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During the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet from 1973 to 1990, groups of Chilean women created arpilleras—a colorful patchwork of scenes stitched onto burlap—as a way to protest and communicate the atrocities occurring in their country. Ryan Hutchins ’19, a double major in theatre and Spanish at SUNY Potsdam, has studied these pieces closely, written descriptions of the textile artwork, and even spent two weeks this summer in Chile to help interview women who handcrafted the arpilleras during the dictatorship.

“Pinochet controlled the image of Chile outside of the country, and the arpilleras were a way to get people’s stories out of the country, so that everyone around the world would know what was happening—the poverty, the injustice, the violation of human rights,” said Hutchins.

These beautiful historic art pieces will be displayed at the Gibson Gallery next semester and Ryan Hutchins ’19 has had a hand in the exhibition from the beginning. “We have over 50 arpilleras, so we’re going to put them into four different categories, and have the exhibit here at the Gibson Gallery, as well as the exhibit at St. Lawrence University,” Hutchins said.

As part of his internship last semester with Dr. Liliana Trevizán in the Department of Modern Languages, Hutchins was tasked with looking at images of the entire collection of arpilleras and writing descriptions for each piece that will be on display. “Some of them can be a little confusing. There are things that are in them that, if you don’t know the history, would be hard to figure out,” he said.

Hutchins parlayed his internship into a research trip to Chile this summer with Visiting Professor Dr. Tamara Feinstein, as well as Dr. Oscar Sarmiento and Dr. Trevizán. Hutchins boarded a plane for Santiago, Chile, along with the faculty members, to conduct interviews with people who lived through the Pinochet regime. The group met with two people from the Museum of Memory and Human Rights and seven women who made arpilleras during the time—often using rectangular pieces of burlap from bags of rice, flour or whatever they could find.

“All of them lived through the time period that we were researching. Some of them made arpilleras during the time period and some of them didn’t, but they were all affected. Some of their family members were taken. They were also very emotionally heavy interviews,” Hutchins recalls.

Hutchins also conducted an interview with Pia Barros, a writer who lived in Chile during the regime. He met Barros at Villa Grimaldi, a place that was used as a detention center and place of torture during the dictatorship. “The interview focused a lot on how her experience during that time influenced her ideals and her writing. She’s a very important feminist figure in Chile and that’s a major theme in a lot of her stories and novels,” Hutchins said.

A particularly memorable part of the trip for Hutchins was a visit to the Violeta Parra Museum, a museum featuring the life and work of Violeta Parra, an esteemed Chilean artist and musician. “She’s seen by the people who made the arpilleras during that time period as the first person to develop the art form, which is exciting,” he said.

Hutchins also incorporated his theatre major into the trip by teaching a bilingual acting workshop to a group of high school students. “I taught them some very well-known acting warm-ups and exercises as a sort of introduction to the craft. I focused on activities that introduced both the Stanislavski method of acting as well as the Meisner method of acting. All of the students were very excited and ready to participate and it was very successful,” Hutchins said.

Hutchins was well prepared for a journey to South America after taking everything from Spanish grammar to the history of Latin American with Trevizán. “The classes I’ve had with her are very informative and all-encompassing. You get a full idea of not just the language but also the culture,” Hutchins said.

After coming to SUNY Potsdam just planning on majoring in theatre, Hutchins branched out to add Spanish because of his love for foreign languages. In the spring he’ll be combining both as part of a special project—a one person, one-act play where he will act out the role of a desaparecido, a person who disappeared and was taken by the government during the Pinochet regime. “I’m trying to open peoples’ eyes to the human rights violations that occurred during that time period,” he said.

Hutchins has been involved with several theatre productions on campus including “Blood Wedding” and “Venus,” the latter of which is being considered for revival at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival early next year. This semester he’s an actor in “Much Ado About Nothing,” which will be staged from Nov. 15 to 17 at 7:30 p.m. in the Proscenium Theatre.

“The experience that I’ve had with theatre is so special here at SUNY Potsdam. It’s so open and inclusive, you can do whatever aspect of theatre you want to do here—you can act, you can design, you can do any kind of technical theatre, or you can direct,” Hutchins said.

On top of everything else, Hutchins is also the co-president of SUNY Potsdam’s first glee club, Voices in Motion, a group that he said differs from a capella in that they use backing tracks or live music. “Sometimes we have some intense choreography along with the music that we’re singing. We’ll be having our showcase later on this semester. SUNY Potsdam has a lot of opportunities to do whatever you want to do. We have so many clubs, so many organizations,” Hutchins said.

After graduating next year, Hutchins hopes to pursue a career in acting and is looking to further his studies by attending a conservatory or acting program in New York City.

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Article and photos by Jason Hunter