The “lost child” is gone now. In his place, a confident man weaves a work of art. Surrounded by orbs of richly colored, hand-dyed yarn — turquoise, fiery red, aubergine — he guides strands of alpaca fiber and sheep’s wool through his hands and onto a wooden treadle loom. An hour for every inch of progress.
“He’s amazing,” says an enthralled passerby, happening upon Wilbur Quispe’s booth at the Mill City Farmers Market in downtown Minneapolis one bright Saturday morning in July.
“Look how pretty that’s coming out,” says another.
Wilbur, a 44-year-old Peruvian, almost abandoned his world-class talent 18 years ago. The financially struggling family man was weaving his last rug before taking a more lucrative porter job hauling 100-pound potato sacks on his back. Then the milagro happened. The miracle.
Wandering down an alleyway in the poor village of Ayacucho, Melanie Ebertz of Stillwater spotted Wilbur weaving through an open doorway. A lover of Andean culture and founder of ArtAndes, whose mission is to preserve traditional weaving, she stepped inside.
“I had no idea what his reality was,” says Melanie, 54. “I just knew he had a wonderful spirit.”
Wilber did not become a porter. Shortly after that fortuitous encounter, their lives became forever entwined. Melanie began leading tours to Peru, stopping first at Wilbur’s straw hut.
“It felt a little sad to bring people there,” she says, “but I knew I could give him a lifetime of work.”
She helped him secure a visa and, for 11 years, has hosted the master weaver every summer, as he demonstrates at markets, art shows and posh private parties from Stillwater to San Francisco. Hanging above them at the market is “Niño Perdito,” a rug depicting a lost child seeking warmth in a tree. It is Wilbur’s story, which took him two months to create, and it sells this day to a buyer from Chicago for $1,795.
Orphaned at 8, Wilbur found work in the jungle and shelter from abusive bosses in the branches. Returning home at 12, he learned weaving from an older brother.
“It’s a blessing that I’m here,” Wilbur says in Spanish, as Melanie interprets. “I’ve met incredible people.”
After four more Saturdays at the farmers market, including today, he will return to his wife and four children (two are weavers) in late August. Melanie’s tours will follow. She will show visitors Wilbur’s street, now paved, and his new front door. They will have lunch and enjoy music.
Says Melanie with joy: “He has woven himself out of poverty.”