It is true Southwestern art that has been around for centuries. Amazingly, it’s a medium most people know nothing about. It is colcha, a stitch actually, a form of embroidery that when done well is as exquisite and eye catching as sculpture or portraiture. And 86-year-old Josephine Lobato is the grand dame of this nearly lost artform.
Amazingly, had it not been for a visiting artist giving a demonstration of colcha some thirty years ago, Lobato may have missed the opportunity to shine in this nearly forgotten medium.
It was 1988 and Lobato was Director of the Fort Garland Museum. Father Pat Valdez, a priest known across the San Luis Valley, invited a Chilean artist to hold a stitching class at the museum. The artistry she demonstrated was mesmerizing, also an epiphany.
With nothing more than a needle and woolen thread, the Chilean woman, Carmen Orego-Salas, created real and captivating art and Lobato, in a single afternoon, found her artistic calling. “I had never even heard of colcha,” she said. Today, more than thirty years later, Lobato is renowned for her colcha renderings.
In 2019, Lobato was selected as a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow, a master Spanish colcha embroiderer. She got word of her selection from Colorado Senator Michael Bennet who made the call personally. “I wasn’t even sure it was him,” Lobato recalled. “I was very shocked,” actually it was more disbelief. “Are you sure you’re Michael Bennet,” she remembered asking him. He assured her it was. Still, she had her daughter call Bennet’s office later that day just to be certain that it was him and that, indeed, he had called the right number.
Lobato has shared her love for colcha over the years across the state in small gatherings with old friends and, more formally, at colleges. “Every year I go to the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs to do a stitching workshop with college students. I’ve developed a kit that I could take so I could teach,” she said.
The subjects of Lobato’s work erupt from a vivid memory and imagination. “It all comes from what I saw growing up,” in San Luis, said Lobato. In fact, almost all of her work comes from moments in time spent there, where she was born and where her ancestors were born, as well. “I put my stories in colcha,” she said.
Her stories are wide ranging and esoteric. One of her pieces includes a memory of her father butchering a pig for a Christmas dinner. Another, she remembered, was an image of “the fight for the mountain,” a long ago battle between Valley locals and landowners over hunting rights on the Taylor Ranch. “I have my husband in that one,” said Lobato. Two other friends are also sewn into the piece and for the ages. One is “under the truck…Rocky Madrid is chained to the gate,” she said with a tender laugh.
While colcha is more a geographic and regional artform, it has anchored itself to San Luis, Colorado’s oldest town. There, people like Marcella Gallegos-Pacheco, Donna Madrid and Julia Mondragon all do colcha. Each learned the stitch from Lobato. Today, the trio of woman---all San Luis natives---meet as often as they can to do colcha and to catch up on life. When they do, Lobato’s name is often recalled.
It was at the Santa Ana Fiesta, San Luis’ summertime celebration, where Gallegos-Pacheco first saw colcha. “Josie Lobato was in the corner with a few little fabrics and needles,” she remembered. “My sister and I took a class from her,” and colcha has been a part of her life ever since. “It’s just one stitch,” she said. “But it’s a beautiful stitch.”
“I’m still learning,” said another Lobato protégé, Julia Mondragon who has been doing colcha for the past three years. Though separated geographically, Mondragon has seen enough of Lobato’s work to try and incorporate some of her style into work of her own. “I really like it. Her stitches are really perfect.”
For Madrid, who has been doing colcha for “ten or fifteen years,” the art and the camaraderie go hand in hand. “I enjoy just sitting and relaxing…I enjoy the finished product…just a good time to get together and visit because we don’t see each other every day.” But the art, the creativity, and the reward of completing something that sprung from imagination, that’s the payoff.
Lobato says colcha is woven into her soul. “I work almost every day, no less than two hours each day,” she said. Doing so allows her time “to reflect and as I make my plan as I go.”
Her work stitches her memories of youth and later life in San Luis. There are Penitentes, saints, Mr. Trujillo, Mr. Garcia, all people or parts of the Valley. But despite her unquestionable skills, Lobato said she is still uncertain about one thing that appears in all of her work.
What is it that has eluded perfection in her work? “Dirt,” she said with a small chuckle. Dirt, said Lobato, changes color depending on the time of day. It has been and remains that single variable that keeps her from calling her art perfect. But whatever her challenge with la tierra, it hasn’t stopped others from seeing it that way.