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Maiden Rock area weaver helps Guatemalans in need

TOWN OF MAIDEN ROCK --- Guatemalan women have a friend in Mary Anne Wise.

The Maiden Rock area artist returned last July to the country where she'd honeymooned 10 years prior to find a people in tragedy. Their already meager economy was threatened, devastated by mudslides in the aftermath of hurricanes.

"I talked to one of the older men about what had happened," Wise said through tears Thursday, admitting he came to symbolize the residents' plight for her.

A weaver and teacher, the local visitor was determined to help. She said she contacted acquaintances in the design industry from the Twin Cities upon her return here about the crisis. They came up with the idea of a trunk show, to be held April 20-21 in Minneapolis. One acquaintance has offered the use of her showroom as a location for the show; a private benefactor has donated funds to buy the necessary textiles. Even one of her nearby neighbors, John Danneker, volunteered to build armatures for the show's display and finished them the same day.

"All of the profits will go into assistance for the survivors," she said.

Wise said she's working with 25 families through Farmer-to-Farmer, an international friendship organization. They live in a rural community of 20,000, Santiago, Atitlan, situated by a beautiful lake. Their farming focuses on crops including beans, corn, cotton and coffee, grown on terrain featuring volcanoes and hills so steep some have died in falls. Twenty-three different languages are spoken in their country, roughly the size of Kentucky, complicating relief efforts.

Wise became familiar with Farmer-to-Farmer through a friend of 12 years, Jody Slocum, a textile artist who's woven for her in the past, she said. She was attracted to the organization because it supports small group farms banning together in cooperatives for the export of coffee, for example, against competition from big corporations. The concept has carried over into textiles, where there have been efforts to eliminate child labor, reduce pollution and the like.

Slocum accompanied Wise and her 16-year-old daughter, Phoebe, on last year's trip, the first of such great distance for the teen, Wise said. Guatemala had changed in the decade that passed since she'd been there; it was now much more developed, she noted. They didn't linger in the place where their plane landed, Guatemala City with its population of three million, but settled in a center of Mayan artistry, whose history predates the Spanish Conquest in the 1500s.

"It's called 'The Land of the Eternal Spring'," she said about the area's temperate climate.

Despite the poor economy, the natives are rich in a different way: culturally, she said. She showed samples of their weaving and explained how they reflect a particular vicinity, making San Juan immediately recognizable by appearance, for instance.

"These skills are handed down from mother to daughter," she said, asserting they're wealthy in tradition, an area where the U.S. is poor.

Wise is originally from South Minneapolis and grew fond of this part of Wisconsin when she attended college at River Falls. She said she had a textile professor there, Walter Nottingham, now retired, who influenced her. Nottingham was "passionate" about textiles and arranged to move them from the home economics department into the art department.

Initially, his student focused on work for walls, she said. When that didn't feel right, she switched to woven rugs. Approximately 25 years ago, she began marketing the ones she made in showrooms across the U.S. Her work has shown up as far away as Connecticut and Seattle, plus in the Bahamas, and as near as at the Mayo Clinic.

"We have a saying about a 'well-placed rug'," she said, indicating clients today mainly learn about her products via word-of-mouth.

Her largest rug ever measured 10'-by-16', the artist said, preferring to track the time she spends on a single project in square footage (or inches in the case of the much more time-consuming hooked rugs) rather than hours or days. She starts with the design phase and eventually produces a "mockett," a kind of a swatch, for the customer to see before given the go-ahead to do a project. To successfully achieve a design, she must understand the desired color and look, whether it be English Country, contemporary or whatever style. Preliminary sketches are part of the process.

"A woven rug pulls together the disparate elements (in a room)," she said, referring to the flooring, furniture, accents and more.

Most of her supplies are obtained over the computer internet, though she said Goodwill and the Salvation Army are other sources. She demonstrated what's involved in a hooked rug, indicating she draws the "cartoon" or design on a ground cloth, often inspired by her surroundings, maybe an embossed calendar or perhaps an important issue for debate like land use. Wool, recycled or new, is commonly her fabric and she's proficient in dyeing for her custom jobs.

"My favorite rug is the next rug I do," she said.

Wise also has an eight-foot wide loom in the converted nearly 100-year-old granary at home where she labors, a 30-year-old model which was manufactured in Michigan. Weaving is actually the art of creating cloth, she said, pointing to the back of the loom, where warp threads give the cloth its structure and weft threads go across to give it its heft.

In recent years, she and husband Arne Nyen, a fellow artist and painter who makes tufted rugs and rustic furniture, have completed a new exhibit building on their 128-acre farm. Now that the structure's available, they'll participate for the first time in the Fresh Art Spring Tour, a showcase for artists in this region to be held May 18-20.

For more information about the trunk show and Wise's work, she invites the public to visit .