TH Eco-Action: Bridging Cultures Through Design - RISD Students continue Guatemalan Sustainable Design Adventure.


After reading about the RISD’s Bridging Cultures Through Design module and hearing about the students’ first impressions of Guatemala we are now interested to know what they’ve been learning from their collaboration with local artisans. Their time in Guatemala has been intensive, inspiring and action packed as they travel to the towns around Lake Atitlan to work with and learn from as many artisans as possible. Three students Chelsea Green, James Minola and Kathryn Maresca have been keeping track of their progress with a daily diary:

Sunday February 5: We departed from Antigua to Chichicastenango, where we researched various materials and products locally available in the market as well as collected samples to incorporate in prototype construction. Some materials collected include plastic flour sacks, used tread cones, textile remnants, and bound ikat threads. From there we continued on to Panajachel to settle into our temporary studio space. Panajachel is one of the five towns surrounding Lake Atitlan.


Monday February 6: In the morning, we traveled 45 minutes to Santiago Atitlan by shark boat. While visiting the Cojoyla Association of Maya Women Weavers we learned the nuances of the backstrap loom. The Cojoyla Association was established as a museum and school to maintain traditional Mayan weaving techniques as well as educate visitors to Santiago Atitlan. We learned how to properly setup the backstrap loom and began our individual weavings.

In the afternoon, we began collaborating with local artisans from the Lake Atitlan area. Some of the techniques explored included backstrap weaving, pom-pom and trim making, crocheting, and pattern making. Verbal communication proved difficult at first, but our shared appreciation for the handmade as well as the artisans’ shared curiosity and enthusiasm created bridges between us.

Tuesday February 7: We continued our weaving instruction with artisans in Santiago Atitlan at Cojoyla. Given the rough boat ride back to Panajachel, we were not surprised when many of the crochet artisans could not make the trip from surrounding lake towns. However, we were graced with more backstrap weavers from San Antonio Palopo.

Wednesday February 8: We awoke early to catch our boat to San Marcos, where we met local maguey artisans. Maguey is an indigenous plant with fibers which, once pounded and dried, can be twisted into a sturdy twine. This ancient technique is now only practiced by three individuals. We were fortunate enough to meet two of the artisans and be guided through the entire process. The crochet bags currently fabricated from this twine have a lifespan of 25 years. It is our hope to collaborate with these artisans, utilizing the maguey fibre in order to keep this tradition alive.


From San Marcos, we traveled to hilltop site near Santiago Atitlan, once inhabited by pre-Columbian Mayan communities. Local artisan Xelani Luz guided us though corn and coffee fields to a plateau, pointing out various ruins, artifacts, and glyphs.

Upon returning to our studio in Panajachel, we reviewed designs and prototypes with exporter Ian Gonzales of La Casa and continued the design process with artisans. it was exciting to see some of the developed prototypes and textiles as well as receive perspective regarding the marketability of our designs.

At this point, our bodies and minds are exhausted given the short time frame in which to explore a project of this scope. In our delirium, we have bonded as a group as well as with the artisans. We are beginning to realize the many complexities and rewards of this experience.