Celia Garduño is the first Latino in the state to receive a Governor's Folklife Heritage Award since the honor was created in 1971.
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Celia Garduño has been sewing since she was 10 years old living in Mexico. Today her pieces are considered art.
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Celia Garduño creates tableclothes like this one, as well as pillowcases, dresses, scarves and anything else she can imagine. She has been sewing since she was 10 years old living in Mexico. Today her pieces are considered art.
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Most of the pieces Celia Garduño creates go to family or friends. Each piece can take up to six months to finish, depending on size and level of detail.

Celia Garduño sits on a simple metal chair next to the couch in her modest East Ridge home. Her hands are folded in her lap as she smiles gently.

On the couch next to her is daughter Maria Garduño. Another daughter, Arcelia Camacho, leans against the doorframe leading down the hall.

The room is relatively spartan, noticeably devoid of the needlepoint pieces that Celia has become known for creating. Maria explains that the pieces are not on display in the home because the youngest of Celia's 20 grandkids and four great-grandkids pull on them. They are stored away in plastic bins. Lots of them.

The two younger women do the translating for their mother, who doesn't speak much English. But when the topic comes up about the Governor's Folklife Heritage Award that Celia will be given during a private ceremony at the Governor's Mansion in March, all three women smile broadly and the twinkles in their eyes are enough to light up the whole house. Maybe the neighborhood.

"We all cheered when we found out," Maria says.

Celia, whose pieces can take up to six months to finish, depending on the size and the amount of detail, says she's "very honored that everyone cares about what I love to do. And it's a great satisfaction to be in a foreign country and to be selected for this."

Like the rest of Celia's children — she has six boys, too — Maria and Arcelia have always known their mother could create beautiful textiles with a needle and thread, but now none other than Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and his wife Crissy know about her work. The family matron is the first Latino to be given the award in its 47-year history and Celia's family is delighted.

Celia is humble, but obviously proud that her skills are being recognized. Through Maria, she says she is "so thankful to all of the people that have opened the way, or the path, for me to show what I am able to do. I never thought this would happen."

She thanks her mother, Elvira Gonzalez, for teaching her to sew when she was 10, and she thanks Liza Blair, the local folklorist who discovered her. Blair is also the one who nominated her for the governor's award.

"She is a wonderful local treasure and we are fortunate to have her," Blair says.

This is not the first honor Celia has received since meeting Blair. In 2010, she was one of 25 artists featured in "Tradition: Tennessee Lives and Legacies," a book by folklorist Roby Gogsell. In 2015, her works were selected for display at Crissy Haslam's Christmas exhibition honoring the state's finest craftspeople. Last year, she had pieces chosen for an exhibition at the Crealde School of Art in Winter Park, Fla.

Celia was born in 1939 in Tierras Coloradas, a town in the Mexican state of Michoacan, and says that, while growing up, she would rush through her chores — carrying water from the well to the kitchen or carrying wood for the fire — so she would have time to do what she really loved — sewing.

Pretty soon she became good enough at her hobby that it became part of her workload as well, mending the clothes worn by her six brothers. As she got better at her needlework, she would design and make the costumes worn by family members for the annual Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe celebrations in Mexico.

"People always complimented our costumes," Maria says.

For most of the last six decades, family and friends were the only ones who noticed her fine needlework and she was happy with that. Her husband, Francisco, died 31 years ago in Mexico and, in an effort to find a better life, the family moved a few at a time to Chattanooga. Celia moved here 20 years ago while Maria and Arcelia were the last to arrive 18 years ago.

When not attending church, she made scarves, doilies, pillowcases, tablecloths and dresses for the grandkids. She'd also give them away or just put them away in storage bins, she says, but never really considered selling them. Nor did she really think of them as pieces of art. She does now, she says, and it makes her smile to know that others do, too.

"I feel very proud of myself because I never knew that my work can be taken as art," she says.

But about five years ago, she began to think of her work that way while doing some workshops and mentoring other local Hispanic artists in Chattanooga. Blair facilitated many of the workshops through the Latino Arts Project in 2012, which was funded by a National Endowment for the Arts grant and the Tennessee Arts Commission.

While Blair wrote the initial letter of recommendation for the Governor's Folklife Heritage Award, Celia was asked to send two other letters as part of the application. One was written by her 14-year-old granddaughter Millely Acosta and the other was written by 15-year-old grandson, Anthony Uvas, according to Maria.

"His last line was, 'Even if she doesn't get this honor, she has our love and we are all very proud of my grandmother,'" Maria says.

That brings more twinkles, and maybe a tear or two, from everyone in the room.

Contact Barry Courter at or 423-757-6354.