Wednesday, January 10, 2018

My journey into Mexican Folk Art

Sunset Egret by Joyce Wycoff
My life seems like a long, slow, surprising tiptoe into art. Nothing in my early years hinted at where I’ve wound up: no art in my family, little art in my school life, and far more pressing issues in my early adulthood. I was a practical person and art would pay no bills.

Slowly though, art tapped at my door, peeked around the corner, and finally moved in, lock, stock, camera and Photoshop. With great hesitation, in late mid-life, I finally called myself an artist. The art I make is modern … bright colors, the juxtaposition of opposites, and the sometimes startling emergence that happens when two unrelated things join together and something completely unexpected arises from that joining.

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I call them digital abstractions of the life I see around me. My spirit soars when I’m making art and I love what comes forth almost as if they were my children. How surprised I was when art children from other mothers began tugging at shirt tails, wanting me to pay attention. First, it was the exuberant wall art I found in San Miguel de Allende and then the weavings of the villages around San Cristóbal de las Casas, and next the dream-like, colorful alebrijes at the local folk art fair. I think it was the snail, though, that did me in. 

One step at a time, Mexican Folk Art claimed me. And, no one could have been more surprised than I was. It was like I woke up in a new world one morning, determined to understand the universe of Mexico’s indigenous art. I was on the bottom rung of a steep learning curve, one of my favorite places to be. This was one I didn’t expect, though, since I’ve never appreciated Mexican Folk Art all that much.

I think it might date back to my days as a young Marine Corps bride when we would slip across the border into Tijuana and explore the tiny shops all filled to overflowing with tequila shot glasses, lumpy pottery, onyx bookends, and, of course, black velvet Elvis paintings. The visual chaos threw me into overload and I dismissed it all as shlock.

As I spent more time deeper into Mexico, I came to love the colors of this fascinating country and appreciate the amazing craftsmanship of the functional and ceremonial objects I saw. However, I was still only mildly interested in Mexican arts as a whole.

Wall art found in San Miguel de Allende
A bull opened my eyes. Four years ago, in San Miguel de Allende, I started noticing the wall art: brilliant, sometimes political, sometimes whimsical, always exuberant paintings covering large walls, especially in Colonia Guadalupe, also called the arts district of San Miguel. I was already falling in love with this art form when I found this bull, which for some reason just stopped me in my tracks. That moment opened me up to Mexican art.

"Rooster and the Bull" by Joyce Wycoff
When I moved on for a lengthy visit in San Cristóbal de las Casas, I happened to stay in the home of Janet Schwartz, a remarkable photographer/journalist who had just completed collaborating on the book Maya Threads: a Woven History of Chiapas about the textiles of the villages surrounding San Cristóbal. Through her books, I became fascinated by the incredible variety of styles of the different groups, especially the color-filled work of the flower-growing village of Zinacantán. I started scouting the markets looking for their weavings and wound up buying a piece which now hangs over my bed. I think it was that time in San Cristóbal that opened my spirit to the history and beauty of Mexican Folk art.

My interest took another leap forward last year while attending the San Miguel Writers’ Conference. I was hosted by a woman who had filled her incredibly beautiful home with Mexican folk art and I kept wandering about looking at the individual pieces which were displayed in a way that gave them space to breathe and be admired. The beauty and variety stimulated my senses … and my curiosity. Who was making all of these things … and why?
At my hostess's home
After arriving and settling into Ajijic, I heard about a folk art fair and thought: well, that might be fun. When I applied online, I put a few words into the standard “what can you do?” box … and forgot about it … until …

"Bujo Nahual" by Zeny & Reyna Fuentes
One day an email from Marianne Carlson showed up in my inbox, asking me if I’d like to get together to talk about volunteering with the Feria Maestros del Arte. I was thrilled to meet Marianne, the woman who had founded the all-volunteer folk art fair seventeen years earlier based on the principal that all the sales revenue would go to the artists, who pay no booth fee, no commissions and are reimbursed for travel expenses and hosted by local families.

Marianne explained that much of Mexican folk art comes from artisans in remote villages who have learned their arts from generations of parents and grandparents, using materials gathered in their own regions. The Feria brings these artists together with buyers and collectors who might otherwise never meet, creating sales that support the artisans' families in the tiny villages throughout Mexico. Marianne gave me the opportunity to volunteer at the Feria as an observer/photographer, to see if it was something I really wanted to be involved with. (Little did I know the alebrije "Bujo Nahual" would want to come home with me.)

During my days there, I happened upon the Mexican Dreamweavers booth and was admiring the amazing color of a huipil (ceremonial tunic shirt or dress) when Patrice Perillie asked me if I knew the story behind the dye used to make that color. Of course, I didn’t. 

The neckline of my huipil made with the "milked" ink
                     Enter the snail.                                 

The color purple itself has a rich and often violent history. One of the richest sources of the coveted color is the caracol púrpura, a snail that yields an “ink” that creates a color-fast, vibrant purple. For centuries this snail has been crushed for its ink, reportedly taking as many as 10,000 snails to dye the hem of one royal garment. On the rocky coasts of Mexico, there is a different approach to obtaining this dye: specially trained tintoreros “milk” the snails by hand and then replace them among the dangerous and craggy rocks. It turns out that there are only about 15 tintoreros left in the world who know how to safely milk the endangered snails.  (Read more about this process here.)

Incredible gourd work
Of all the many wonders I saw at the Feria, it was thinking about that endangered snail and those men dedicated to gathering their ink without harming them, that truly connected me to Mexican Folk Art. 
The huipil I bought at the Feria was more than a piece of clothing, it was a connection … connection to the women who wove the cloth and embroidered it with the precious purple thread, to the men who risked the hazards of rough seas and treacherous rocks to find and milk the snails, to the snails themselves, surviving for millennia, providing color to the world. 
My huipil is also a connection to history, the history of color, beauty and sensitivity to all living things …  as well as to greed, avarice and disregard for our world and it’s limited resources.

Suddenly, everything around me was more than it seemed. It was imbued with spirit, the spirit of the artisans who made them, the earth and waters from which the natural materials came, and the spirit of the ancestors. Somehow, these beautiful works, both functional and ceremonial, reach back in time, linking those who first painted on cave walls to those who now paint on the stone walls of city streets, connecting the women who today still weave on back-strap looms to the women who cooked their meals in clay pots as they sat around campfires in the past.
Woman weaving on a back-strap loom.

What we now call Mexican Folk Art, has its roots in the deep past, kept alive by family traditions that span generations of craftsmanship and often become village-wide endeavors.

In those ancient cultures, the creative spirit sang the songs of daily life … cooking pots and baskets, moccasins and shawls, spears and shields. Stirred by the human need for beauty and the winds of unseen forces, women and men, using the natural materials surrounding them, created, and still create, decorative daily items and luminous ceremonial objects to pay homage to their gods, spirits and ancestors. 

This is the journey I’ve chosen … or which has chosen me. 
As I embark on this adventure, while I know very little about the territory of Mexican Folk Art, I invite you to join me on the exploration.

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