Chip Morris was one of those iconic figures who is largely responsible for the development of textile education in Chiapas, Mexico. He is known for preserving and promoting Maya highland weaving. He was there for a lifetime, co-creating the famed weaving cooperative Sna Jolobil and establishing San Cristobal de las Casas as a textile lover’s travel destination.
I got news of his passing yesterday from my pal Sheri Brautigam while I was in transit from my Durham home to Mexico City.
Walter “Chip” Morris, 1953-2019, RIP
From Kiki Suarez, founder of Kikimundo, famed folk art gallery in the San Cristobal de las Casas historic center:
When I arrived in San Cristobal in 1977, the Maya fabric here was already in decline, and neither I nor any tourists knew much about quality and we bought mediocre embroidery; we did not know about the quality of what was possible. The weavers themselves followed the tradition but many did not know the meaning of their patterns. A young gringo Hippie arrived, settled in San Andres Larrainzar, learned Tzotzil (and probably spoke it better than Spanish), and rescued the meanings in the ancient textiles, which were already at the point of disintegrating.
This man was Walter F. Morris, who we called Chip. I learned a lot with him. Together with Luis Contreras and Pedro Meza, he formed the Sna Jolobil cooperative in the city, still known today as the sourced for the highest quality Maya fabric. He took the Maya textiles to the great museums. He wrote his book, Living Maya, with Carol Karasik, that included the extraordinary photographs taken by Jeffrey J. Foxx, and then translated into Spanish.
Then, other books followed, always with the faithful and capable Carol: about how the Maya fabric here in many remote communities in the Maya highlands continues to develop instead of disappearing, how Maya women and men are preserving their dress instead of giving over to western styles — a rare phenomenon in the world.
The tours and talks by Chip that I attended were wonderful. I remember the first years here when I saw women walking from village to village, carrying their textiles on their heads. I remember how Chip was looking for, discovering, teaching the weavers themselves the meaning of their patterns, rescuing old huipil designs. I remember an old huipil from Chamula that had designs that were taken from the murals at Bonampak. Chip helped them appreciate the value of their own art that they often sold for nothing or almost nothing.
Then, he joined the fabulous Pellizzi Collection for a small salary. The Maya textile was his life and his passion and his destiny and vocation, and perhaps everything else in life could not compete with this. If today there are so many cooperatives and young people who play with new designs of the traditional Maya textile, I think this is why Chip Morris started — to leave this legacy. Unfortunately, for many years, for personal reasons, he began to withdraw from social spaces, and today many who work in the same field do not even know about him.
That’s why I write this: Let them know! This is the heritage he leaves in San Cristobal, and with many weavers and people in many communities.
Chip transcends his personal struggles for his great effort and work to rescue and recognize the Maya fabric, another textile artist, Olga Reiche, from Guatemala, wrote to me today. And, so it is …
I did not know Chip personally. I met him a couple of times in Tenejapa during my tours with Patrick Murphy, when he was guiding tourists to the cooperative operated by Maria Meza across from the zocalo. I knew that he was ailing. Most of us did. As Kiki says, we honor the contribution he made to Maya textile knowledge. We go to Chiapas because of what he accomplished. Descansé bien.
We recommend Chip’s book, Maya Threads: A Woven History published by Thrum’s Books, for our Chiapas textile study tour participants. I hope you have a chance to read it.
I’m taking a wait list for the February 25-March 4, 2020 Chiapas Textile Study Tour. Let me know if you want to go.