By Julie Pendray
IDYLLWILD, Calif. — In a small alleyway, inside a humble little storefront in this tourist destination in the mountains above Palm Springs, visitors will find distinctly beautiful wearable art from the Amazon rainforest and a vivacious Peruvian with an amazing story.
Meet Violeta Villacorta, co-owner of this business, the Sage & the Butterfly. And butterfly she is. Tiny, welcoming and intensely “present,” she looks with genuine interest deeply into the eyes of anyone who ventures into the store. Her own sparkling blue-green eyes are set like two iridescent gemstones in an open face. She exudes a bright white smile that flashes with warmth as she tells me about the epic adventure that brought “The Sage” into her life.
“The Sage” is now her husband, Dylan Farnham, originally from British Columbia, Canada. He’s the other co-owner of the store.
How these two — one from the north and one from the south — met by chance on the equator, fell in love, zig-zagged across South and Central America for romantic trysts (in palm leafed locations), hit the roads on a motorcycle, and eventually moved to Idyllwild is an intricate story woven like Villacorta’s textiles, with beauty, thrill and imagination that leaves you gasping.
When the butterfly first met Farnham, she thought he was “calm and wise, like a sage,” she said, in a recent interview.
Farnham, a former machinist, is now the owner and craftsman of Sage Blades in Idyllwild. His pieces are interspersed throughout the couple’s store. His own journey is so interesting, it warrants another story another time.
Villacorta moved from Peru to the United States when she was young and lived with her family in New York, where her mother worked for the United Nations. The family stayed connected with their culture by taking annual trips back to their homeland. Villacorta attended United Nations International School in New York.
“My mother should write a book!” she told me. “Her life is a story in itself!”
In 2009, after working as a senior designer for Patagonia, Villacorta got inspired by a documentary about indigenous people protesting a gas extraction company and she became a translator of the movie into Spanish.
“Extraction companies offer a lot and deliver little,” she said.
That experience led her to establish ORG by vio. It stands for Organic Rainforest Goods by Violeta (or visionaries) and indigenous organizations, she explained. On the company website, she describes her jewelry and clothing as Boho Chic (Bohemian chic) “for the gypsetter in you,” and she states a commitment to the protection of the Amazon rainforest and its cultures. Since 2010, she has worked with women of the Cofán , Awajún and other indigenous communities.
“Starting ORG by vio was to give an outlet for women especially to have a way to make an income,” Villacorta told me. “The intent was to support the community through what they make from their ancestral traditions.”
Her brother was living in Panama City at the time she began her work in the rainforest. She decided to go meet the indigenous Kuna people of Panama — also known as Guna people.
“They’re incredible artists,” she said.
“There was this archipelago off the coast with at least 400 tropical islands. I booked a Jeep and went into the jungle to a river to the Kuna people’s rustic port and took a banana boat to Yandub Island. When I got there, I was writing my name on a guest book, when Dylan came out of a hut. I’d dumped my backpack on a table. He heard the noise and thought it was a mango dropping and he was hungry. But instead of a mango, he found me! He’d been in Central America and was waiting to go to Colombia but he’d missed the boat the day before. I stayed for 36 hours and we got to know each other.”
Villacorta said she explored other Kunayala islands (also known as San Blas islands). “I swam and watched a cultural show with other tourists and had dinner with Dylan.”
After she left, she stayed in touch with Farnham.
“He went to Colombia two weeks later and I went back to the United States, then down to Ecuador,” she said. “He bought a motorcycle in Colombia and rode it to Ecuador and met me in Quito. We had four days of traveling around on the motorbike in May. We fell in love at the equator.”
Farnham then continued his motorcycle journey throughout South America. Villacorta went back to Ventura, California where she had been living, and then back down to Ecuador to take supplies to the Cofan people.
“We called each other every day,” she said. “At one point, he said he was going to Iguazu Falls in Brazil the next day and I said, “I’ll be with you in spirit on your shoulder.”
Then there was an amazing occurrence.
“Some random Argentinian tourist at the Falls said to him in Spanish, “Es violeta!” and pointed to his shoulder. He looked around and wondered, “Where is she?”
“It was a purple butterfly on his shoulder! But he thought the woman was talking about me! The butterfly landed on his knee and he took a picture of it,” she said. “When he went to Rio, he used the photo to get the purple butterfly tattooed on his shoulder. He knew it was meant to be.”
Flash forward to the present, in which Villacorta greets tourists at the Sage & the Butterfly in the Village Lane in Idyllwild. She offers beadwork and other wearable art made with seeds and plant fibers, sustainable wood and textiles. All are ethically sourced and acquired through fair trade, she said. She creates some designs herself and collects other pieces on visits to Central and South America every year.
“My work started in 2010 with the Cofan when I met Emergildo Criollo (an indigenous leader) at a screening at James Cameron’s office when we were invited to watch Avatar there,” she said. “We spoke about our mutual interest in supporting Amazon communities through the sale of their arts and crafts. Emergildo invited me to his community and I traveled there. When I returned to the USA, I created an online Kickstarter fundraiser to raise funds to build a traditional artisans center, buy computers, tools, etc. Through my network, we raised about $17,000, which helped build the center and purchase many things they needed.”
Collaborating with organizations and other individuals, Villacorta supports communities in Peru and Ecuador with internet accessibility, helping open bank accounts, sponsoring art/crafts fairs in those countries for the artisans, fund raising and funding for projects the artisans spearhead. It clearly brings her joy to know that she is helping not only sustain indigenous women of the rainforest but also keeping their traditions alive.
“The most impactful thing I’ve seen is that the youth initially did not pay attention to the ancenstral works of art that artisans have been doing for centuries. But since myself and others are showing interest in it, the youth are now learning from the elders,” she said.
Villacorta and Farnham were invited by another designer to move to Idyllwild. Although Villacorta considers herself an ocean person, they both fell in love with this mountain town.
Among wearable art in her store, you’ll find pieces by 30 artists, including some from Idyllwild: Mimi Jacaruso, Tawny Harrington, Saph Brooks, Ryan Jackson, Merle Swane, Danny Peebles, David Calvera and Alexis Dorchester. the Sage & the Butterfly is in the Village Lane at 54200 N Circle Drive, Idyllwild. Find the entrance to the lane between Idyllwild Bake & Brew and Merkaba tea store. Villacorta ships worldwide via her online store.
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