Melanie Vento and Coco Paniora Salinas of Rumi Sumaq brought their nature-inspired jewelry to Martha’s Vineyard last September. Rumi Sumaq means “beautiful stones” in Coco’s native language of Quechua, one of three national languages of Peru.
Melanie spent a few years living on Martha’s Vineyard before traveling to South America to work on her dissertation, and has always wanted to return. She fell in love with the natural beauty of the Island and thought it would be the perfect place to grow their business and raise their two sons, Mayu and Enzo.
“In all of our travels, I have never found a more artist-friendly place where both the locals and tourists support the arts,” Melanie said of the Island.
Jewelry maker Coco told us about his journey from the mountains of Peru to the shores of Martha’s Vineyard.
When and how did you start making jewelry?
I started making jewelry when I was in my early teens. Growing up in Peru, I was surrounded by fiber art. I watched my mother and grandparents weave beautiful textiles. My mother taught me to weave while emphasizing intense focus and attention to detail. I moved on to knotting when other South American artists introduced me to macramé. There is a large artisan community in Peru, most of whom are generous teachers to those who wish to learn. I learned some jewelry techniques from them and developed my own techniques after years of experimenting.
How did you and Melanie, your wife and business partner, meet?
Melanie researched her dissertation in the Amazon jungle of Bolivia. She was studying the health effects of rapid social and economic change among the remote villages of the Tsimane people. During her field research in 2008, political tensions between Bolivia and the U.S. erupted. The U.S. embassy closed in Bolivia and all flights to the U.S. were cancelled. Fearing for her safety amidst the turmoil, her university advisor pulled her from her remote Amazon field site. She came to Peru to wait out the political unrest in Bolivia. She hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and soon after, she found her way to the small town of Huacachina, where I was selling my jewelry. She walked by me on a path along a water reservoir and I attempted to talk to her, but she just smiled and kept walking. She didn’t realize the reservoir path only had one exit so a few minutes later she had to walk by me again. This time we started talking and it was love at first sight. We’ve been together ever since. She could not return to Bolivia, so she stayed in Peru to start writing her dissertation. We lived together in Cusco and got married there in 2009. We moved to the states when our oldest son was about to be born.
Where do you draw inspiration for your jewelry?
I was born in the highlands of Peru, in Apurimac — a beautiful region of the Andes Mountains where Quechua is still the predominant language. It was there I developed an intense appreciation of our natural world. I was drawn to the work of shamans who, for centuries, have used stones, shells, and fossils in ceremonial offerings to Pachamama, the Quechua goddess of Mother Earth. I knew from a very young age that I wanted my life to pay tribute to all manifestations of Pachamama, and when I was 17 I decided that art jewelry was the best way for me to honor our natural world. I practiced knotting in my spare time, while taking on odd jobs that allowed me to travel throughout Peru and South America. From the high Andes mountains to the dense jungle rainforest to the desert coastlines, I was greatly moved by all manifestations of Pachamama. I adapted my weaving techniques to work with metal. I believe my woven wirework is a testament to how art transforms itself, much like natural processes transform our earth and us. I am now very happy to be living on this beautiful island where I get to explore seaside landscapes that are quite different from Peru. I am inspired to work with some of the shells and stones I find on my daily hikes with Melanie and our boys.
Can you describe your creative process? How do you settle on a design, or does a design come to you?
I begin each piece by choosing the cabochon, shell, or fossil. I believe every manifestation of nature has its own story to tell. Holding the stone or shell helps me come up with the design. Most of my jewelry designs are one-of-a-kind pieces. I like to push myself to use ancient knotting and weaving techniques in innovative ways to come up with new designs every time. Many times the design is fluid; it takes on new directions while I am creating.
How long does it take to make one piece?
There is a lot of variation as the time it takes depends on the complexity of the design. Some of my simple bracelets take an hour. Most of my macrame designs average around four to six hours of knotting, but my large art necklaces can take weeks.
When did you first come to the Vineyard? Why did you choose the Vineyard as your home base?
My wife Melanie has lived here on the Island two times before. She moved to M.V. when she graduated from college and fell in love with the beauty of the Island and its local community. She left the first time to become a wilderness instructor with Outward Bound. The Island called her back and she spent another few years here, then left again to pursue her Ph.D. in medical anthropology at Northwestern University in Chicago. We met in Peru while she was writing her dissertation. We started Rumi Sumaq immediately after moving back to the states. We lived in New Jersey, where Melanie is from, but she always talked about coming back to the Vineyard. She kept telling me it is the perfect place to raise kids and be an artist. While living in New Jersey, we travelled the art show circuit in the U.S. for five years, exhibiting at around 40 art shows per year. It was a fun lifestyle, but it was also exhausting to travel so much. When our second son was born in 2015, we knew we could no longer keep up with such a crazy traveling lifestyle. Melanie told me about the Vineyard Artisans shows, and convinced me that building our business locally is the better way to go as a small, family business. “Let the customers come to us instead of us traveling to them,” she said. We moved to the Island in September of 2016. Melanie is hoping the third time is the charm for living on the Island.
Where can people find your jewelry on-Island?
I have been exhibiting at all of the Vineyard Artisan Festivals this season. You can also find my jewelry online at rumisumaq.com and on Amazon by searching for Rumi Sumaq.