RIDGWAY – At her home halfway up Loghill Mesa with a spectacular view of the San Juan Mountains and deer grazing in the front yard, Rosmery Ortega Johnson gave a little sigh.
“It’s so beautiful here, but I still miss my home,” she says.
Home is Cusco, Peru, the ancient Capitol of the Incas, now a thriving city of 350,000 where native arts are encouraged and the hustle and bustle of daily life is a far cry from the serenity and isolation of Loghill Mesa.
But life is a compromise, and Rosmery and her husband Brad Johnson are both happy they can work from home. They met in Peru where Brad was guiding a trekking group up the Inca Trail to the nearby ancient ruins of Machu Picchu through his travel agency, Peaks and Places Travel. An expert mountaineer, he is also author of a book about Peru, Classic Climbs of the Cordillera Blanco.
Although she’s homesick, Ortega is finding ways to bring Peru here, mainly through her hand-made leather handbags that she designs with touches of her homeland.
Growing up in Cusco, Ortega remembers the brightly dressed women who often wore large, intricate pins. She uses some of the pins on her handbag designs, while on others, she may use a swatch of fabric made by native weavers, or a large stones such lapis lazuli or turquoise, or even a polished shell.
During two trips this year to her native country, Ortega spent a total of four months in Peru, and scoured the city and countryside for things that she can incorporate into her designs, she said, or things she just likes.
“I buy for myself,” she said.
In her neatly arranged studio, about a dozen of Ortega’s handbags hang on a long wall, and she has stacks of swatches of textiles, some made of wool, some of alpaca, all in bright colors.
Bright primary colors are common in Incan weaving and Ortega incorporates them on some of her purses, which she creates in groups of seven with similar themes.
“I get textiles from the jungle,” she says.
Ortega designs the purses and then hires artisans in Cusco to create the finished products. As a professional artist and graphic designer, she also creates faux finishes for homes, designs logos, and creates commercial illustrations as well as fine art.
The Andean jungle around Cusco, which is at an elevation of 11,200 feet, is home to many indigenous tribes. The Inca valued weaving and their descendants have continued the traditions – each village has its own designs and patterns that have been handed down over the centuries, according to a 2002 article in National Geographic Today.
In recent decades, weaving has also become an important source of revenue for descendants of the Incas, through marketing help from the Center for Traditional Textiles in Cusco.
“The money returned to each weaver is changing the tapestry of family economics in some of these villages,” the article stated. “These women are now the main economical support of their family.”
Like the native weavings, each of Ortega’s handbags is an original and each is one-of-a-kind.
“I miss my country, and maybe that’s why I wanted to make the handbags,” she said. “They reflect the culture and the folklore, and the old ladies with wonderful clothing, and that still goes on.”
Ortega has been making the handbags for about a year, which are sturdy enough to carry a laptop, she says, and sells them in boutiques in Telluride and Vail, where their prices range around $300. But now she’s selling them from her studio outside of Ridgway for big discounts, just in time for Christmas.
“When I was a little kid, I had a little bag, and I loved my bag,” she said. “I wanted to make something unique for people to have just for themselves.”
To learn more or to contact Ortega about a viewing, call 626-3286.