black seeds so glossy they almost look manufactured, and tiny snake vertebrae to string on bracelets. With Flores’ guidance, the women began to develop some design motifs, piranhas etched into the gourds with X-Acto knives, for example.

Jewelry made in Ayacucho contains natural materials including, nuts, grasses, beads, fish scales, and snake vertebrae. Photo: Kris Vagner

If, at this point, you’re wondering why people in Peru would need to rely on an artist from the United States instead of drawing from their own local traditions—it turns out there’s a reason for that.

“There are indigenous people that live in the Amazon,” Flores said. “This particular village of people are not.” When she asked the villagers how long they had lived in the area, they replied, “Just a few generations.”

“Peru was invaded by the Spaniards in the early 1900s for the rubber plant,” she explained. “They were enslaving or killing the people of Peru.” The locals fled to the Amazon. If the current residents’ ancestors have an artistic tradition, it has been lost to them.

“They are still in the process of developing their own traditions,” Flores said.

Return visit

In April 2019, Flores and Land returned for a three-week visit, this time with small, manual drills and laminated illustrations of advanced jewelry-making techniques.

The river was swollen, and the village was so flooded that there was no ground to walk on. For Flores, the visit was heartwarming. She was glad to see friends she made last year and impressed with the strides her students had made in their crafting skills. But it was also difficult.

A woman in Ayacucho has set up her wares to market to tourists. Photo: Courtesy Tia Flores

“There was no way I was prepared for this, emotionally, to see a village in crisis,” she said. As an animal lover, she found it difficult to watch the local dogs deal with the flood. They are valued as workers but not pampered as pets, and in emergency conditions, they were left to fend for themselves, fishing for food and occasionally stranded on a boat or floating log. During Flores and Land’s visit, a five-year-old drowned in the next village over, and shortly after they left, two people died from snake bites. The snakes, with no ground to dwell on, had taken to the river.

The floods caused a new social dynamic, as well. The school was under several inches of water and closed through May. The children’s soccer field was flooded, and the men could not farm. The women’s hut, a few feet higher than the rest of the buildings, was the only un-flooded place, so, for April, children, men and grandparents joined the women who usually craft there, an unprecedented situation.

Future plans

“Their bead work is pretty strong now,” Flores said. Each time she and Land have traveled to Ayacucho, she’s brought an improvement to her students’ tools or techniques—a small manual drill, a better small manual drill, basketry skills, more complex basketry skills.

Flores has made video interviews, asking the people of Ayacucho what effects the tools and instructions have had.

“One woman, Elizabeth, said it gives her money, where, if she has to take her child for care, she can—gas money for the boat,” Flores said. Others told her it was a relief to now count on being able afford rice to feed their children.

She’s planning another trip for March.

Tia Flores—An Artist Journey to The Amazon Rainforest is an exhibition at Sierra Arts in Reno featuring Flores’ photographs and videos. On Thursday, Feb. 20, Sierra Arts hosts a reception for the artist from 6-8 p.m. Bracelets, necklaces, and baskets created by the women of Ayacucho will be for sale. More here.

Posted by Kris Vagner

Kris Vagner is Double Scoop’s Editor & Publisher.