Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Wonder Woman: Xill Fessenden, Photographer, Artist, Activist

Alcatraz by Xill Fessenden
I expected little from the art auction in the plaza, perhaps a piece by a local artist for my new apartment. I definitely didn’t expect to see a large, luminous image of an alcatraz (cala lilly) that left me breathless. Who was this artist? …  a digital artist here in this small village in Mexico? Could I possibly afford this incredible piece?

I did manage to bring that piece home and the more I looked at it, the more I wanted to meet Xill (Jill) Fessenden and know about her work and her story. Finally, we connected in her studio/home and I discovered far more than an amazing photographer and artist. I found someone who set the standards for a Wonder Woman.

The Mexico part of Xill's story began after a serious accident when she decided to reinvent her life. She knew it meant a move but she wasn’t sure where to go. Deciding to sleep on it and wait for an omen, she slipped notes with the names Santa Fe, Los Angeles, and Mexico under her pillow. And omens did appear … one sublime and one ridiculous. 

The first omen came during a visit to the high desert, spring poppy fields in California. In the distance, hovering over the poppies, she saw a dark smudge. As she approached, she saw that it was a flock of birds with a bigger bird in the center. And when she got closer, she recognized the bigger bird as a golden eagle. And, in it’s beak was a snake … the national symbol of Mexico. The second omen, the seemingly ridiculous one, appeared when she spilled chili on her shirt and recognized the shape of Mexico. 

Mixed media piece by Xill Fessenden
It was enough to point her toward Mexico and by June of 1985 she was living on the shores of Lake Chapala, the largest lake in Mexico, intending to devote herself to photography. Her intentions expanded when she began to explore the villages of Mexico and experienced the generous nature of the people and their culture. 

A November, 2017, interview with El Ojo del Lago, (page 32) reported, "... the most important things she learned while traveling to indigenous villages was how a community functions as a whole: where the land, the community, the family and the individual have the same identity, and they all work together as a unit. They build each others’ houses, share the harvest, and help each others’ children—the way it should be. It moved her, and formed a desire for her to help preserve that culture."

Book featuring Xill Fessenden's work
Recognized as a serious and successful photographer and digital artist, Xill told writer Rob Mohr, My works are not manipulation of a photo, rather an intervention creating a statement of feeling. I don’t feel like I take a picture, but am given a picture.
Xill is also widely recognized as an activist who makes things happen. She opened the Centro Ajijic de Bellas Artes (CABA) art center with sculptor Estela Hidalgo to help teach art to local children. 

In 1998, she started the local Purépecha Festival to honor the food, culture and art of what was once the second largest empire in Mexico. She wants her photography to engage people outside the world of art galleries, and created Galeria al Aire Libre Axixic (GALA) so everyone could enjoy open air exhibits focused on local families, animals, children’s art and, currently, on the history of Ajijic.

Peregrinos Wixárikas from Banamex book
In 2000, she prompted a Hands Across the Lake event to hug the lake and increase awareness of the importance of protecting it. This photo taken by John Frost shows how low the water level was at that point when you could actually walk to Scorpion Island (Isla Alacranes), so named because of its shape not its inhabitants. 

Poster outside Xill's door
Today, in addition to making art, working with the Purépecha people to bring their culture to Ajijic, and her other environmental interests, now as a Mexican citizen, she is turning her attention to the political situation in Mexico, especially with the indigenous movements such as the example in Cherán in Michoacán, which the Los Angeles Times calls, "a bastion of tranquillity within one of Mexico’s most violent regions." 

In an area where illegal timber trucks belonging to criminal syndicates raided the community's communal forests, the authorities refused to help.  The community revolted.
On April 15, 2011, before dawn, the people of Cheran sounded the bells at the Roman Catholic Chapel of the Calvary and set off homemade fireworks to summon help. Few had firearms, so they brought picks, shovels and rocks.
Then they struck, seizing the first timber truck of the day, dragging its two crew members from the cab and taking them hostage. Lacking rope, they tied up their prisoners with rebozos, or shawls. -- Los Angeles Times
The community went on to throw out all the political parties, all the police, the entire system. The Times article reports, "In 2014 Cheran’s provisional system of self-government was declared legal. The town remains part of Mexico but runs its own show."

Historically, artists have always been involved in political movements. Xill Fessenden follows in that long tradition and continues to earn her designation as a Wonder Woman.

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