On a bustling street corner in Brooklyn, amidst the continuous sounds of a city and passersby on their daily commutes, a woman wearing traditional clothing, with a fully articulated llama’s head placed upon her shoulders, sits unabashedly at a loom and weaves.
I admit I’m a sucker for artists like Laura Anderson Barbata and Petah Coyne, who strive to interrupt the banality of the city street and its regular characters with a dramatic, visual message. These artists are generous—imagining us dead-eyed and on our way somewhere, separate from the present. With inventiveness and courage they pull us from our introverted, airpodded isolation into the here and now, and with their unexpected installations bring us into sudden community.
Cynthia Alberto’s “Weaving Llama 2020,” which features public weaving, drum beating, and body motion, is no different. Frankly, it is startling to see a llama on a street corner making woven fabric on a loom. But as we are forced to contend with this outrageous silliness we take note of the beautiful, traditional clothing worn by the figure. We respond to the urging of her drum. We are reminded perhaps of our origins: shepherds tending flocks of fiber-producing animals, cloth made by hand, slowness. And the basic metaphor of weaving: that we are all interconnected; a web of disparate experiences, landscapes, and cultures forming a whole.
Cynthia Alberto is herself a weave. Cynthia was raised in Novaliches, Philippines, in a rural setting until the age of 13 when she joined her parents in the U.S. Like many immigrant children, her parents’ journey to the States preceded her by many years, in this case, four. Cynthia notes elements of her formative years in her village: One pair of good shoes to last a whole year. Mended rugs. Day clothes, school clothes, one nice garment for Christmas. Nothing ever wasted.
From there to Jersey City as a new teen, Cynthia suddenly confronted a new environment with not just indoor plumbing, but shag carpeting in her 1970s bathroom. This made a tactile impression. At 16, her father died and as the eldest child, it fell to Cynthia to help tend to the rest of her siblings. Caregiving is a huge part of this woman.
Cynthia graduated from college, studying computer science but after a year working for Merrill Lynch, she abandoned a trajectory in tech in favor of a job at The Village Voice. She relocated to the East Village. The neighborhood was rife with artists, many unhoused people, extreme politics. “You got to know your homeless neighbors. You bought them a bagel,” she says. “We were all in it, together.” The Village Voice was the quintessential, counter-culture voice of the arts. It was the 80s in lower Manhattan and the combination of working at the famed publication, while immersed in the color of her neighborhood, happily landed Cynthia in a lifestyle that could only be described as bohemian.
“Is this the root of your performance practice?” I ask her. “I think it is. I was doing things like taking classes from the famous mime, Marcel Marceau. But I’ve always been a playful person, childlike and expressive.”
We’re on a Zoom call and I’m out to better understand Cynthia Alberto, whom I know to have founded Weaving Hand in 2007, a weaving studio and healing arts center in Brooklyn which celebrates “a fusion of traditional and contemporary weaving techniques with our studio classes, workshops, commissions, outreach programs, and exhibitions all while embracing sustainable and ethical practices.” Weaving Hand remarkably engages the neighborhood, actively creating community and reaching diverse populations—most notably through what Cynthia calls “Healing Arts Workshops” for persons who need it most. As the website states “emotional, intellectual or physical disabilities can greatly benefit from weaving workshops in a safe and nurturing space for growth and personal expression. We work with organizations to develop workshops tailored to the specific needs of the individual who participates. Our workshops are designed to increase motor skills, strengthen memory and concentration, as well as develop confidence.”
It’s been an incredible run of gorgeous, heart-centric, textile-focused programming. I am enjoying myself, talking with Cynthia, and relating to her as the founder of my own textile organization. I know what it means to put your all into your work, to love textiles so ardently, to know the portal they are to the human spirit. And of course the struggle in running an organization. I am also like her, in that textiles came later in life—after a return to school at FIT where we both learned to weave. I am curious to understand what converges in this woman, her past life experiences woven together to be expressed in her unique, performative but community-centric way.
After 16 incredible years, Cynthia is closing Weaving Hand. It is as sudden and unexpected as encountering a weaving llama on the street, though not nearly as light. She is facing Stage IV cancer and must finally put nurturing others aside to focus on her own health.
I want to tell you that when we meet on Zoom Cynthia immediately opens with “Jordana! How are you??” This woman, facing a major health battle, preparing to put her life’s work in storage is asking me how I am? Then she follows with “I have three boxes of books for the library!”
I ask what her favorite art piece has been to make and she says “Definitely the Llama series. So much fun to do that. Llamas are so generous to give the world all that fiber. The Llama is my alter ego.”
You can’t sum a person up. But there is much to note in the weave of this woman. An artist, a caregiver, a nurturer. A deep engager of the neighborhood and cultivator of community. A visionary person who expresses herself with beauty, generosity, and love of culture. An empathetic immigrant, a mother. I propose that the Llama is not an alter ego—rather it is the essence of Cynthia’s ego, in its most extreme form. Her most spirited, most playful, and most generous self.
It’s now time for the community to give back to Cynthia Alberto. Acknowledgment of the thousands of students who have learned from and made art with her, in Brooklyn and beyond. Gratitude for the healing she has always committed to facilitate. Join with me, in support.