BY CARMEN SIERING
Embroidery is an art of connections, each stitch building on the last until a pattern forms. Connections are what inspires local artist, author, and teacher Carmen Benavente. Her book, Embroiderers of Ninhue: Stitching Chilean Rural Life (Texas Tech University Press, 2010), recounts how she taught crewel embroidery to the women of her native Chile—an art she learned herself after moving to Bloomington in 1961 when her husband, Juan Orrego-Salas, was invited to establish the IU School of Music’s Latin American Music Center.
In 1971, Benavente returned to Chile and found her family’s farmland expropriated under the new socialist government. Local graffiti threatened her family with “Death to Benavente.” In an effort to reconnect with her neighbors, Benavente decided to share her love of embroidery with the village women.
Today, the women of Ninhue continue to design, create, and sell tapestries, soft three-dimensional figures, and pictorial rugs. Their work is available locally at the knitting store In a Yarn Basket (2480 S. Walnut). Co-owner Linda Boyle says the shop takes no commission, sending all proceeds to the embroiderers. When the women of Ninhue learned this, they wanted to do something in return. Because In a Yarn Basket supports the Shalom Community Center’s knitting project, the women of Ninhue chose to give five percent of their sales to the project.
“It’s such a touching story,” says Boyle. “Across the globe you’ve got fiber artists who are reaching out and having an impact on the world.”
Seeing how embroidery changed the lives of the women of Ninhue, Benavente believes it could be taught as a healing art for women in homeless and domestic-violence shelters. At age 90, though, she feels she may not be the person to teach them. “If there is someone who knows how to embroider, I can suggest how to approach this kind of project,” she says.
Benavente hopes the lives of her students will come through in their art. “I don’t want to leave traces of myself in my pupils,” she insists. “I want to teach so that everyone discovers her own style. The stitch inspires you to place it, and you figure out what you want to do on a piece of cloth.”
For more information on Benavente and the embroiderers of Ninhue, visit carmenbenavente.com; her book is available at local bookstores.